Resident Annoyance

By Galen Laserson

“My idea of a perfect school…is one that has no children in it at all.  One of these days I shall start up a school like that.  I think it will be very successful.”

– Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda)

Building sustainable cities would be easier without the presence of a confounding factor:  the people who live in them. Living PlanIT illustrates some challenges of building and attracting people to a green field “city.” For the most part, sustainability efforts focus on making infrastructure improvements to existing cities teeming with residents who are accustomed to or aggravated by the status quo (or both). Thus, managing change is integral to urban redevelopment.

Residents are the gatecrashers poised to overrun the public-private partnership party.  In the Dharavi case, the interests of the area residents, which should arguably be a central priority of any city plan, were expressed as an afterthought.  Though Dharavi offers a pointed example, the complexities that residents surface through their behaviors and desires are omnipresent and powerful – from the dueling interests of groups of citizens in Bogota to the conflicts between citizens and water bandits in Mexico City.

People generally do not like change, especially when it involves accepting short-term pain to achieve a long-term goal (ask anyone who lives on Second Avenue about Manhattan’s new subway). How, then, do entities responsible for championing infrastructure improvements or urban development engage effectively in change management? Continue reading


On Density, Desirability, and Happiness


High density is often praised in relationship to sustainability because of the efficiencies in managing resources and benefits regarding shared transportation. Economists have also concluded that workers in denser places earn higher wages and are more productive. Studies show that doubling the density increases productivity by 6% or more. And there is an interesting 25% correlation between population density and gross metropolitan product per capita. (1) (2)

However, density is not a magic elixir. Many developing cities are struggling with overcrowding, traffic congestion, providing adequate infrastructure for water access and sanitation. In the case of Dharavi, we were looking at a slum redevelopment that would result in a population density of about 313,900 ppl/km2. The final image visualizing the massing of the proposed design, based on the 7 story’s maximum height policy, offered a terrifying view of the future – not that different from the Soviet housing projects developed during the 60s, many of which are now abandoned or soon to be demolished.

So, I wanted to explore if there is such thing as an “ideal” density. In other words, is there a correlation between the density and the perceived desirability of the city? How does it change with economical and growth differences?

If we look at the rankings of the “most livable cities” (3) and their density we can observe the following correlation:

Roure density

Cities that systematically appear on the rankings of “livability” are: Zurich, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vienna, Munich, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Paris… In this study I included the 20 most acclaimed cities amongst the 3 most important rankings: Monocle, Mercer, and EIU. The average density of these 20 cities is of 3800 ppl/km2 and the deviation can be disregarded.

Although there is much debate about the criteria behind these reports, they have to do with very high ratings on safety/crime, quality of architecture, public transportation, urban design, business conditions, environmental issues and pro-active policy developments.

On the other hand, all of the cities in this list are in stable, democratic countries, have gone through a diligent constant improvement over the last, not only decades, but also centuries, and stand today with some of the highest gross metropolitan product per capita of the world. These could be thought as the most desirable cities for the top 5% of the population.

The challenge arises when addressing emerging citites such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, New Delhi or Bogota (4), with densities from 3 to 10 times higher than the “ideal” 3800ppl/km2. Slums in these cities have a key socioeconomic role, they are often used as a gate for immigrants coming from rural areas to find a temporary settlement and to eventually be able to find a job and thus enter the formal market. The precarious living conditions, sanitation deficiencies and corrupted informal economies are a source of anxiety.

If we think back on the history of some of the chosen “most livable cities,” we find a recurrent pattern of explosion of growth with subsequent stabilization. Yet the scale of these new metropolis and building capabilities are unprecedented. Even if we can greatly learn from existing urban models, new challenges will need to be addressed – for which testing and a great degree of political will be needed.



(3)’s_most_livable_cities links to Monocle, Mercer and EIU

(4)  Global Cities Index and Emerging Cities Outlook


What is the Cost of Density

What is the appropriate size of cities? 

By Oscar Quintanilla

While academics and practitioners are arguing for more urban density, agglomerations and bigger cities, I question whether their apparently simple argument is fundamentally right. Many argue that urban density is more sustainable than its alternative, and while I agree that there are great benefits from having compact and dense cities, this option, by itself, cannot be sustainable either. Looking at rapidly urbanizing developing countries, where sustained rural – urban and urban – urban migration is creating cities of unimagined sizes, I wonder at what point urban agglomeration does more harm than good. What should the size of a city be? What affects this?

