How the Experts Would Fix Cities
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.
What role are public-private partnerships going to have in funding development in cities? Is that just happy talk or is there reality to it?
Hsu-Chen: It’s very real talk. And we’re getting smarter and better at it. Right now a lot of the incentives the city offers are around getting the right density at transit nodes. Kate and I worked together on a project just a couple years ago—Kate in the private sector, I in the public—to deliver a new state-of-the-art skyscraper right across the street from Pennsylvania Station. The developer got to build a 20 percent bigger building. And the city got an improved subway station and connections.
Bosselmann: Every single job I’ve had has been either on the public side working with private companies or on the private side being hired to work with the public sector, because I speak that funny language that goes in between. And they’re very much the lifeblood of cities at this point, particularly American cities. The place that people get confused is a lot of these public-private partnerships are not privatization. That doesn’t really work in this country. We don’t have a strong central government. We have a federal system. In Europe you have a strong central government that can come in and work with the private sector to deliver something locally. Here it’s up to the municipalities to figure out how to use those public-private partnerships at the local level to deliver the types of benefits that Edith was talking about.
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.
Kate, you’ve written a book about skyscrapers. Why do they make sense?
Ascher: The reasons they’re built are different in different places. In New York they’ve been built for decades because we are space constrained. And the land values have been so high that you can actually make money by stacking people on top of each other. In places like Dubai they’re built for completely different reasons, as symbols of civic pride.
Hoornweg: Tall doesn’t necessarily mean dense. Paris is an extremely dense city, very walkable. But there’s very few buildings more than six or seven stories high. Tall buildings in many countries become kind of like a status symbol. Whereas what cities really need now is a big focus on efficiency. We’re at about 50 percent urbanization of the world. What happened in the last 200 years is going to be repeated in the next 30 years. Planetary atmosphere, water, biodiversity—we’re in a lot of trouble today. The challenge is to get cities in the middle-income countries—the BRICs—as well as the cities in North America and Europe to become much, much more efficient in terms of the resources they use. In some cases that will mean tall buildings.
Cornett: Does it matter if people are living or working in the tall buildings?
Bosselmann: Oh, it matters greatly. For working environments, we can pack them all close together. But for living environments, we generally put them more spaciously.
Hsu-Chen: A huge impact in terms of living more sustainably is also being delivered by the midrises. We’re talking about 5-, 10-, 12-story buildings. Over 10,000 blocks have been rezoned in the city, and a lot of the thrust behind it is to actually put more density along the transit corridors.
What kind of people are going to live in these cities that will be growing so quickly the next couple decades? Will retirees want to be in them? Families? Or will they have to flee because they won’t be able to afford them?
Hoornweg: All of the above. With good city management, a city is attractive to everybody. There are really interesting studies coming out of the Santa Fe institution that basically say that if there were no externalities for traffic or whatever, the human population would like to live in one city, because we really like being with each other.
Cornett: It depends largely, though, on who’s populating the cities. This urbanization that’s taking place around the world is very real. But if it’s people that are seeking an urbanized environment out of desperation, that’s not going to be helpful long term. If your city’s being populated by highly educated twentysomethings with choices, you’re probably going to succeed.
I’d love to ask each of you to talk about your favorite city. And let’s stipulate that you can’t say the one you live in.
Bosselmann: My favorite city is Paris. I love to walk around there. It’s just very joyful to be in. The Parisians can be … not always charming. [Laughter]
Ascher: Favorite city is such a hard question. They change over time. I have to say that New York was a city that for many years people thought wasn’t working and was ungovernable because it was too big. And then all of a sudden, people realized it could be governed, and a lot of the systems that were broken have managed to come back and be fixed. Paris is interesting because the Paris everybody loves, the central part that we think of as Paris, really was created at one time. It didn’t evolve as a higgledy-piggledy city like New York did. It was leveled and rebuilt to be the beautiful city that it is.
Hsu-Chen: There’s a lot of great new things happening in Toronto. They’re focusing on their waterfront, but they really respect their neighborhoods. It’s a real patchwork. There’s a downtown, there are high-rises, and then two blocks over you’re in a very walkable, low-scale neighborhood.
Hoornweg: I want to cheat. One of my favorite cities is Barcelona, simply because Barcelona’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are somewhere around four and a half tons. I know there’s all sorts of problems with unemployment in Spain, but Barcelona, when you go there, it’s livable. It’s a city that we can all aspire to. The second city that I would say is Rio de Janeiro. It’s just an incredibly gorgeous setting. It has incredible problems at the moment in terms of traffic congestion. But Rio has made a public claim, with the Olympics and the World Cup and the Expo, that they want to be the greenest city on earth. And I think they’ll do it.
Cornett: Well, if I’m unable to choose Oklahoma City … [Laughter] Any urbanist has to appreciate New York City and the way it works. The public transit is astonishing. The diversity available here—in all senses of the word—I love to people-watch when I’m in New York City. And I love to just sit. And I shake my head. And it just all works because the people want it to.