Exploring the central importance of public spaces at the AfriCities Summit

Implementing the New Urban Agenda, and delivering on the promise of cities.

Participants at the session, “Creating Safe, Inclusive and Accessible Public Space in Urban Africa: From Inventory to Implementation” at the AfriCities conference in Marrakesh.

Something alarming is happening in African cities.

Like many parts of the world, Africa today is experiencing an unprecedented period of rapid urbanization.  This is not in itself a bad thing, since urbanization tends to bring major improvements in health, education, well-being and life opportunities, particularly for women and children.  Of course this is a core reason that people are attracted to cities in the first place: they are engines of creative opportunity, bringing people together into “socio-spatial reactors” with expanded capacity to generate wealth, social interaction, cultural creativity and well-being. Recent research has clarified how this process actually works.

The alarming trend, however, is that even as they expand, African cities are seeing a loss of good-quality public spaces. These include parks and other green spaces, but also walkable streets, squares, markets and other key parts of the “urban commons.” It is not just that public and green spaces offer many important benefits, as most of us recognize: exercise, social interaction, attractive ambiences and so on. As our research and others’ has shown (REF), it is these networks of public space that provide a critical connection between private spaces, and that bring people into contact with opportunities, ultimately allowing access to the benefits that cities offer.  The evidence suggests that when people are deprived of access to public spaces – unless they already have access to expensive and resource-intensive automobiles, digital networks and the like – they will be deprived of much of what cities offer, and we will increasingly experience “a tale of two cities.”

In short, public space is a kind of “spine” of cities – the essential framework for healthy, sustainable and resource-efficient urbanization.  And yet, in many places in Africa – and elsewhere – good quality public space is in decline.

This challenge, and its promising solutions, were examined in two notable sessions at the just-completed AfriCities Summit in Marrakesh, Morocco (November 20-24).  The summit, hosted by United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, brings together local authorities, administrators, NGOs, universities and other stakeholders to examine the challenges and opportunities for African cities.

The first session, “Overcoming the Loss of Green and Public Spaces in Urban Africa,” was hosted by the City of Johannesburg (Ayanda Roji, organiser), in partnership with the South African Cities Network (SACN), United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), and the Centre for the Future of Places (CFP) in Stockholm.

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Session participants in ““Overcoming the Loss of Green and Public Spaces in Urban Africa.”

The session was chaired by Hon. Mohamed Sadiki, Mayor of the capital city of Rabat, Morocco.  Joining him was Dr Ntombi  Khumalo, City of Johannesburg; Ms Nachi Majoe, International Council for Local Environmental Initiative – Local Government Sustainability; Dr Collins Adjei Mensah, University of Cape Coast, Ghana;  Mr Adrian Peters, Ethekwini municipality; Ms. Laura Petrella of UN-Habitat;  and this author, Michael Mehaffy of the Centre for the Future of Places.

All the panelists agreed that public and green spaces are under threat, and the situation is urgent.  On the one hand, informal settlements tend to use up available land, leaving inadequate spaces for streets, squares and parks.  On the other hand, so-called “market-rate development” is increasingly segregated, privatized, and car-dominated, leaving little true public space open to all.

The panel noted the crucial importance of green space for exercise, health benefits, ecological benefits, air quality and other factors. At the same time, other kinds of public spaces are also critical, for example walkable streets that provide access to green spaces.  Distribution is also critical: it does little good to provide large green spaces on the edge of a city if most people don’t have access to it.  Quality as well as quantity is also critical: a smaller amount of quality public space can be more beneficial than a larger quantity that is not as high-quality.

Key conclusions of the session:

  • City authorities need to start prioritizing public green spaces in their cities and start to better integrate the topic into existing spatial plans and urban development agendas.
  • Better collaboration is needed in all spheres of governments within countries and partnerships between, city authorities, the private sector, local communities, business sector and institutions of higher learning to exchange knowledge and experiences and to provide adequate technical and financial support;Strong support should be given to research on green and public spaces and urban landscapes in Africa.
  • Training programmes are needed for city agency officials across departments to understand the benefits of public space, and the mutual advantages from supporting its development.
  • Curriculum is needed for universities to engage with public space development across disciplines including urban planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and others.
  • A pan-African network should be built for peer to peer learning and exchange of lessons, tools, guidelines, principles and strategies on how to effectively and efficiently plan and manage urban green and public spaces to ensure that they are accessible, inclusive, safe and sustainable.

