Governance: Who’s responsible for jumpstarting regenerative development: local or national government?

Who’s responsible for jumpstarting regenerative development: local or national government? This highlights a challenge to regenerative cities: governance.

In the last two decades, the steering capacity of local governments has changed dramatically: Opportunities for local actors to influence urban and global decisions are increasing. There has been a renewed focus on local responses to challenges emerging from the inability of nation states and multinational bodies to agree to long-term commitments.

That being said, the ability of cities to take effective action remains stymied so long as cities are isolated, disparate, and uncoordinated.

The path towards regenerative cities sees national governments working with city authorities and other urban decision makers. Creating the parameters for appropriate action involves political decisions on a wide spectrum, from transnational and national to urban levels, as well as integrated cross-sector and horizontal approaches.

Copenhagen is a leading example. The Danish capital is a frontrunner in transforming the urban energy sector into a regenerative system. It has set a range of interrelated and ambitious goals: It wants to become the eco-metropolis of the world by 2015 and the first carbon neutral city by 2025. By 2015, it aims to reduce CO2 emissions from all sectors by more than 20 percent, based on 2005 levels.

Not only are targets impressive, progress in implementation is promising so far. The city currently has one of world’s largest offshore wind farms, powering 150,000 Danish households. Its district heating system supplies 97 percent of the city with affordable heating; and 90 percent of building waste is reused.

Successes can also be observed in other — but interconnected — sectors that reinforce energy transition. Some examples: 35 percent of all commutes are by bike; 78,000 people work in the clean-tech business; green fashion brands are thriving; and 65 percent of all hotel rooms in Copenhagen are certified as green.

Cyclists in Copenhagen. (Source: Mikael Colville-Andersen via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cyclists in Copenhagen.
(Source: Mikael Colville-Andersen via Wikimedia Commons.)

So how does Copenhagen do it?

The municipality coordinates its activities through its technical and environmental division. It ensures that environmental management pervades all city departments and also appoints environmental coordinators in each unit. The technical and environmental division monitors progress and publishes regular updates. These are easily accessible online for the public and other stakeholders.

But the city is not going it alone — its endeavours are backed by the national Danish government.

Denmark is a frontrunner, with a 2050 target of 100 percent renewable energy in the power, heating, and transportation sectors. It has implemented several national laws that enabled local renewable energy policies. For example, the wind farm cooperative movement was enabled by a national law that requires new wind turbines to sell at least 20 percent of their shares to residents within a 4.5 km radius.

Additionally, local policies are supported in the planning field. In 2007 an amendment toDenmark’s Planning Act gave primacy to city plans over regional or national ones. This decentralised structure gives cities a wide mandate to decide on local environmental and renewable energy strategies and is thus an important driver of policy change. Copenhagen was able to translate this driver into corresponding policy measures.

The wide and integrated range of policy measures strongly correlates with substantial financial and human resources in the municipal authority prioritised toward the environment and renewable energy. Since a separate department on technical and environmental issues deals with renewable energy alongside appointed environmental coordinators in each department, the city has a large body of staff working on environmental issues.

The example of Copenhagen demonstrates that regenerative urban development is enabled by strong coordination between national and city governments, as well as by decentralised municipal-level planning and decision-making capacities.

Representatives from all governance levels — local, regional, national, and supranational — will come together this September at the Future of Cities Forum in Hamburg in order to connect, share knowledge, and build up networks with each other. For more information on the Future of Cities Forum hosted by the World Future Council, the City of Hamburg and other international partners, please visit

— Anna Leidreiter, Policy Officer, World Future Council

Cities should not focus on public spaces, but on people’s behavior.

Yes, people. That’s who public spaces are built for, after all. That’s who cities are built for. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at most of them, seeing as people are so often left out of the equation when it comes to city planning. Gehl lamented as much in saying that many cities look great from the air but lousy at ground-level. Further, the “people scale” of city planning is barely even taught to those studying urban planning and architecture (unless, of course, Gehl is teaching the course).

“In neither of the professions, which are dealing with existing cities and new cities, will you find any substantial element of information and education about people’s behavior and how the built form interacts with life,” he said. “This is a very overlooked area.”

Jan Gehl. (Source: Gehl Architects)

Jan Gehl. (Source: Gehl Architects)

But signs that we’re putting people back into planning are emerging worldwide, and much of this progress is driven by strong public policies.

