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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Ecopolis in China: Lab for Idealist or Realist?

By Anonymous

This two weeks we read about two sustainable cities, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE and Tianjin in China. It is reasonably straightforward to form the overall framework for sustainable urbanization, which consists of four interrelated actors and points of view: investor, government touches, design configuration and business tactics (source: class discussion and Prof Macomber’s chart).

In today’s China, the development of eco-cities has been a hot topic extensively reviewed and discussed by different parties, and the progress of Tianjin draws a lot of attention – particularly because of the failure of its predecessor, Dongtan District of Shanghai. Indeed, the concept of eco-cities has been tentatively utilized to provide theoretical support and planning model for more than 5 cities in China, and in addition to that, more municipal governments are approaching the central government and seeking financial, political and technological support. Nevertheless, there is not even a far cry from a successful in model in practice that can be found to underpin the feasibility of the “eco-city” concept. Continue reading

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

What’s your city’s competitive advantage?

By Anonymous

During our discussion of city developments over the last few class periods we determined that in order to evaluate a certain development approach we needed to know what goal we were optimizing for. However, in my mind, we neglected a more basic discussion of the theory describing why cities exist and how they have historically been formed. Instead, our approach was mostly along the lines of “Lots of people are moving to cities, so we need more cities. Resources are limited, so we need sustainable cities. Go.”

We skipped two fundamental questions: a) What makes a city a city? and b) What’s your city’s competitive advantage? 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

The Next Generation of Cities

By Regan Turner

In studying brand new cities such as King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) and Masdar, we saw examples of ambitious sovereign governments taking on bold development projects that encapsulated their vision for how their country’s population would live, work, and play in the future. In undertaking these projects, however, these governments also assume enormous financial and social risk that the cities may never reach their potential. In the future, therefore, I would argue that master-planned growth should happen in locations where people already choose to live, rather than in places that are sparsely inhabited, or not inhabited at all.

Across the globe, populations are urbanizing and densifying. For the first time in the world’s history, more people now live in urban centers than in rural locations, and as Figure 1 shows, that gap is growing.

Figure 1: Urban and Rural Population of the World (Source: United Nations,

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Don’t Build Cities from Scratch Unless You Need To

By Neel Bhargava

To accommodate the growing and rapidly urbanizing population over the next decades, governments and societies across the world have two options: build new cities or expand existing cities. When faced with this choice (though there will not always be one), expanding existing cities almost always makes the most sense, for several reasons, two of which I describe below.

The first reason is simple but critical: building cities from scratch is difficult. Very difficult. As the case of King Abdullah Economic City (“KAEC”) illustrates, city building involves numerous different tasks, many of which are interdependent. For example, transportation infrastructure must be built before businesses can operate. And schools must be present before people can move into new residences. These dependencies mean that those building new cities face the daunting task of amassing capital – both financial and human – to simultaneously develop and coordinate multiple types of infrastructure. In contrast, expanding existing cities can be done more piecemeal, first building new housing, then attracting new businesses, then expanding mass transit, and so forth. Continue reading