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CGI Live Blogging: The Infrastructure of Place: Sustainability and the Built Environment
How can electric vehicle plug into a smarter, more integrated grid? Photo by Vattenfall.

How can electric vehicle technology plug into a smarter, more integrated grid? Photo by Vattenfall.

On the third day of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, experts came together to discuss “The Infrastructure of Place: Sustainability and the Built Environment,” as moderated by Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global correspondent for The Economist and co-author of ZOOM: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future.

“More than half of people are living in urban clusters, mainly in mega-cities of the developing world,” Vaitheeswaran said. “What if the patterns of urbanization are not along the most sustainable trajectories? There is a choice to be made about how that trajectory will be formed.”

To paraphrase the overarching question: Will growing cities, especially developing cities, “leapfrog to a new paradigm” of energy efficiency and sustainable transportation? Or will they stick with “business-as-usual,” adopting the same policies formed in the developed world that have “outlived their usefulness”?

Conference organizers explained the theme of the seminar in this way:

Cities are bustling centers of economic activity, innovation, and intellectual capital – and they rely on infrastructure to function. Rethinking and reinvesting in the underpinnings of urban development, land use, and transportation can set the stage for a new wave of economic prosperity that reverses old patterns of waste and inequality. Much of tomorrow’s infrastructure is already standing today, and many of our current buildings pollute and consume massive amounts of energy. Rebuilding communities to meet energy and environmental challenges, and to manage the press of urbanization in the developing world, can be a source of jobs and consumer savings while improving long-term sustainability. This session will look at innovative approaches to the modern city, public transportation, financing energy efficiency, and restoring economic opportunity.

PROGRAM PARTICIPANTS:

Ritt Bjerregaard, Lord Mayor of Copenhagen
Nancy Kete, Director, EMBARQ – The WRI Center for Sustainable Transport
Clay Nesler, Vice President, Global Energy and Sustainability, Johnson Controls Inc.
Albina Ruiz, Executive Director, Ciudad Saludable
Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary, Department of Housing and Urban Development

PEOPLE FIRST

EMBARQ Director Nancy Kete urged cities to consider people first — cars second — when creating a sense of place. Too often, she said, cities have “passively decided to create themselves in the image of a car,” with urban areas that look like parking lots, and highways and freeways acting as “sewers for cars.”

“Does this mean having no cars? No,” Kete added. “But does it mean having different kinds of cars? Yes.” She emphasized the need for cities to provide infrastructure that encourages people to walk, bike, use public transit and drive small vehicles.

Kete also highlighted the success stories of cities in Asia, like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul, where the leadership made an early decision to prioritize public transportation, before private car use had a chance to become the preferred luxury mode of travel.  “[Public transportation] never became a mode of last resort,” she said, alluding to the negative associations that some people have about mass transit being low-prestige and inconvenient. “Taking transportation doesn’t have to be the thing that only the poor do.”

With her experience as Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, a city known for its bicycling culture, Ritt Bjerregaard maintained that “rich people are not necessarily choosing cars” because of physical health reasons. She said about 40 percent of all commuters in her city ride to work by bike, and it has to do with the city being able and willing to provide safe and secure cycling paths, unlike in chaotic cities like New York, where Bjerregaard said she wouldn’t dare attempt to bike around (even though the Department of Transportation is starting to respond to the traffic problems with better cycling lanes and pedestrian-only spaces.)  “You have to give people other choices and good choices,” Bjerregaard added. “Many of them would prefer to choose it.”

Kete noted that sustainable, active forms of transportation like bicycling also offer mental and emotional benefits. According to one study in Bristol, UK, she said, “people who live on busy streets have 75 percent fewer friends than poeple who don’t.” (See a previous post on TheCityFix about this.)

INTEGRATED SOLUTIONS

One of the themes that arose was the need for “systems thinking,” i.e. you can’t think about transportation without thinking about land use or energy or public spaces or air quality standards or other urban infrastructure requirements.

For example, when it comes to electric vehicles, Clay Nesler said, you have to think about the entire battery management system. You have to answer questions like, how do you connect to a smart grid so that batteries aren’t being charged on a hot day at 4 p.m. in the south (and thus wasting energy)? Also, how do cities use the excess energy that’s being stored in the batteries?

Dealing with these issues involves a chicken-and-egg dilemma, Nesler said. First, you need the building codes that will support electric vehicle technology (i.e. charging stations). You also need to incentivize the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles, in the first place, to necessitate those new building code regulations.

Nesler praised the Mexico City government for its “green mortgage” program to promote sustainable building. The city has always had strict building codes, he said, but they were not enforced. The new program actually provides incentives by offering better mortgages to homes that are more energy efficient (with things like better windows and insulation.)

LOCAL INNOVATION

How do you ensure that infrastructure solutions are not implemented as a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach?

Ron Sims says the federal government can only play a role in establishing things like performance standards and goals. But it will really take innovation at the neighborhood and entrepreneurial level to create change. He said it would take a two-pronged approach to integrate sustainable transportation and urban development. First, the government should provide grant funding to stimulate new projects (under a “micro-financing” model.) And there should also be an attempt to leverage existing markets through economic incentives to encourage more sustainable building and transportation (like in Mexico City.)

At the end of the seminar, the audience split into discussion groups to talk about different subjects areas: energy efficiency, transportation, carbon and climate policy, renewable grid technology, and urban eco-systems. Kate Gordon, vice-president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, made some very good summarizing points.

The conversation, she said of her group, was less about fuel use and more about vehicle miles traveled, smart growth and density. “Shouldn’t we not be talking about how to better travel, but instead, how not to travel?” she asked. For example, how can video technology and teleconferencing be scaled up to lessen long, unnecessary commutes?

Also, she said, designing smarter cities is not just about better cars and roads; it’s about densification to encourage less movement overall. This could be achieved through energy-efficient “green mortgage” programs, tighter building codes, urban agriculture, and better multi-modal transportation. For example, she said, bicycles should be thought of as part of a transportation system, “rather than a boutique-y thing that seems cool in Europe.” And what about the idea of capitalizing the costs of choices that people make with their own personal transportation? For example, like giving a $100 credit at the beginning of each year and allowing people to choose between spending it on parking (expensive) or on mass transit (economic.)

In the end, transportation was discussed as something tied to other things, like health and housing and energy.

“The U.S. transportation bill is coming up for re-authorization,” Gordon reminded us. “How do we incorporate these ideas into the bill so that it’s not just a highway bill again, so it’s about bigger choices?”

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