New York – Sustainable and Competitive Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Finance? in the News This Week

By John Macomber

These news items from Gotham City might add some further flavor to our discussion of PlaNYC in Thursday’s class, March 7:

(Learning Hub entry here)

(Related post in this blog about current events here)


Glad to see that long view politicians and domain experts can mobilize funding to make investments based on science and with the benefit of the populace in mind! Continue reading


Smart Cities in Singapore and China

By Anonymous

In the case “Living PlanIT”, it is the company that proposed to build a “Smart City” that is committed to developing a series of sustainable features including the in-built green infrastructure, the usage of renewable resources and promoting the efficiency of energy and water consumption. Putting all these appealing environment-friendly features aside, this “Smart City” features technologies that integrate and underpin the communications of citizens, business partners and the government. It appears to be the perfect solution aligned with the inevitable trends of urbanization and sustainability. I consider this concept of “Smart City” overly idealized, facing a few significant challenges:

Attract target partners

In the case, Living PlanIT targets leading firms in a variety of fields focusing on electrical and informational engineering. Doubt arises about how to build up such partnerships with these industry leaders in addition to underpinning the bonds among them to create maximum synergies for the project as a whole. Thus, it is essential to come up with clear, both quantitative & qualitative measures to exhibit such synergies and the values they create, which potentially benefit all the business partners internally. This could be one of the points from those people who sense how efficient and scalable the concept of “Smart City” can be.

 Project location

In my opinion, if I were an investor, I would not invest in the proposed project in the case, after reviewing the location profile, supplemented with more detailed macro info about the country of Portugal. It simply is not the right lab site, taking the country’s economic and social positions into account. Even though keen supports from the government may be observed, the company may find more obstacles to persuade both of the partners and financiers that the proposed project site is promising, due to the facts that a) little existing transportation infrastructure from major cities which potentially requires a large amount of investments, and yet constitutes as a key required feature for developments; b) based on Pg.19, the country’s economy is particular weak due to the global recession, and in addition, the industry structure of the country determines that it’s not the right site for this project, as it cannot offer the respective human resources for the development of the project.

However, in Asian countries like Singapore and China, “Smart City” is one of the hottest urban planning concepts. The greatest difference between Living PlanIT and the ones in the aforementioned two countries, as I’d propose, is the initiator of the project, being the company Living PlanIT in the case, whereas the national government in Singapore and China. In the case of Singapore, there is a renowned project called “Mapletree Business City” (referred as “MBC”) by the leading real estate investment group Mapletree, a subsidiary of Temasek, the 100% state-owned enterprise. The MBC is located slightly outside of the city/country’s CBD area, in a renovated industrial park closed to the harbor and some existing residential projects. Featuring all the sustainable designs and technologies proposed in the Living PlanIT case, the MBC is positioned as an integrated office and business park for work, live and play, and has successfully attracted credit tenants such as Deutche Bank, HSBC, Unilever and etc. Whereas in China, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development has just proved the list of the first labs for “Smart City” on Jan 29 this year, which consists of 37 cities and more than 50 rural towns, financially supported by the National Bank of Development. Subsequently, the release of the approval will surely be welcomed by the leading technologies firms which are undoubtedly anxious to incorporate with the government on both national and local levels for the developments of such cities.


The Importance of Integration in Scalable Mass Transit Systems

By Ted Oberwager

The logic behind developing the world’s mass transit systems is obvious: a smaller carbon footprint, reduced dependence on gasoline, decreased congestion, job creation, and ultimately dollar savings for governments and consumers alike. The ramifications are huge both for the ~9,400 new cities that are expected support global population growth, but also for the many existing metropolises that will need to absorb additional headcount. With the United Nations predicting that cities will absorb the vast majority of the nearly 2.5 billion increase in the global population through 2050[1], I believe that scalability is the #1 issue facing mass transit today.

