The world has become increasingly urban—more than 50 percent of the globe’s population now live in cities. How can we make them more sustainable, efficient, and prosperous? That’s the question Bloomberg Businessweek Chairman Norman Pearlstine put to our esteemed panel: Kate Ascher, Principal for the U.S. practice of Happold Consulting, and Milstein Professor of Urban Development at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; Peter C. Bosselmann, Professor of Urban Design in Architecture, City and Regional Planning, and Co-Chair, Master of Urban Design Program at the University of California, Berkeley; Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City; Daniel Hoornweg, Lead Urban Advisor, Sustainable Cities and Climate Change at the World Bank; and Edith Hsu-Chen, Manhattan Director for the New York City Department of City Planning. Their conversation has been condensed and edited.
Pearlstine: Daniel, from your perspective at the World Bank, what kinds of lessons travel well between cities?
Daniel Hoornweg: Generally, cities are very good at talking to each other. Mayors talk to mayors. City officials talk to city officials. The lessons that are starting to really take root are that there’s safety in numbers. [The C40 Cities Climate Leadership group, a coalition of the world’s megacities] is a great example. They said, “Let’s learn from each other. And let’s learn by doing things.” And cities are finding that five cities in a country, four cities, maybe a few cities in a region by working together, the lessons become much more readily transferred.
Mick, you represent a metropolitan area with more than a million people. On a global scale that’s relatively small, yet you seem to be very much in demand as a speaker around the world.
Mick Cornett: We’re a city that has proactively taken care of its own infrastructure needs and not waited on a state or a federal government to solve its problems. We’ve also gravitated toward the idea that economic development is really the result of creating a city where people want to live. It’s the attraction of human capital. If you can attract highly educated people from other parts of the country and keep your own best and brightest, chances are the job creators are going to be successful. And people no longer chase jobs. Jobs chase people.
Kate Ascher: As more and more people come into cities, they begin to redefine what those cities are like, just because of the density and the huge demand upon the infrastructure. So the city changes because of the people.
Do cities get to a size where they become totally unmanageable?
Peter Bosselmann: One would think they would—like Calcutta, which has grown so rapidly. Would they close Calcutta and start another Calcutta somewhere else? To some extent this is happening. The growth of Calcutta, for example, is not as rapid as it has been in the last 10 years. It’s too big a city to take care of all the issues, and smaller cities are taking advantage. The other cities in West Bengal are growing quite rapidly now.
Edith, you’re involved with the Borough of Manhattan, where there’s constant rebuilding and there are some quite old systems that you have to deal with. Are there lessons for these new cities from the New York experience?
Edith Hsu-Chen: We’ve been a leader in getting the kind of development we want through this very powerful tool called zoning. Now, when we talk about zoning, people’s eyes glaze over. But it’s an incredible tool. We’re a fairly large city, 8.3 million people today. In 2030 we’re going to be above 9 million. That increment alone is the entire population of Boston. So our challenge is to accommodate everyone in a sustainable way. Seventy-five percent of our carbon comes from buildings. New York City has close to a million buildings, and there are some clunkers there. We need to improve the performance standards. So we’re embarking on a major rezoning of east Midtown to help get new super-sustainable state-of-the-art buildings in our central business districts.
How serious are climate, water, and transportation when it comes to inhibiting growth?
Bosselmann: In Asia all these huge cities are barely above sea level, cities of 20 million and more people. So this is going to be a big issue.
Hoornweg: We’ve been talking about a 2 degree Celsius warming world. And it’s likely closer to 4 degrees. Any good city planner worth their salt today is extremely worried. Almost half of our megacities over 10 million are right on the coast. The second thing I think that’s going to happen, and it will be manifested at a city level initially, is we’re going to see constraints on water and food. Food pricing is already starting to spike around the world as a function of a climate change. The third point is that we need to figure out where we want to come in as a planet with regard to the total atmospheric load of greenhouse gas emissions. Some people have said it’s around 4 to 5 tons per capita. In the U.S. we’re at 25 tons. New York City is the best city in the U.S. in terms of low greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s still twice what we think the global average would need to be for all of us to get along on the planet.
Bosselmann: Energy is the largest greenhouse-gas-emitting component of our lifestyle. We may get a bit of a break by switching to natural gas from coal. That’s a big impact. But the rate of growth of energy used in the world far outstrips any sort of changes to technology.
At a time when some technologists talk about telecommuting, what makes you so sure that cities will continue to grow at the kind of pace that we’re talking about?
Hoornweg: Well, people want to be with other people. Entrepreneurs want to be with other entrepreneurs. The idea that they could live anywhere is very much available to them. But they’re not choosing to.
Ascher: It’s not just on a neighborhood level. It’s also on a business level. You want to interact with your business counterparts face to face. The physicality of a city is still so important.
Bosselmann: For us in California, density is the issue. We are just not dense enough. So if telecommuting really works, then there’s the danger that we’d be even more spread out. To introduce density back into cities is a major goal. The young people I’m educating, they all know that the suburban lifestyle is increasingly unaffordable for them. They see their parents struggling with two salaries to maintain it.
Full Story: How the experts would fix cities
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, October 18, 2012