The second session, “Creating Safe, Inclusive and Accessible Public Space in Urban Africa: From Inventory to Implementation,” was organized by UN-Habitat (Mark Ojal, speaker and facilitator) with partnership of the City of Johannesburg Parks (Ayanda Roji, speaker) and the Centre for the Future of Places (yours truly, Michael Mehaffy, speaker).

Mark Ojal moderating exercise
Mark Ojal of UN-Habitat reports on participant comments in the session.

This training session examined challenges and opportunities in implementing SDG 11.7 in urban Africa. Goal 11.7 is a call to action on national governments and city leaders to provide universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible public spaces, particularly for women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities by 2030.  The training explored a range of best practices from various cities, showcasing innovations on building urban safety, and city resilience through public spaces, and sharing experiences and strategies on how to provide, improve and secure safe, inclusive, vibrant, and accessible public spaces. The session brought city leaders and stakeholders together to learn about basic steps on conducting citywide inventories and assessments of public spaces.

Key conclusions of the session:

  • There are many tools and strategies available, and methods to share them are urgently needed. “One size does not fit all” and localization is needed, especially to the African context, and to specific city contexts.
  • Tools and strategies needed center around three areas: governance, finance, and design. Within governance we could include zoning code reforms, public involvement processes and “catalytic” pilot projects. Within finance we could include land value capture mechanisms, local improvement districts, and public-private partnerships (taking care to avoid privatization and gentrification). Within design we could include new models of city-wide spatial frameworks prioritizing public space, diagnostic tools to assess where we are and where we need to go, and an evidence base for design (such as research findings and best practice recommendations).
  • Safety is not only a matter of policing but of “natural surveillance” including the co-presence of many people at different times, which in turn requires reform of single-use zoning codes.
  • Gentrification and privatization are issues to monitor and manage; at the same time, they should not dissuade us from taking careful balanced approaches to creating better-quality and better-funded public spaces.
  • Public space is not only produced by central agencies but is “co-produced” by a range of stakeholders and users, and so a broader “placemaking” approach is needed.
  • A “pan-African network” is urgently needed to share knowledge, tools and strategies among practitioners.

The participants all pledged to remain in touch, and work together toward establishing this pan-African platform.

Participating partners:





Resisting the privatization of the public realm

A defeat of a new Apple store that would have occupied part of a park in Stockholm shows that some are still willing to fight for public space.


From Feargus O’Sullivan, writing in the US blog CityLab:

Apple is not coming to Stockholm. At least, it’s not coming to a new location at the Swedish capital’s heart.

Last month, Stockholm announced that it would block plans for a new Apple Store in the city’s center, overturning the agreement of a previous administration following widespread public outcry. As this article in The Guardian notes, the objection wasn’t against Apple as such (the company already has three Swedish stores) but against the site they chose. Had the company’s plan gone through, the electronics giant would have been camped at the end of Stockholm’s oldest, most central park: a lovely oblong oasis of greenery and paving called the Kungsträdgården, or King’s Garden. In doing so, Apple would have also taken over (but not necessarily built on) 375 square meters (4,037 square feet) of the park surrounding its store—a small chunk of the park’s overall footprint, but a sizeable privatization of public space in such a key, pivotal site.

…The sheer force of resistance—a public consultation received not a single petition in Apple’s favor—shows that there’s something more at work here than a simple debate over shopping space. Stockholm’s resistance is powered, it seems, by widespread concern about corporations taking over public spaces.  

Indeed, Apple’s Stockholm plans form part of an international pattern. The tech giant has sought to set itself up in key public areas across the world’s cities, often taking over previously non-commercial spaces such as, in certain cases, former library and museum sites (more of which in a moment). They then present their store facilities as natural extensions of this public space, even as cultural institutions…

It’s not really fair to only blame Apple for this: It’s just a company that, following the imperative encoded in all companies, seeks profit and market position. It has found, one assumes, that promoting itself (erroneously or not) as a sort of neutral custodian of the public sphere ultimately helps its bottom line, which is, and must be, its purpose.

