Megacities minus mega-traffic

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

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Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The number of megacities—i.e., those with more than 10 million inhabitants—is expected to rise to 41 by 2030, from 28 today, with most of the increase occurring in emerging economies.

Urbanization is particularly strong in China, where some 16 million rural Chinese migrate to cities every year. In addition, China also suffers from chronic air pollution, made worse by rising middle-class car ownership. With 154 million cars on the road in 2014, particulate-matter counts—a measure of air quality—regularly surpasses 500 micrograms per cubic meter, about 20 times the World Health Organization pollution guidelines.

China’s government is trying to improve the urban environment. Its six-year New Urbanization Plan includes plans for hundreds of new “eco-cities,” though existing eco-cities, such as Shenyang, Caofeidian, Nanning, Dongtan, Qingdao and Sino-Singapore Tianjin, have had mixed results.

“They’re making courageous attempts and are learning from success and failure,” says Victor Vergara, lead urban specialist at the World Bank. “If you have a situation where you have a greenfield and you have a lot of capital, you’re able to do things that otherwise couldn’t be done.”

But sometimes the cities don’t have the natural economic base to grow organically. You can’t invent a city. It has to emerge from a marketplace where people work and study and enjoy themselves.”

However, cities in emerging economies tend to grow haphazardly, with irregular settlements that don’t conform to (often unrealistic) zoning laws. Indeed, urban growth is so rapid that even cities with strong traditional institutions have a hard time keeping up, Mr. Vergara notes.

Despite these challenges, some cities are working to grow in ways that make them sustainable and pleasant places to live. That means rejecting the urban sprawl typical of U.S. and some Latin American cities, in favor of urban areas that are compact, walkable and well-served by public transport.

Such transit-oriented development prioritizes support for public transport over private cars. It aims to make the best use of land around transit nodes and stations, attracting more people and increasing land prices in the process. “It’s basically good urban planning, which puts long-term public interest before short-term private gain,” Mr. Vergara says.

One key to success is ensuring that schools, shops, health care, work, and other basic facilities are available locally. “The first thing is designing, or at least steering, their growth in ways that limit as much as possible the need for mobility,” Mr. Vergara says.

Cities have to be polycentric, with more than one area where services are available to citizens. They also have to have many neighborhood centers where people can walk to get their basic daily needs, like shopping.”

Walkable cities must also have good sidewalks and prioritize pedestrian safety, avoiding dangerous intersections and long waits when crossing broad avenues. And when longer journeys are necessary—for example, commuting across town for work—cities must ensure that good public transport is available, Mr. Vergara says.

In the past, you have had the whole thing upside down. You had roads that defined how cities grow, rather than cities that want to grow a certain way and have roads that enable that growth,” he adds.

As a result, some initiatives to limit car usage, such as car ownership quotas or odd- and even-license plates for driving on alternate days, have backfired. “In middle-income countries, people just buy a second car,” he says, and often one that’s older and pollutes more. A better way to discourage car use is by charging for driving on congested roads and through stricter parking policies.

Meanwhile, cities can make public transport more attractive: by subsidizing ticket prices; allowing single-ticket transfers between transport modes—such as from bus to metro—and reducing connection times; introducing more bus lanes to make bus journeys faster than by car; and by making buses and train cars more comfortable.

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And many cities are doing just that. Curitibia, in southern Brazil, first focused on rapid-transit bus services four decades ago, later upgrading with dedicated bus lanes, level boarding, free transfers and futuristic tube-like bus stops. Despite its high level of car ownership, 70% of the city’s commuters use the bus system.

In East Africa, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are adopting rapid-transit bus systems to improve service while shifting commuters away from unregulated, high-polluting minibuses.

“There are new ways of living that people have to understand to make large cities viable,” Mr. Vergara says. “Cities need to be both efficient and equitable in order to ensure shared prosperity and poverty reduction.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

 

Photos courtesy of iStock

Test tube transport: the Hyperloop nears reality

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar, in association with WSJ custom studios

 

Source: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Source: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Imagine traveling in capsules sucked through a tube using low air pressure and magnetic acceleration to achieve speeds of up to 760 miles (1,223 km) per hour. That’s the idea of the California Hyperloop, which could eventually cut the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to a mere 30 minutes, compared with today’s one-hour flight or six-hour car journey.

