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

Water, Water, Leaking Everywhere

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

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A quarter or more of the world’s expensively treated drinking water never reaches a faucet as a result of aging, leaky infrastructure. Around 14% of treated water in the U.S. is lost, with some cities losing as much as 60%. Water leaks cost Europe around €80 billion a yearCroatia, for example, wastes almost 40% of its water.

Fritz Barth, vice chairman of the European Water Partnership (EWP), notes: “We have a lot of old infrastructure with a lot of leakage. Clean drinking water is prepared, and then a lot of it just leaks into the ground. It’s a big waste of energy, effort and water.”

Water companies do respond when a water main breaks (which occurs on average 850 times a day in North America). But less dramatic leaks are not fixed, either because they go undetected or because of the high repair cost.

Water is too cheap,” Mr. Barth says. “The price often covers only the service of delivery to the home. It doesn’t cover the replacement of old infrastructure. Utilities can’t put aside money for reinvestment.”

The problem is not just with our drinking water. Sewage pipes are also aging and leaking. “If you have leaking wastewater pipes and leaking drinking-water pipes, it’s even worse,” Mr. Barth says. “The drinking-water pipes can suck in the wastewater.”

courtesy: iStockMoreover, some 80% of the world’s wastewater flows untreated into rivers, lakes and oceans. The difficulties are compounded as developing-world cities expand faster than they can install infrastructure.

More effective recycling would help. Densely populated Singapore, which imports one-third of its water from neighboring Malaysia, operates a water-recycling program called NEWater. Recycled water now meets 30% of the country’s water demand—particularly from its semiconductor plants—and this figure is expected to increase to 55% by 2060. NEWater also contributes to reservoirs during dry periods, where the water is further treated to become drinkable.

Many people may recoil from the idea of “toilet-to-tap” water recycling, but they are already doing it, Mr. Barth points out. Upstream cities dump treated wastewater into rivers that supply drinking water to utilities downstream. Recycling could happen in individual buildings. Rather than pumping sewage and drinking water to and from centralized treatment plants, new technology allows for decentralized water treatment.

A recycling system the size of a household washing machine can also treat water used in apartments or office buildings. The system removes the “raw materials” and uses the remaining gray water to irrigate gardens or, more importantly, flush toilets—which account for 27% of total indoor water use in the U.S.

However, many municipalities still prohibit the use of gray water, including harvested rainwater, even for toilet flushing or irrigation. “Wastewater and drinking-water legislation is quite old,” Mr. Barth says, and needs to be updated in light of new technology and society’s needs.

courtesy: iStockManufacturers have improved indoor technology since “low-flow” showerheads and toilets were introduced. Producers are now focusing on getting the same or better results with less water. For example, by infusing air between water droplets, a shower can be just as forceful with less water, says Barbara C. Higgens, chief executive officer of Plumbing Manufacturers International.

WaterSense toilets, showerheads and faucets, developed since 2006, could save drought-stricken Californians 360 million gallons of water a day, Ms. Higgens says.

People will stand in line for the latest phone, but when it comes to water-efficient technology most are using toilets, showers and faucets made more than 20 years ago.”

Reducing water flow rates can, however, have unintended consequences. In Germany, for example, drastically lower water usage has forced some municipalities to flush their sewer pipes. One solution might be to replace leaky, sometimes 100-year-old, systems with new, smaller pipes. As EWP’s Mr. Barth points out, one wouldn’t even need to dig trenches: smaller pipes could be threaded through the old ones, while sensors could be installed to detect leaks and send alerts.

 

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

The beauty of renovation is more than skin-deep

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*

Renovating and retrofitting existing buildings can increase their longevity, reduce their energy use and beautify or modernize.

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With commercial buildings that need renovation, “usually the target is to have a result that’s aesthetically nice, healthy and at the least cost,” says Marc LaFrance, energy analyst, buildings sector, at the International Energy Agency. “If somebody comes from that approach but says, ‘I want the least-energy-consuming building possible within my budget,’ that would lead to a different set of measures.”