The problem is the ground ceded to Apple and corporations like it by the state, which (partly under corporate pressure) is relinquishing its role as place-maker and ensurer of democratic access to public space. Apple’s ability to plausibly present their stores as new town squares rests on a tacit, erroneous assumption that the old, existing town squares are gone or broken. There’s no consideration, for example, that a new, truly public function for an underused library could be found.

Read the full article here.

Report from the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development: “Quantifying the Commons”

A session on developing Indicator 11.7.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals shows that remote sensing is powerful, but must be supplemented by field assessments — and public involvement

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The author (L) with Didier Vancutsem of ISOCARP, Alice Siragusa of the European Commission, and Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat.  To the left (not pictured) are Ayanda Roji of the City of Johannesburg and Jon Kher Kaw of the World Bank.

I am pleased to offer a report on this remarkable side event of the July HLPF in New York.  The objective of this session was to assess the current status of and next steps required for measuring the quantity, quality and equitable spatial distribution of public space. This event sought to advance the implementation of SDG 11.7 which states: “by 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.” The indicator 11.7.1 specifically focuses on gathering data on the “average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities.

The specific objectives of the session were to:

  • Introduce and advocate for the importance of gathering the data for target 11.7.1.
  • Converge towards a methodology for gathering comparable data on public space (Quantity, quality, distribution, age and sex disaggregated, and other factors TBD).
  • Define the next steps in engaging local and national governments in gathering this data to monitor implementation of the SDG 11.7 but also to inform city-wide public space strategies.

The speakers were:

Didier Vancutsem, Secretary-General, ISOCARP (Moderator); Jon Kher Kaw, Senior Urban Development Specialist, World Bank; Alice Siragusa, Project Officer, European Commission, Directorate General Joint Research Centre; Cecilia Andersson, Urban Planning and Design Branch, UN-Habitat; Ayanda Roji, Department of Parks and Zoo, City of Johannesburg; and the author, Michael Mehaffy, Senior Researcher and Project Leader, KTH Centre for the Future of Places

Didier Vancutsem began by welcoming attendees and introducing the panel.  He reiterated the objectives of the session and commented on the wider context of public space and its importance, and the importance of Goal 11.7 in particular.

Jon Kher Kaw of the World Bank presented their work to develop an indicator for public space and livability factors using remote sensing data and other datasets. He presented their pilot study of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which has many challenges for livability. They gather data of three kinds — very high resolution, high resolution, and other data sets.  They then overlay layers, confirming assets on the ground.  Their system is capable of object-based image recognition for such features as marketplaces, parks etc.  They will be able to use the GiSAT-1 satellite data and other sources. Their system uses a rule-based analysis, taking data and combining with rules, e.g. if the target site is next to a road, adjacent to water, etc.  This gives a remarkably detailed mapping of the overall distribution of public spaces, and also patterns of changes over time. They can also perform a connectivity analysis for streets and paths.  They are able to identify proxy indicators such as road connectivity, open green space, amenities. Jon concludes that remote sensing doesn’t mean you don’t also do on-the-ground analysis and “ground-truthing,” but a lot can be done with just the remote sensing.  They start with the neighborhood level.  They are able to prioritize assets and spaces for upgrading, then develop detailed design concepts and so on. With this data they can work on multiple systems at the same time, e.g.   drainage systems, greenery, pathways, etc. Using multiple layers gives a stronger picture. Also they are able to use analyses to identify proxy “unseen” systems, e.g. infrastructure or lack of it (e.g. no irrigation, etc).   They can also combine big data sources from bicycle riders, cell phones and so on to determine usage patterns.  These do pose privacy issues, but they are optimistic that they can be managed.

The audience asked a few questions, including clarifying whether they measured the average distance to public space – they do.  They do not measure health impacts directly but of course they are indirect results of better-quality public spaces.