As soon as next year, a full-scale test track will begin construction in Quay Valley, a proposed sustainable community located between California’s two major metropolises.

The Hyperloop is a system that not only makes sense because it’s cheaper to construct, but it’s also sustainable so it’s cheaper to run,” says Dirk Ahlborn, chief executive officer of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. “It changes the world.”

Tesla founder Elon Musk first laid out his Hyperloop vision in 2013 and invited others to take up the challenge. Turning the idea into a full-scale model in just three years may seem fast, but, as Mr. Ahlborn points out, it took a decade to get to the moon—“a way more difficult task,” he says. “The Hyperloop technology sounds like science fiction but, in the end, everything we’re doing already exists. The Quay Valley track is necessary to find out how to optimize the technology.”

The Hyperloop concept is similar to the pneumatic tubes used by banks to carry cash and documents, except that the passenger capsules would be sucked through the tube by controlled propulsion. A capsule (with large doors for speedy boarding) would enter a tightly sealed exterior shell. The tubes would probably be constructed from steel—although other materials, including fiberglass, are being considered—and covered with solar panels to supply the system’s energy. Low air pressure—of around 100 Pascals—would reduce air resistance inside the tube, while magnetic levitation and an air cushion would allow the capsule to hover above the tube’s surface. The straight track would further aid speed. As on a flight, passengers would sense how fast they are moving only when the capsule accelerates, slows or turns.

 

Hyperloop. Source: Forbes

Hyperloop. Source: Forbes

The Quay Valley track will allow engineers to work out optimum capsule size and boarding procedures. Each capsule is currently expected to seat 28 passengers and depart every 30 seconds during peak times, allowing a full-size Hyperloop to transport some 3,360 passengers an hour.

The Hyperloop would be elevated on pylons, making it possible to place the route above existing infrastructure such as highways, while also simplifying the process of obtaining right of way and minimizing the environmental impact.

More importantly, the pylons would be flexible enough to withstand earthquakes, in the way that pylons built in the 1970s to carry Alaska’s oil pipeline have proved resilient to such shocks, Mr. Ahlborn notes. As an enclosed system, the Hyperloop would also be impervious to harsh weather.

Perhaps more revolutionary than the technology is the way the Hyperloop team itself works. As well as partnering with companies and universities, more than 300 experts from 21 countries have been brought onto the team, working remotely online. Although they don’t get paid—most hold day jobs as engineers—they do get company stock options. “They’re driven by passion,” says Mr. Ahlborn.

The Hyperloop is groundbreaking in a commercial sense, too. It is expected to cost $16 billion to build, versus $68 billion for a comparable California high-speed rail line. Ticket prices for the Los Angeles-San Francisco stretch, at $20- $30, would be far cheaper than flying, and even that business model is open to disruption. “Do we need tickets?” asks Mr. Ahlborn. “Or are there other ways in which we can generate enough income.” Maybe the Hyperloop could “make more money having more people ride and we can say it’s free. Or maybe it’s free at certain times, and at peak times it costs a bit,” he adds.

The Hyperloop turns conventional infrastructure on its head, from its technology to its crowdsourcing. “Usually these things are done behind closed doors in a boardroom. We’re trying to be open. We’re using the community to do everything,” Mr. Ahlborn says. The Hyperloop “is a first for a lot of things.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Green design brings nature into the urban jungle

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*

Dense RainforestA jungle is green and leafy, and the urban jungle should be the same, right?

Since 2010, more people live in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. The trend is expected to speed up in developing countries, with more than 60% of the world’s population living in urban areas by mid-century, the United Nations predicts.

Bringing nature into cities can make urban environments more sustainable as well as more aesthetic, more comfortable and healthier.

“Many architects today already claim to do green design, some to a greater level of authenticity than others. I contend that in the next five to 10 years just about every architect and student will do green design as second nature in their work,” says Ken Yeang, a principal with T.R. Hamzah and Yeang, a Malaysian architectural firm focusing on ecoarchitecture, and of Ken Yeang Design International in the U.K. “Green design is just one of the criteria for good design.”

