Causality and Hierarchy

By Jan Dolezal

I was thinking whether there are some frameworks for ranking and organizing different initiatives, for example those on the menu of PlaNYC (here).  PlaNYC is not conveyed with costs (or benefits) and it’s only part of the overall approach of the City and State of New York so it’s hard to quantify the components, but here are some qualitative thoughts:

Hierarchy of Needs

One is a pyramid mirroring Maslow’s pyramid (’s_hierarchy_of_needs) with a similar pyramid for cities (e.g. you don’t care about energy efficiency if you don’t have energy. You don’t care about climate change if you don’t have housing…) On the bottom level, there are basic infrastructure needs (housing, transportation, water, energy). If this is not met, nobody will really care about what is higher. Above that initiatives that improve immediate quality of living, such as Air quality or Parks. Only when this is met, people might be thinking more about recreational Waterways and problems that are not troubling them directly such as Solid waste management. At the top of the pyramid is climate change that people will be more willing to address only when their lower needs are met.

This pyramid also demonstrates why cities in developed countries care more about the higher levels than in developing countries where even the lower levels are not met.   We could place the PlaNYC (or KAEC or Tianjin or Dharavi) initiatives in such a pyramid.

Dolezal's Hierarchy

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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

How Can we Improve the Urban Sustainability Index: Look to Maps and Demographics

By Megan Brown

After our discussion in class about measuring sustainability, I found myself quite torn about the McKinsey Urban Sustainability Index. I agree with many of my classmates that the overabundance of data seemed almost arbitrary and artificial. The data allow us to rank cities based on five sets of criteria, but the use of averages can hide extremes. I think it is important to dig deeper into what sustainability means and to find better ways for measuring it and predicting how to improve it. Without them, how will we be able to assess how well cities achieve their objectives or determine what best practices are? I believe the Urban Sustainability Index could be dramatically improved by incorporating mapping to visualize the data and by adding a 6th category: demographics and happiness. Continue reading

Urban Planning Replicability – a case for Kaizen

By Henry Motte-Munoz

In the past few classes, we have focused on fascinating attempts to create cities where none existed before — be they tens of kilometers away (KAEC) or a present/future suburb (Phung My Hung in Vietnam). The idea is that existing cities cannot cope with the waves of rural emigration in Emerging Markets. I would argue that renewal of existing Tier 2 cities across these nations would be a more cost-effective, natural way of absorbing the influx. And for these cities, there is no need to rely on “new eco-city” findings — examples abound of successful transformations, including Medellin in Colombia and Curitiba in Brazil. To take a leaf from the Toyota Production Method, Kaizen, or continuous improvement, can radically improve the quality of life and population absorption capacity of a city.

Medellin has just been named the world’s most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute. It beat Tel Aviv and New York, on the account of its social mobility, efficient public transport system and investment in civic spaces, art galleries and libraries. Instead of spending billions trying to replan its poor neighborhouds or clear them, it built a giant escalator and a cable car for its residents to commute to the city centre to their jobs. The transformation did not happen overnight, nor is it complete, but it has allowed the city, once a byword for drug cartels, to cope with a doubling of its population since 1985 to ~3m.

Exhibit 1: Giant Escalator through low-income neighborhoods of Medellin, Colombia

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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

Eco-cities and eco-suburbs

By Atulya Mittal

The first question that strikes me when reading about new city developments is a simple one:


My interpretation of a new city is people coming to a common location to pursue a better life. Cities should provide a high quality of life in terms of housing and infrastructure but more importantly, they should provide economic opportunities that draw the most active ingredient of a city – economically active citizens pursuing upward economic mobility. Thus, a sustainable city should sustain its economy as much as its ecology. Climate change, global warming, and Mr Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, have led to sudden surge in attention on ecological sustainability and new-city planners in some cases are forgetting to provide the economic raison d’etre for cities. Continue reading

Can you Succeed in the Bottom Right Corner?

By Anonymous

Emerging Economy, Greenfield Situation, Chaotic Governance, Entrepreneur

Emerging Economy, Greenfield Situation, Chaotic Governance, Entrepreneur

The matrix proposed by Prof. Macomber titled “How to Invest in Sustainable, Competitive Cities” points to the bottom right cell as one with the greatest potential opportunity. At a first glance this “opportunity” does not make sense: Who would want to be an entrepreneur investing in greenfield developments in regions with chaotic governance?  However, while thinking about this framework in the context of bringing order to chaotic situations with a lot of activity, one extremely successful business comes to mind. It does not erect the kind of barriers to entry that most HBS MBA students think about. Continue reading