Alice Siragusa of the European Commission, Joint Research Centre, spoke of their mission to support EU policies with independent evidence. They use indicators and analysis to identify trends, policy changes needed. They also do territorial modeling. Their focus is Europe although they have gotten involved in non-European projects as part of European assistance projects – for example, the LUISA Territorial Modelling Platform for Africa. They are able to analyze patterns of change in five-year timesteps, including population, land use, and so on. Base maps are generated, but then complications can arise because of discrepancies between satellite and official data on specific land use classes. They typically use Copernicus high-resolution land cover maps as input data, as well as national official statistics, censuses and surveys. She discussed a test case of theirs in Accra, Ghana.

Regarding the 11.7.1 indicator, they propose to measure how many residents can reach green areas of a minimum size within a minimum walking distance. They are also looking at a minimum size of .25 hectare, inside the urban area, that intersects with a street or pedestrian path. They can do this as an automated analysis, including a network analysis, density of street intersections, accessibility.  The results can be displayed in an easily understood graphic.  Still, the remote sensing cannot entirely replace ground-truthing but can provided data on a large number of cities, ensuring the comparability of the information

Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat presented their current work on developing an indicator.  She explained that they do knowledge management, tool development, technical cooperation, pilot projects and other implementation actions.  She noted that we have to know where we are in order to know where to go. It will be important to know the quality, quantity and distribution of public spaces.  So the assessment tool needs to be able to do this, as the first step: assessment, then strategy, action plan, design principles, pilot projects, monitoring and evaluation.  It is also important to have a city-wide public space assessment. We need to know the share of land dedicated to public space, what is the ownership, who has control and so on. So they are working on a toolbox – allowing us to know where we are. Public spaces are also not just green spaces, but crucially, streets and public facilities.  We need to know about quantity per person, typical access, distribution, and other aspects.


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WHAT ARE WE MEASURING EXACTLY?  Analysis matrix at the city scale.  Slide by Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat.


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Analysis matrix at the side scale.  Slide by Cecilia Andersson of UN-Habitat.

Key tasks include gathering data, doing the “data cleansing,” and report writing.  At the site scale, we need to know accessibility, use, comfort, facilities, environmental and biodiversity, and green coverage.  At the city scale, we need to know spatial accessibility, quantity, location and distribution, environmental and biodiversity, and network characteristics. Cecilia presented the example of Wuhan, a city of 10 million. In the Jianghan District, they looked at key indicators — users, facilities, comfort, sound disturbance, and other metrics of public space quality.

Ayanda Roji from the City of Johannesburg discussed their development of parks as a pilot project for public space development.  There is a crucial on-the-ground need to improve quality of life, a high motivation for social justice. They have made great progress in South Africa, but there are still many areas of overwhelming need.  The unequal distribution of tree canopy, easily seen in remote sensing data, is an indicator of other inequalities.  The most immediate challenge to get to a park is to improve the walkability of the street.  We must also take into account the needs of the homeless and others.  Privatization is a major problem for public space. At the same time, public space is not just empty; it needs to offer services, uses and activities. They have found that universities can be very good partners, e.g. conducting research, mapping etc. We need to ask, is there equitable distribution? Relevant data is needed to answer, and diagnosis is crucial. We must also use evidence to make the case for public space.  We also need to use research to address issues of gentrification and privatization.  It is not only a matter of doing research from afar — we also need to engage communities, and start a conversation.

Michael Mehaffy from KTH Centre for the Future of Places stated that, as the last speaker, he understood it would be his job to try to summarize what had been presented and invite discussion.  He said he was greatly impressed by all the progress made by the other organizations represented, and the question now seemed to be how to tie all this together and move forward on a politically and practically acceptable set of indicators. He gave a brief introduction to the Future of Places partnership and its emphasis on public space as a fundamental urban network, as well as some “key messages” that emerged from the partnership, with their focus now on research into practice.  He noted that the New Urban Agenda calls for knowledge-sharing and user-friendly data exchanges, of exactly the kind under discussion. Regarding the SDG 11.7.1, the remote sensing capability is very impressive, but all agreed that “ground truthing” will be required, i.e. gathering supplemental field data regarding access, barriers, proximities, adjacencies, detailed configurations, etc. This could also be supplemented with social surveys of patterns of use, exclusion, and other disaggregations of the goal.  Because this could be an overwhelming task and simplicity is needed, he suggested that a statistical sampling method could be used.  He concluded that the metric needs to be both technically and politically feasible, and very user-friendly. Municipalities will be the main agencies responsible for gathering the data, but could enlist many partners, e.g. universities, local NGOs etc.  The resulting indicator might take the form of a single composite metric comparable to “Walkscore” with sub-metrics that are straightforward, even if the remote sensing technology uses complex data sets and big-data sources.  He also suggested that perhaps the data-gathering could be a step in engaging the stakeholders and implementers, particularly if they could be engaged through an open-source platform, e.g. Open Street Maps etc.