The question then becomes – how do we best scale mass transit systems in the cities of the future? Given the magnitude of our transportation needs, the answer cannot be found in any one solution. While many promote the virtues of one form of transit over another, there will not be a ‘silver bullet’ approach. Even the best constructed subway cannot solve a bustling city’s transportation needs in isolation. And creating a scalable system can be an issue of life or death proportions – just consider the news from India today where overcrowding in an Allahabad train station caused panic and stampede leading to the death of at least 37 people.[2]

Thus, I believe the answer must lie in a fully integrated approach across transportation modes. The public sector has many options to address its transportation needs – buses, trains, subways, aerial solutions, and even car sharing – and governments will need to use all of them going forward. The ability to connect and coordinate these alternatives will be the differentiating skill that makes a mass transit system truly scalable. It is not difficult to imagine a world where our smartphones tell us to ride the subway over the bus for our morning commute, or a software program with connection to all modes of mass transit helps city managers dynamically alter transportation prices to help balance loads and improve capacity utilization. We often think of the “smart grid” as an interconnected electrical grid, but that “grid” may soon be expanded beyond the electrical to include an integrated system of roads and rails and tubes.

How and when we realize this vision is unclear. As we saw in our Living PlanIT case, we are very much in the first inning of integrating our cities and making them truly “smart,” but the necessity of these innovations seems clear. And with companies like Cisco and Oracle attacking these issues head on[3][4], it can’t be too long before we rethink what it means to have a “smart grid” in the context of our public transportation systems, thereby making our cities truly scalable and efficient.

Lessons from China: Central Planning and Satellite Cities in the Design of Smart Cities

By John Niehaus

During our Smart Cities discussion, I was reminded of a series of conversations that came up during my IXP trip to China a few weeks ago.  With around 18-20 million Chinese migrating from the countryside to the cities each year, urbanization is a key focus for the Communist Party.  During our class discussion on Smart Cities, we debated the point of just how applicable PlanIT Valley is to urbanization in the real world.  Sure, perhaps PlanIT Valley can succeed as a city of just a few thousand people, but are its results replicable on a larger scale?

If China chose to, it could build Smart Cities of millions of people because the Communist Party has a great deal of influence over where new housing developments are built and, more broadly, where new cities are built.  One concept which was mentioned in several of our meeting was the concept of “Satellite Cities” which the Communist Party has been encouraging.  The concept is to build a series of smaller cities about an hour or so outside of the major Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, etc) rather than deciding to build a city in the middle of the countryside.  Presumably, this will allow the government to leverage much of the existing infrastructure (water, electricity, highways, trains, etc) and give people the opportunity to work for companies in both their satellite city or in the major city itself.

While much of the West criticizes the sometimes authoritarian rule of the Communist Party in China, this example, to me, illustrates one of the great strengths of the Community Party, which is its ability to think long-term about the best interests of the country and implement public policy with minimal oversight from the general public.

In fact, one of the Americans that we met with in China, who has been in China for the last 20 years, said America itself could use some more “Central Planning” sometimes.  However, the American public is greatly averse to the thought of “Central Planning” in the post-Cold War era.  As part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” in an effort to combat unemployment and boost the economy, Roosevelt created a series of federal agencies, including the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 (still in existence today) to provide flood control and electricity generation in Tennessee and its neighboring states.  This was arguably the height of Central Planning in the US, with much of the power grid and national highway system being laid in the next couple of decades.

Today, high profile events like the levees in New Orleans breaking during Hurricane Katrina, the flooding of downtown Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, and the lack of a true high speed train in the US point to a lack of infrastructure investment over the last few decades.  Clearly, there are other national budgetary restrictions at work here (Medicare, Social Security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc), but I think it does raise the question of whether a democracy like the US can take the long-term view to invest in infrastructure and new cities (or hopefully Smart Cities) when it is necessary.

A Pedestrian Perspective on Smart Cities

By Megan Brown

After our class on smart cities and PlanIT Valley, I found myself pondering what it would really be like to live in such a city. I believe in the importance of Living PlanIT’s aims, but I fear that in our pursuit of sustainability we overlook some of the less technological factors that improve quality of life, and that the desire to be cutting-edge outweighs aesthetics. It seems to me that we have become so focused on designing novel public transportation systems and energy-efficient cars that we have forgotten about walking. After all, what is more eco-friendly than using your own two feet? Keeping the pedestrian in mind would encourage designers to think on a more intimate scale, promote healthy behavior and build communities. This does not mean sacrificing the convenience of cars or public transportation but rather combining those amenities with some of the pedestrian-friendly characteristics of older cities to create spaces that are both modern and comfortable.