Buildings consume 40% of the world’s primary energy and are responsible for 40% of carbon emissions. Designing new buildings to be both beautiful and energy efficient is great, but new construction is just a tiny share of overall building stock—only 2% in the U.S., for example. Buildings may last from 40 to a couple of hundred years. Their primary uses may change, and even where a house remains a residence or an office an office, the way people use the buildings keeps evolving. Retrofits tend to be “greener” than demolition for new construction.

See a video about Advanced Retrofit and Design Guides from the U.S. Department of Energy:

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The challenge comes in turning a cosmetic facelift into a deeper change that will result in a building that’s more energy efficient, healthier and—in the long run—cheaper to operate.

A deep renovation done all at once can have a big impact on energy savings. “If you do a system-level upgrade, with new insulation in the walls, new windows, new roofing, and at the same time put in new heating and air conditioning, you can significantly reduce the size requirements for the mechanical equipment,” Mr. LaFrance says. “Doing the entire building at the same time can be very economically viable.”

Why don’t more property owners retrofit? “One of the classic barriers to adoption is split incentives,” he adds. “The building owner isn’t occupying the space, so the energy bill is paid by the renter.”

Mandating energy efficiency standards is one way to get incentives aligned. “Anybody who puts in new equipment today is buying something significantly more efficient than 20 years ago,” he says. “There is still room for improvement in that policy.”

Building codes have led to more efficient new construction, but sometimes renovations aren’t held to the same requirements. A roof replacement might not be required to include added insulation that would bring it up to the latest codes for new buildings.

The European Union has set a goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the building sector by 2050 to 88%, to 91% of 1990 levels. Key to achieving that goal is “nearly zero-energy buildings,” which not only use renewable energy but also have lower energy needs for heating, cooling and hot water.

Similarly, “net-zero energy” buildings produce as much energy as they use over the course of a year—in other words, their utility bills over a year add up to zero. Only a few buildings are so highly efficient as to fall into this category.

Click here to see a map of net zero buildings around the world

The potential market and payoffs are great. Energy-efficiency retrofits in the U.S. alone could come to $279 billion, generating a 10-year energy saving of over $1 trillion, or a 13% compound annual return on investment. On a different timeline, to 2050, the European Union estimates €937 billion of investment for deep renovation, with net savings of €8.939 trillion.

Here are a few techniques and new technologies for energy-efficient retrofits:

  • Building envelopes: In hot climates, reflective roofs and walls with special coatings or materials can significantly cut the need for air conditioning. Green roofs, which use vegetation to insulate and add beauty, can cut air-conditioning demand 75% in the summer, as well as reduce storm-water run-off. Exterior insulation finishing systems add a layer of insulation to the outside of a building, which is then covered by stucco or other finishes. Integrated façade systems and integrated roof systems place photovoltaic panels over the façade or roof, shading the roof while helping to power the building.
  • Windows: Low-emissivity (low-e) coatings and films on windows block heat—up to 96% of infra-red radiation—without blocking views. Curtains and shades, especially ones with a honeycomb structure, can insulate windows from sunshine, but it’s far more effective to block the sun’s rays outside the window, by using shutters, awnings or overhangs , which allow natural light to come in, but indirectly.
  • Lighting: Since lighting can consume 30% of total energy and since investments pay for themselves in just one to three years, lighting upgrades are a popular first step. New LEDs are replacing inefficient incandescent bulbs, which use only 5% of the electricity they consume as light. Cooler lights mean lower air-conditioning requirements. Better controls and sensors turn on lights when people are around and off when they leave.
  • Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC): With buildings that are sealed more tightly and that use passive techniques to absorb or avoid heat from the sun, depending on the climate, property owners often find they can install much smaller HVAC systems. A building that has uncontrolled air leakage means air is seeping in through “all the cavities of the building, which might be home to insects, or decaying animals,” Mr. LaFrance says. “If you have a tight building and control fresh air with ventilation, it’s much more desirable, not just for energy savings but also for indoor air quality.”

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



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