Take Copenhagen, where Gehl Architects is based: Gehl referred to official city council policiesthat have allowed for great progress, including a policy to become the best city for people and the best cycling city in the next five to 10 years (“if we’re not there already,” said Gehl); and to become carbon neutral by 2025. As a result of strong policies — which encouraged the development of wider bike lanes, cycle superhighways, etc. — about 37-38 percent of people already commute to work by bicycle. (And if you’re concerned that Copenhagen has too many cyclists, Gehl says, quite simply, “I can only assure everybody that if you have too many bikes biking, and you have too many bikes parked, it is a much better problem to work with than having too many cars driving and too many cars to park.”)

Then there’s New York, where Gehl’s influence is felt in the city’s bike lanes and bike-share program, and the pedestrian plazas that now occupy space previously held hostage by vehicle traffic. However, it wasn’t until Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his PlaNYC policy, for a “Greener Greater New York,” that a delegation from New York — led by DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — went to observe progress in Copenhagen, and Gehl was called in to help New York with its transformation.

At the same time, while it’s wonderful to see these changes in New York, Copenhagen, and even Los Angeles, where the city council recently approved a “Manhattenization” plan to turn three lanes into a pedestrian area along Broadway between 2nd and 11th Streets, it’s a bit harder to imagine such progress happening in developing cities in Asia and Africa, for example. But asked whether it’s realistic to expect developing cities to adopt these best-practices as well, Gehl said it’s not realistic to do anything but that.

“Nothing in the world is more simple and more cheap than making cities that provide better for people,” he said.

Not all is progressively rosy all over, though, as far too many cities are still putting auto worship first on their list of priorities.

“We are much smarter now in the 21st century than they were 50 years ago, but many cities still are lumbering around in the 20th century paradigm… thinking they’ll be twice as happy if they have twice as many cars,” said Gehl. “The truth is, generally you will not be twice as happy but will have twice as many problems.”

To overcome this flawed thinking, we have to change the minds of city planners and politicians, he added. One unexpected place where this is happening, says Gehl, is in car-heavy Moscow.

“They have started to humanize Moscow, having been inspired very much by what has happened in New York,” he said, noting that there’s a strong will there now to create a livable city for people.

“The ball is rolling from one continent to the other, and one city to the other,” added Gehl.

Let’s hope it keeps on rolling.

For full interview and subsequent live chat discussion with Jan Gehl, please click here:Cities for People: Jan Gehl, Founding Partner, Gehl Architects.

Barcelona plans for efficiency, block by block

In a lesson for cities everywhere, Barcelona is implementing a key element of an urban efficiency plan it announced two years ago.

On March 1, 2012, the mayor of Barcelona and the CEO of Cisco announced the City Protocol, an agreement to launch a number of strategic initiatives aimed at advancing the city’s objective of being a global reference model for sustainable urban development. The protocol itself remains nebulous, but one of the aims — to create self-sufficient city blocks — is taking shape.

The plan calls for creating blocks where consumers’ energy needs are analyzed and compared with available alternatives in order to improve efficiencies. Another aim of the plan is to develop an energy use map for all of Barcelona based on these newly renovated blocks.

Mayor Xavier Trias of Barcelona meeting with John Chambers in 2012.(Source: Xavier Trias via Flickr)

Mayor Xavier Trias of Barcelona meeting with John Chambers in 2012.
(Source: Xavier Trias via Flickr)

To kickstart the program, the city government allocated two empty blocks in two different districts, Nou Barris and Sant Martí. The second one is situated within the 22@Barcelona technology district, a 200-hectare planned “city within a city” focused on bringing together companies, research facilities, training centers, and other elements of a technology hub.

Each block has approximately 12,000 square meters of land, on which the city wants developers to renovate and build apartments, shops, and offices that are self-sufficient in their energy needs. The construction and renovations will include mixed-use buildings with roofs covered with solar panels, neighborhood shared-heating systems, water recycling, and the use of electric vehicles for services.

Below is a diagram of a proposed block. See the caption for translation of the Catalan labels.

A proposed block for Barcelona. Labels translate as follows -- cobertes solars: solar covers; mixticita d'usos: mixed use (facilities); calefaccio de barri: neighborhood heating system; reciclatge d'aigua: water recycling; cotxe electric: electric car; moto electrica: electric bike.(Source: City of Barcelona Press Office)

A proposed block for Barcelona. Labels translate as follows — cobertes solars: solar covers; mixticita d’usos: mixed use (facilities); calefaccio de barri: neighborhood heating system; reciclatge d’aigua: water recycling;cotxe electric: electric car; moto electrica: electric bike.
(Source: City of Barcelona Press Office)

In order to encourage people to buy electric vehicles, the blocks will have a shared parking facility that will come with charging units but will set aside no less than 20% of its spaces for electric vehicles.