An active discussion followed.  Opposition was expressed to the idea of a “global standard” — local municipalities need to have local control, while at the same time the indicator needs to offer a baseline to be compared.  One person raised the issue of public toilets as a key aspect of public space. One person stressed the importance of public space access for the elderly. The group also discussed different technology platforms, and open-source versus proprietary (official) systems.  All agreed that the remote sensing as discussed has impressive capabilities, but “ground-truthing” will also be critical. The question was also raised of how built-up areas are defined, and how those relate to municipal boundaries.  It will be necessary to exclude non-built-up areas, and at the same time identify municipal boundaries. These two geographic boundaries are overlapping but non-contiguous, and this needs to be recognized, since it will be up to each municipality to gather the data.  Other challenges were discussed, including the problem of complexity and need for simplicity, the question of who will measure, and the political acceptability of different approaches.  Another major question is how to determine actual control of spaces, e.g. ownership, leases, contractual rights, private space used by the public, public space used exclusively by private entities such as permitted restaurant seating, etc.  A simplification will likely be needed!

(L-R) Hyunji Lee, World Bank; Didier Vancutsem, ISPCARP; Cecilia Andersson, UN-Habitat; Ayanda Roji, City of Johannesburg; Alice Siragusa, European Commission; and the author.



Thinkers in the Tropical Shade: Empowering Lessons for Livable Places

Thanks to the Australian-American Fulbright Commission and UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, fundamental relationships at the heart of urban public health and livability are under scrutiny in tropical Australia.

Charles R. Wolfe, Silvia Tavares and David Sellars

Cairns, Queensland, Australia—avoiding the humidity using active transport.
Photo: Chuck Wolfe


In The City in History, Lewis Mumford once properly characterized the essence of cities as a dynamic that unfolds between two poles of human life: “movement and settlement.” Between these poles, we see the intersection of the built and natural environments, and the ongoing interaction and evolution of transportation nodes and land uses. The roles of walking, shelter, and movement between places, and the impacts of the urban form on public health, are ripe for observation in cities across the world.

Fast forward to modern cities, where leaders, municipal staff, design professionals, and other stakeholders often discuss walkable, transit oriented, and mixed-use communities as the inevitable next steps for evolving urban areas. However laudable these ideas might be, our recent work in tropical Australian cities (under the auspices of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, UN-Habitat, and the World Urban Campaign) suggests an understanding of the climate-influenced patterns of urban life is essential for the contextual application of these tried and true tenets of good urbanism.

Beyond paradise and the importance of context

When reviewing traditional postcard imagery or the portrayals of stage, screen, and modern social media, the words “tropics” and “paradise” often seem synonymous. However, in today’s complex urban settings, this simplicity is inaccurate, because the movement/settlement dynamic is skewed by climatic conditions. Livability and human interaction is often compromised by intense seasonal heat, severe humidity, and torrential rains. Without adjustments or safeguards, outdoor activity becomes highly undesirable during certain parts of the day, and social cohesion may be inhibited or lost entirely.

In the context of tropical cities, some would characterize the reality of human movement and settlement as defaulting to a modified convenience, premised on avoidance of severe conditions. People move between insular, temperature-controlled dwellings to temperature-controlled cars to temperature-controlled offices, and vice versa. Under these conditions, as others have noted, traditional urban design and planning approaches to the movement/settlement dynamic—particularly when applied to fostering active and healthy lifestyles—requires considered reflection.

In particular, beyond familiar calls for light rail and reduced speed limits, what do transportation improvements that emphasize walkability and bicycle-oriented solutions look like in a small, tropical city? How must urban design and infrastructure (e.g., examples of planning for shade-creationand lighting) change to assure healthy activity? What are the associated roles of green spaces as activators of human recreation and social activity, beyond mere design ambience on auto-centric streets?

