Cities of the Future
Given the ongoing historic mass migration of people from China’s countryside into her cities, planning and implementing sustainable urban environments is enormously important.
In early December, The Paulson Institute organized a conference in Beijing called “Cities of the Future – Urban Sustainability in Modern China”. The event featured an impressive array of Chinese and international experts and mayors to share their views and expertise. For a detailed conference program, see: http://184.108.40.206:9000/cites/city/choose
The Paulson Institute, based at the University of Chicago, is the brainchild of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. It was founded in 2011 with the objective of promoting sustainable economic growth and a cleaner environment, with an initial focus on the U.S. and China. This was their second annual conference in Beijing, held in cooperation with the China Center for International Economic Exchanges. Paulson has long been an ardent environmentalist, and is a former chair of The Nature Conservancy.
I was fortunate to be able to moderate a panel discussion on bringing about behavioral change. Consumers need to become more responsible with regard to energy and water consumption, and a host of other behavioral issues which impact the environment. The question our group discussed is how best to educate, inform, and persuade the public to behave in more environmentally sustainable ways.
Education is an obvious part of the solution. Several speakers, including Secretary Paulson in his keynote address, cited personal examples where their children or grandchildren were catalysts for more responsible environmental behavior at home. A better educated younger generation does influence the behavior of their seniors in a positive way.
I can personally attest to this. My daughter has been a source of good advice in our family on energy and water consumption, waste sorting and recycling, etc. That helped spur me to think about improving related habits at work, and to suggest a new waste sorting scheme for recyclable materials in the apartment building where we live.
Big changes begin with small steps. People are far more likely to change bad habits after they see their peers, family members or neighbors changing.
Other discussions at the conference included the mayors of various important Chinese cities, including Beijing’s Acting Mayor Wang Anshun and Nanjing’s Mayor Ji Jianye, as well as Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, who is also Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Other sessions brought together leading urban planners, architects, energy and water specialists, academics and researchers, Chinese and international NGO leaders, and corporate CEOs, including some leading Chinese real estate developers.
One of the common observations by many experts is that cities should primarily be places designed for people, with multiple choices for modes of transportation — including walking and bicycling as well as various forms of public transport — plus green and healthy environments with adequate recreational options.
By contrast, many Chinese cities are currently better designed for cars than for people, with wide, busy boulevards suitable neither for pedestrians, nor bicyclists. Encouragingly, a number of Chinese cities have pilot studies underway in which certain districts are being re-designed to be more people-friendly. International consultants are involved in a number of these projects.
The challenges involved in making Chinese cities more sustainable span a wide spectrum from urban planning, tax policies, waste management, zoning, regulations involving energy consumption, key performance indicators for mayors, residence permits, etc.
I was encouraged by Mayor Michael Nutter’s description of the great progress Philadelphia has made since it established a Sustainability Office in 2008.
Despite its great historic role in early American history, Philadelphia had the reputation during much of the second half of the 20th century as a city in serious economic decline, with high crime rates and urban decay. It became the butt of jokes as an undesirable place to visit, even if you were sent there on a free vacation.
Philadelphia has clearly turned a green corner. Population is growing, a much higher percentage of graduates of the city’s many universities are staying to work and live there rather than leaving, and major progress has been made in making the city cleaner and greener. Currently, zero solid waste goes into landfills; instead it is either recycled or reprocessed into energy.
Instead of paying US$68 per ton to dispose of solid waste, the city now earns US$65 per ton from recycling. In the process, jobs have also been created. Along city streets, solar-powered trash compactors have been installed, with recycling units attached. These are emptied 5 times per week.
The moral of the story is that with leadership, planning, and commitment, urban sustainability makes economic sense while also bringing improvements to people’s health and the environment in which they live and work.
In 2010, for the first time in human history, half the world’s population lived in cities. For China as well as the rest of the world, better urban planning and finding ways to make cities more sustainable is not cosmetic. It’s now a matter of survival.
The Paulson Institute conference yielded a host of valuable insights and exchanges. Another event is planned for next year, as well as other supporting activities.
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