To develop the program, the Barcelona city government, together with its technology partners, is taking the following actions:

  • Working with local and international technology and research institutions to ensure the project uses the latest solutions for self-sufficient buildings
  • Helping construction companies and other service providers develop new financial models with the power companies to help users pay for the long-term investment in buildings renovated for energy efficiency
  • Serving as interface with the public administrations of Catalunya and Spain to promote legislation and public grants and to define new models of building and urban network design and management
  • Helping construction professionals get the training and qualifications to continue designing and building self-sufficient urban spaces

These projects can’t be realized without citizens’ involvement. That’s why Barcelona has sought the input of neighbors, shop owners, and local associations to develop its plan. Projects on both city blocks that conform to the plan are now under construction. When finished, they could serve as models for projects in Barcelona and other cities.

Shifting from time and transport focus to space

Cities are ultimately vessels for the concentrated production and sustenance of life. Yet this intrinsic aspect of urbanism — the human factor — is neglected in many future cities discussions.

Rather, these discussions are often dominated by talks of transport and using technology to manage existing traffic systems.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the transportation fixation. After all, transport concerns have led urban policymaking for over a century. But we should be aware of its risks. Today’s cities bear the scars of the “time is money” obsession for ever greater, faster means of transport — an approach that has been pursued at a massive social, economic, and environmental cost: leading to inner-urban highways that divide communities, and patterns of inefficient,obesogenic traffic congestion. These are the globally consistent, predictable products of urban policy, and that policy needs rethinking.

Transport must be seen as a means to an end, not the end itself. The objective must be the creation of successful human interaction in pursuit of meaningful living. This requires people coming together in rooms, corridors, streets, and public spaces, creating patterns of human interaction in pursuit of social and economic gain.

For this to happen, a radical shift in urban thinking is required, from “transport” to “transaction.” How do we do this?

As a first step, the purpose of transport needs to be re-conceptualized: from being “the facilitator of movement” to becoming the “enhancer of interaction.”

The implications of such an approach for urban practice are radically straightforward: a focus on streets, not highways; on street networks and public spaces, not single grand projects; a rebalancing of priorities toward slow modes of movement — walking and cycling — and away from high-speed transit; toward effective interaction and not movement for the sake of it; toward the benefits of stopping in public space, not simply speeding through cities; toward sitting, leaning, and relaxing as key aspects of transport policy; toward people, not vehicles.

To see this transformation in action, contrast the slowed-down, pedestrian-friendly spaces of the City of London, Midtown Manhattan, or Copenhagen with the traffic-dominated, speed-obsessed streets they once were. Or, consider the steps of Trafalgar Square, where people linger over a business conversation instead of charging past as they did before that space was redesigned with interaction in mind. Then consider the global wave of rapidly urbanizing cities pursuing the car-first policy that London, New York, Copenhagen, and many others have since abandoned. The future cost for doing so is massive and preventable.

What is the role of technology in helping to achieve the policy transformation from transport to transaction? In its power and pervasiveness, digital infrastructure creates a new urban utility, and, as with electricity, water, or gas, it is incumbent upon city leaders to manage it for the benefit of citizens.

In line with a transport policy shift toward human interaction, digital infrastructure should be conceived principally in terms of its lifestyle benefits. Some would argue this is already the case, but the “lifestyle” I refer to is not one in which people stay at home in front of plasma screens, communicating via teleconference. Instead, it involves people coming together in streets and public spaces as well, being aware of each other, sharing information and ideas, making social and economic contact. Far from retrogressive, this new urban paradigm will be forward-thinking and technologically enabled. It will, for example, require new social networking apps aimed at facilitating face-to-face interactions.

This is how prosperous cities have always worked; it is the missing ingredient when cities fail; and it is how future cities will be able to thrive. If the scope of urban policy makers can be widened from a fixation on transport to an appreciation of value-rich urban outcomes, built on the benefits of effective human interaction, then future cities are more likely to be places that meet the expectations of future citizens.

— Tim Stonor, Architect & Urban Planner, Managing Director, Space Syntax