Architects often see green design as a matter of certification, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes, or the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) in the U.K. Beyond aiming for certification, “I take the holistic view of an ecologist,” he says. “I see green design as bio-integrating everything that we as humans make and do on the planet with the natural environment in a benign and seamless way.”

That requires integrating flora and fauna, water, humans and the built environment in a holistic way. “We start design by looking at the ecology of the land and see how we can bring more nature back to a location and bio-integrate nature with the physical built environment,” Mr. Yeang says.

The Solaris

The Solaris, designed by Mr. Yeang and part of the Fusionopolis research and development park in Singapore, has more than 8,000 square meters (9,567 square yards) of landscaping—13% more than the original site—thanks to roof gardens, planted terraces and a 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) ramp of continuous vegetation that spirals up the 15-story building’s facade, helping to insulate as well as offering a range of habitats that enhances the locality’s biodiversity.

I design buildings as ‘living systems’ and as ‘constructed ecosystems,’” Mr. Yeang says. “It’s not just about green walls. I bring back the native fauna that are not hazardous to humans and match these with the native flora selected to attract the fauna, now set as ‘biodiversity targets’ in a matrix. With this, I create the local landscape conditions to enable flora and fauna to survive over the four seasons of the year.”

The idea is spreading. A primary school and gymnasium in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, now under construction, was designed by architects Chartier-Dalix to be covered with a living shell and house local flora and fauna.

BLG 18 classrooms school and sporthall

Argentine architect Emilio Ambasz built a multi-use government office building in Fukuoka, Japan, with 14 one-story terraces that make the one-million-square-foot building look like a green hill rising from the park in front of it. Mr. Ambasz also renovated the headquarters of ENI in Rome with curtains of vegetation.

Basel, Switzerland, has required since 2002 that flat roofs be covered with vegetation, in part to save energy and in part to protect biodiversity. While the peregrine falcon, one of the first species on the U.S. endangered species list in 1974, reboundedin part through urban nesting programs to nearly 100,000 birds world-wide today, less-glamorous endangered species, from spiders to beetles, also benefit fromthe increase in habitat. In the U.K., the Bat Conservation Trust has published a landscape and urban design guide for bats and biodiversity.

A green exterior is nice, but what goes inside—the design and materials—are important, too. “The building and products sector are seeing that environmental issues are moving up the agenda,” says Martin Charter, professor of innovation and sustainability at the Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, U.K. “Construction, buildings and building products are associated with high carbon dioxide emissions on a macro level and big end-of-life waste issues. The sector does have a big-life cycle impact, not just in extractive phase but at other stages of life cycle as well.”

Concrete produces as much as a tenth of industry-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers studying the molecular structure of cement found that changing the recipe to 1.5 parts calcium for each part of silica wouldcut cement’s carbon emissions up to 60% while making the resulting material stronger.

Simple design considerations can make a building greener. The shape and the orientation can affect heating and cooling needs. Natural ventilation with mixed mode systems can alleviate the need for air conditioning even in tropical climates. Mr. Yeang designed the Menara Mesiniaga office building in Selangor, Malaysia, so even elevator lobbies, restrooms and stairwells in the 15-story building get natural ventilation and natural daylight.

Green design includes water management in rainfall harvesting and storing water, so potable water doesn’t have to be used to irrigate the vegetation. Design must close the water cycle within the site, combining water management, water reuse and recycling with sustainable drainage and constructed wetlands for blackwater treatment, he says.

In nature, the only energy is from the sun. If we want to imitate nature, we should use only the sun,” Mr. Yeang says. “In nature, everything is recycled. Waste from one organism becomes the food for another. In human society, we have a throughput system where we use things and throw them away, but in fact, there is no ‘away’ in the biosphere—it just goes somewhere and pollutes the environment. If we imitate nature, we should have a closed system. As a design strategy, we need to study the attributes and properties of ecosystems as the basis for designing our built environment. When this becomes mainstream, there will be a stasis of nature with our built environment.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.



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