#07 transition
Prudence Robinson / Adèle Naudé Santos / Robin Ried / Carlo Ratti

Urban Anthologies: Learning From Our Cities

Cities have never prospered as much as they have over the past couple of decades. In 2008 we passed an invisible milestone as the balance tipped in favour of cities: for the first time in history, over 50% of the world's population now resides in them.

And yet as we observe mass urbanization on a scale never witnessed before, we also see challenges emerging that cities will face in the coming decades. The pressing issues of cities are increasingly becoming the pressing issues of the planet such as climate change, sustainability, and quality of life. But political infrastructures are often overwhelmed by the sheer scale of urbanization. How do we meet these challenges head on with regard to the environment, social justice and infrastructure?

Six examples: Cities on the move

Cities also offer many opportunities for addressing big questions that are fundamentally more salient due to the large number of people facing them. Urban transformations are already underway across the globe. We can begin to learn from them, providing a critical lens on how we may improve the condition of cities for their inhabitants.

This is the view that has helped shape our conversations as part of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council 2011. For the Global Agenda Council on Infrastructure and Urban Development, we developed a prototype series of booklets: "Urban Anthologies: Learning from Our Cities" (see box on page 3). It showcases transformational models of infrastructure and urban development from cities around the world – from mature cities, developing or rapidly growing cities, declining cities, as well as new greenfield cities

Ethiopia: Cobblestone streets

Due to the explosion of urban populations, Ethiopia's cities are facing high unemployment, weak infrastructure, and constrained municipal financing. Governance capacities are often too limited to cope with this. In fact, these challenges are widespread and are also faced by many other developing countries that are undergoing rapid urbanization.

With support from the World Bank, Ethiopia has undertaken a large-scale initiative to tackle the problem: the Urban Local Government Development Project. It has not only led to the transformation and beautification of 19 city centres across the country – it has also generated jobs for the local population.

The majority of funds from the World Bank have been directed into infrastructural upgrading, pointedly targeting the road network. Local entrepreneurs and labourers have been heavily involved in the construction of the cobblestone roads. Unique in its wide reach, this project has also provided citizens with new means of civic participation, as open consultations were held, allowing public feedback on investment priorities.

Venezuela: Slum upgrading in Caracas

This project in La Vega, Caracas improved living conditions in informal settlements or barrios and has widespread applicability beyond South America. The government avoided expensive new constructions and introduced infrastructure which has been woven into the existing development. This has also enabled the social networks in the barrio community to thrive.

The upgrade was comprised of many sub-projects including the construction of 30 pedestrian paths and stairways, 3 new roads, 2 community centres and the development of an urban façade – all of which served to maintain the neighbourhood's unique identity. Each addition was gradually integrated into the existing fabric of the settlement.

Like with the Ethiopian example, residents have taken pride in the improvements made to their neighbourhoods and remain engaged in the planning process as it evolves further. From both studies, we see how local community involvement is often an essential component for the success of these types of urban projects.

China: Shenzhen's electric vehicles

The case of Shenzhen in China shows how greenfield cities could employ information and communication technologies to better enable sustainable growth. China's central government has specifically targeted Shenzhen, a booming Special Economic Zone, to develop electric vehicles (EV) inside the new urban infrastructure and explore new business models. It has also mandated short and long term policies within the central and local governments to promote the EV industry and encourage technological innovation.

As of September 2011, Shenzhen had already taken steps to incorporate EV technology in the public transportation network by rolling out 2,050 hybrid or pure electric transit buses, 300 pure electric taxis and 580 transit buses run on liquefied natural gas. Noticeably, favourable policies from the government have served to ignite manufacturer enthusiasm with a relatively complete EV industry emerging from Shenzhen. The government has also brought onboard tech giant Cisco and the urban planning group BetterPlace for urban development consultation, ensuring a holistic approach that fully integrates EV into the city's overall smart transportation system strategy.

The Shenzhen example clearly demonstrates the critical role government can play in promoting innovation in sustainable development, and also how public private partnerships may be central to developing future urban infrastructure.

