Sustainable Urbanization, Private Sector and People

By Oscar Quintanilla

Although the “Overall Framework for Sustainable Urbanization” seems comprehensive, class discussions have been mostly around how to influence structures. It is not a new shortfall; it reflects a broader problem in cities around the world. Of the three components in the center of the framework (people, structures and land), structures are the less contentious and where private sector involvement can generate more profits. It makes sense for a class in infrastructure finance to center around this component, but it doesn’t really make sense when what we are dealing with is sustainability.

Cities are complex organisms, without clear boundaries or static definitions, continuously changing and adapting. As such, talking about the structures without even mentioning people or land is an unexciting conversation. As we saw in one of the presentations, people behavior has the most impact in sustainable development. I might argue that land use patterns are even more important. Structures help support human activity, but land use patterns and human behavior are more critical components for understanding these activities. Continue reading


How can we best talk about people in a finance course?

By John Macomber

A student wrote to me offline with the observation I’ve paraphrased below. My email reply follows below that. I’d be interested in thoughts on how to expand an infrastructure finance course from “develop property” into “develop human beings” while continuing to exercise a finance, investment, entrepreneurship, and big business toolkit.

This passionate pain point (sorry about the PPP again ) is a good angle for final essays on the blog (should you be looking for a topic later today).

To me this conversation also underscores the potential learning value of this experimental blog in drawing out points of view or lines of reasoning that didn’t get expressed in class (for any number of reasons). Other recent posts expanding on what was not said in class include but are not limited to:

Continue reading

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

To Make a Smart City, Start with its People

By Anonymous

Our discussions in class about sustainable cities have ranged from
optimizing the built environment’s use of natural and financial resources to raising standards of living for inhabitants so they may thrive in a global
market, all in light of climate change and the private sector. However
important technology, buildings, infrastructure, and transit are to shaping
cities, their inhabitants are often overlooked. The density of people, their
relationships, and behavior determine in large part whether or not cities
are sustainable.

In a given location, striking a balance between the number of people
and the available infrastructure is important in achieving a sustainable
city. On the one hand, as we saw in the TransMilenio case, overburdening the transit system leads to inefficiencies and i nadequacies. On the other hand, encouraging settlements in areas far from economic centers and disconnected from city centers, as the Living PlanIT case demonstrated, is also inefficient because they require infrastructure, transit, and buildings that do not serve a large enough populace. Thus, an optimal level of density exists such that resources are used efficiently and people may lead productive lives.

A recent New Yorker article highlighted the importance of interpersonal
relationships to mitigating the impacts of climate change.1 The author
cited a study comparing fatalities in two similar Chicago suburbs during
last summer’s heat wave. Conditions that proved deadly elsewhere were
endured in one town because of the support and assistance neighbors
provided one another. Thus, community resilience to climate change not
only helps people survive extreme weather conditions, but also
exemplifies attributes of a competitive, resilient city.

Furthermore, personal behaviors affect a city’s sustainability. Sustainably designed buildings, transit, and infrastructure will only achieve the desired efficiencies if they are used in the same manner for which they were intended. For instance, while a building may incorporate energy- and resource-efficient fixtures, renewable energy sources, or efficient
envelope construction, user behavior ultimately determines whether or
not the building actually consumes fewer resources. Inhabitants who
open the windows during extreme temperatures, use excessive hot water, or adjust the heating and cooling system beyond designed seasonal temperatures will undermine a building’s potential efficiency. Therefore, people’s choices and behaviors are key determinants in enabling a city to realize its maximum possible level of sustainability.
In order to create and maintain a competitive, sustainable city,
inhabitants need to maximize resources through sufficient density, work
together to be resilient to changing environmental conditions, and align
behaviors with sustainability goals. While upgrades to infrastructure,
building systems and design, and transit may be concrete and tangible
steps the private sector may take to improve our urban environments and the planet as a whole, individual end users will ultimately determine
whether or not these places are sustainable. To achieve lasting
sustainability, the private sector may instead want to focus its efforts on
ongoing operations beyond the initial conceptualization of sustainable
practices to encourage smart growth, community development, and
consumer education.

1 Eric Klinenberg. “How can cities be ‘climate-proofed’?” The New Yorker 7 January 2013:
32-37. Print.