As we saw in two recent case studies, cities are faced with tough decisions and tradeoffs, and while density is theoretically a good thing, many factors determine the point where cities should stop growing. Like in the Mexico City case, where the delivery of water was becoming more challenging and costly, or in Bogota, where the city was deciding between a bus rapid transit (BRT) and a Metro system, questions about the size of the city and the appropriate density should be considered carefully.

While many argued that a Metro system would provide the capacity that Bogota needs for its future, should Colombia support a continuously growing Bogota? The Metro might cost as much as 150 million dollars per kilometer, a lot more than the expected 22 million for an additional kilometer of BRT. While the BRT system seems to be reaching its capacity, a Metro system is very expensive and would require an operational subsidy that the BRT doesn’t require. Should Colombia support the infrastructure for an even bigger Bogota? Or should it aim to support growth and infrastructure in mid sized cities?

The Mexico City question is even more pressing. Water scarcity, droughts, and a fast depletion of its ground water supply are challenging the city, the region and the national economy. While the first thought is to invest in the infrastructure needed to support the 8.84 million people that live in Mexico City proper, at what cost for the local, regional and national and governments? Is Mexico better off with a constantly growing metropolis or with more balanced urban concentrations?

The case for density is appealing. More people together in less space is environmentally responsible, allows cities to support major infrastructure and supports the idea based economy of the 21st century. Yet cities are not all made of the same material, the same people, have the same supporting hinterland, or have the geographic characteristics to support it.

Density is subject to the law of increasing costs, and its benefits are also subject to diminishing returns. Find were marginal benefits equal marginal costs and you will find the optimal size for the city. Many factors could affect this, like productivity levels, if the economy is service or manufacture based, or the supporting capacity of the hinterland and the terrain. Countries also need to consider their place in the global economy, and the value that a bigger and denser city provides to their national development strategies.


“Smart City” Applications

by Chris Horney

As we addressed in class most recently, the term “Smart City” is inherently vague and unclear as to what that actually means and whom that actually benefits. While I believe that there are many beneficiaries of a said “Smart City” (residents, building owners, utilities, building owners, governments, public health facilities, schools, mass transit operators), each ends up having their own motivations, methods of extracting rent and valuing the benefits. Therefore, I think it is fruitless to analyze the system as a whole, but rather focus on one portion of a “Smart City”, so I am choosing building owners specifically.

Buildings have a lifecycle that begins as a sketch on paper or the computer, transitions to design, through construction, and ultimately through its useful life with its inhabitants. A big reason the design/build process and in turn the built environment has not seen huge gains in productivity and are ultimately inefficient is because of its fragmentation of the market across all segments, in design, construction, supply, and operations. Each segment is implementing technology, but one big challenge is that each segment hasn’t had great interoperability. I believe that is set to change over the next 5-15 years and I believe it will ultimately benefit building owners and the end users as being a “Smart City” application that will help revolutionize how we design, build, and operate buildings.

Autodesk, a design and engineering software company, has systematically become the industry standard in design for many engineering and architectural firms. They have bought many companies over the years and most recently have done a roll-up of construction software companies that makes the integration between design and construction much more seamless (see Navisworks, Vela, etc.). This software now can do complete simulations of energy use, structural analysis, and also then transition into creating the actual design of the building. With the recent construction acquisitions, all trades are using the same software or software that is interoperable, so many of the issues of inefficiency in construction with waste is becoming a time of the past with the prefabrication off-site because of in-software modeling and detailing. Finally, they also have been able to begin the tracking and implementation of the equipment in the building from the construction phase, which I believe will ultimately lead to the operations of the building.

While Autodesk has yet to transition into facilities management software, they are not far away from being able to either design it themselves or acquire a company like FM Systems, which would then allow them to provide end to end software to the built environment that would allow engineers to design something that they know will be kept throughout the process and ultimately used by the operators of the building. If this could happen, much waste would be eliminated from the entire system and would allow buildings to become much “smarter” and be a much more sophisticated part of the “Smart City.” And because Autodesk has the dominant stake-hold at the beginning of the lifecycle, I think they are poised to be able to not only add value to all players along the value chain, but also then extract value for a very long time. Think of this as the Microsoft Windows of the built environment, with each piece of software along the way being analogous to Word, Excel, Powerpoint, or Access.