USA: New York City's High Line

The examples of New York City and Freiburg (see below) demonstrate the creative reuse of existing infrastructure in a mature city and a declining city respectively.

New York City preserved a historic rail line elevated above the West Side streets of Manhattan and transformed it into a public park. City planners developed a comprehensive plan for the rail line that embraced the existing structure while also moulding it into a new landscape by integrating vegetation with pathways, and by introducing long stairways and hidden niches. Notably, community involvement played an important role in the High Line project as people worked alongside the City of New York to preserve the structure.

With over 2 million visitors in its opening year, the High Line has produced environmental, economic and social benefits for the city, and has now become a shining example of the successful adaptive reuse of existing infrastructure.

Germany: Freiburg's Eco-District

Freiburg is unique in its ambitious plans to move towards an energy provision based entirely on solar PV. The city has transformed a district in decline – Vauban – into a hub of sustainable development. Vauban's energy policy has focused on energy conservation, the use of new technologies, such as combined heat and power, and the use of renewable energy sources. This was strongly supported by the local community.

The benefits have been manifold. Reductions in CO2 and SO2 (sulphur dioxide) emissions have rendered the district an attractive choice for businesses and citizens alike. Social improvements such as the adoption of participatory planning and provision of affordable housing have also helped to promote inclusion and equality. The local government has played a key role in enabling this development not just by establishing a statutory framework that guides the overall scheme, but also by engaging multiple parties, such as local residents and private corporations, in the planning process.

South Africa: eKhaya Lane Management & Upgrading

The eKhaya Lane Management & Upgrading project in Hillbrow, South Africa presents a model for urban development through innovation in the design and development process.

Over a 30-year period, Hillbrow, a high-density inner-city suburb of Johannesburg, rapidly deteriorated and became an urban slum as bylaw enforcement dwindled and public services went unmaintained. Meanwhile, the breakdown of tenant-landlord relations in the area contributed to its degeneration with little upkeep of the buildings, frequent evictions and criminal seizures of buildings.

To counter the blight of their neighbourhood, the community established the eKhaya Neighbourhood Association (ENA) in 2004, which was the starting point for the suburb's transformation. The ENA facilitated meetings that led to property owners cooperating in securing and cleaning road lanes. Furthermore, tenant-landlord relations improved as both parties took responsibility for lane upgrading and management. The local residents have shouldered the "Our Safe, Healthy and Friendly eKhaya Neighbourhood" campaign that served to unite the local community and helped drive action in crime prevention and service delivery.

The model used for engagement here is both scalable and applicable to the development of other struggling communities, and focuses on how social relationships can enable future sustainable development.

More success stories

The case studies presented here are just six examples of urban transformations. Our goal is that they may provide tools for the various actors in cities, helping them learn from other cities and share their own experiences of urban transformation. By intelligently applying different growth methods to the varied urban cultures, climates, and fabrics, we can hopefully find new, replicable models for development at a time when traditional concepts and methods are increasingly failing in the face of rapidly changing urban dynamics.

Over the next few months the Urban Anthologies project will compile more success stories from across the globe, and share these stories with the World Economic Forum community as well as with mayors and urban leaders from cities worldwide.

The Urban Anthologies project

The six examples presented in this article were taken from the initial prototype series of booklets developed for the World Economic Forum Summit in Davos: "Urban Anthologies: Learning from Our Cities". The book is a user-friendly tool, designed to equip mayors, ministers and leaders from the private and civil service sectors with the information and tools necessary to take the first step in enabling cities to undertake urban transformations in meaningful ways.

The models presented are employed by a variety of cities from across the globe. They attempt to convey non-traditional urban interventions such as the reuse of existing infrastructure, the reduction or employment of minimal infrastructure, new types of infrastructure using information technology, and how to maximize the utility of infrastructure. They thus present new replicable models for development at a critical time when the challenges encountered by cities have global implications. In the upcoming months, the Urban Anthologies project will compile more such success stories.

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