PlanIT Valley Take 2 (Clickable)

PlanIT Valley Take 2 (Clickable)

Some of my favorite places to wander are older European cities. Most of them were built before the automobile, so many of their streets are only wide enough for people and horses. They feel cozy and inviting, compared with LA where one feels alone on the sidewalk. When you are flanked by shops, cafes and low-rise buildings rather than fields of pavement, walking is an adventure, not a chore. Though most of these cities can be disasters to drive in and I would not recommend copying their layout, many of their strengths can be adapted to the modern city. For example, even a wide lane bordered by skyscrapers can feel inviting if the sidewalks and median are lined with trees, the buildings are tiered and the ground floors are active commercial spaces.

Another strength of the older city is the use of open central spaces, both green and hardscape. The Italian piazza and Central Park in New York both encourage people to get outside and congregate. In its rendering, PlanIT Valley was surrounded by a beautiful landscape with only a sliver of greenway running through it. If that greenway were enlarged and allowed to permeate the city, it could become a place that people choose to congregate and walk every day.

Finally, when laying out the streets, planners should not be afraid of right angles, nor of having a variety of layouts and scales for different parts of the city. Many older cities that have grown organically are comprised of everything from meandering alleys to large throughways. Sometimes poor layout can be confusing, but variety keeps cities dynamic. PlanIT Valley’s pervasive hexagonal layout feels forced and prevents changes of scale. That layout may work for some parts of the city, but I imagine people tiring of them and cutting corners, creating paths in the grass. Rectangles do not have to be boring.

With the construction of smart cities and new developments, we have an opportunity to help people live happier lives. Technological advancements will undoubtedly have a positive impact, but some of the most powerful changes may be the simplest.


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.

Smart Cities: Repeatable Experiments or Research Labs?

By Lauren Burrows.

We recently read a case about a company called Living PlanIT that has proposed to build a greenfield “Smart City” in which it will attempt to reduce waste and increase the use of renewable materials in building, deploy renewable sources of energy, and manage energy, waste and water more efficiently. While this sounds very appealing, as we discussed the case and reviewed the drawings of the concept, I could not help but be reminded of the book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs published this book in 1961 in response to the “urban renewal” movement of the mid-twentieth century, which was a program of land redevelopment in dense urban areas that sought to bulldoze slums in order to create open (and, Jacobs argued, sterile) city spaces. In recent years, the concept of a “smart” city has attracted a great deal of attention and several new cities have been proposed based on this model, including Masdar in Abu Dhabi and New Songdo City in Korea. However, it remains to be seen how we will measure the success of these developments. Will companies choose to locate in these cities? Will people choose to live there? Will we choose to replicate them elsewhere or will they simply prove to be sterile research laboratories?

If these developments do prove to be nothing more than research laboratories, as I suspect they may, how can we predict which “smart” technologies will prove successful in being implemented elsewhere? First, the technology must create clear, measurable and repeatable value that can be captured by a single entity. A technology that creates value for the greater public good or that cannot be easily quantified will have trouble gaining traction. Second, there must be a clear decision maker for the sales process. Technologies that require a number of parties to collaborate will also experience difficulty. One example of a technology that meets these requirements comes from a company called Big Belly Solar, which develops solar-powered, networked trash compactors that save time, fuel and money for municipal governments and other institutions that manage waste removal from public spaces. Big Belly Solar trash compactors add five times the capacity as existing trash cans, reducing the frequency with which entities have to send personnel and/or trucks to collect trash. Furthermore, these trash compactors are solar powered so they do not require grid connection and are networked so that an entity can track which garbage cans are full and only send personnel and/or trucks to garbage cans that are full, further reducing fuel use and time. The savings that this technology generates can be easily measured and tracked and there is a clear entity that derives the benefits and the company can identify who the appropriate decision maker is within that entity. Regardless of whether these experimental “smart cities” lead to a proliferation of other greenfield “smart cities,” I expect that they will generate a number of viable technologies like the Big Belly Solar trash compactor that will be developed and applied elsewhere.