Given how the planning and design (or haphazard evolution) of urban spaces largely dictate the way we live, we set out to re-examine daily urban life in the tropical context. Our efforts, with our funders and supporters, has centered on the use of methods and tools from the book, Seeing the Better City, to explore how such planning and design in two Australian cities impact residents’ health in many ways. We aimed to explore whether current conditions encourage or discourage active lifestyles, social cohesion and access to healthy food choices.

The relevance of the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda [pdf], drafted by UN-Habitat, and endorsed in late 2016 by the United Nations General Assembly, contains an empowering “call to action.” It enables everyone to benefit from inevitable global urbanization trends, based on implementation of equitable frameworks.

In particular, through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), the New Urban Agenda provides a guide for developing safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable new cities that promote social integration and equity. This goal also provides the impetus for more contextual conversations about the growth, redesign and redevelopment of existing urban spaces.

Successful local implementation of the New Urban Agenda depends on more than planning document verbiage, regulatory revisions, or “cookie-cutter” imports of familiar “good urbanism tenets” (cited above) to the tropics. Even within the Far North Queensland tropical region, the climate varies. Cairns experiences a tropical monsoon climate (wet tropics), while Townsville is exposed to a tropical savannah climate (dry tropics).

Just as Cairns and Townsville deserve distinction from the settings of other Australian, European, or American cities, public space design must also vary within the tropical climate zone. We designed the Urban Thinkers Campus sessions (described in this video, as well as further below) to enable a broad range of local participants to first identify current behaviors, reflect on how planning and design impact public health, and to suggest relevant planning and design improvements.

How did we facilitate this local input into contextually appropriate design? What have we learned so far about how to adapt general tenets of good urbanism in tropical Australia?

Urban Thinkers Campuses: Understanding Cairns and Townsville through the urban diary tool

We posed these questions to groups of over 50 people in each city—though UN-Habitat World Urban Campaign Urban Thinkers Campus sessions in Cairns and Townsville in June, 2018. Drawing on the urban diaries described in detail in Seeing the Better City, these events provided the fundamental basis for understanding the context of each city through a local lens.

Urban diaries are premised on the importance of local history, values, and knowledge. They implement a scalableapproach, intended to “distinguish underlying organic relationships between people and cities from indiscriminate prescription imposed upon place.” We offered the urban diary tool as a way to enhance personal observation, increase individual awareness, and create positive urban change.

In our investigation, we invited a range of citizen, professional, governmental, and academic participants (and provided associated written guidance [pdf]) to take and caption photographs of their surroundings, noting how the urban environment in which they reside impacts public health and livability. Participants actively contributed and described their photographs, and shared these images through two Facebook Groups, which we used to capture ideas and start conversations at both the Cairns and Townsville Urban Thinkers Campus sessions.

The urban diary approach helped participants clarify how urban design in Cairns and Townsville impacts the health of residents within these tropical cities. Participants further realized the empowering nature of citizen submittal of visual feedback to urban planners. In turn, municipalities are seeing the ongoing power of guided visual engagement with residents in planning processes, aligning closely with the New Urban Agenda principles.

Place-based urban planning and design

Climate-responsive planning and design are important to assure that urban residents in tropical climates incorporate incidental exercise into everyday routine. We believe that people can better use public spaces if they are designed with the premise of mitigating the negative impacts of tropical climates.

We presented three overarching questions to Urban Thinkers Campus participants to determine how existing urban infrastructure and amenities promote or restrict:

  • Active lifestyles
  • Social inclusion
  • Healthy eating

The lessons so far

We will be finalizing an Urban Thinkers Campus report for UN-Habitat, the Cairns Regional Council, and the Townsville City Council in the coming months. Based on our preliminary data review, some provisional observations follow.

The public health issues faced by first world populations living in the tropics generally coincide with health problems of first world nations worldwide. Campus session presentations by public health professionals in both Cairns and Townsville showed how diabetes and cardiac conditions dominate the preventable hospital admissions and mortality statistics in Far North Queensland. It is well documented that the way to decrease our reliance on the increasingly strained health system, is to keep people moving[i].

Our initial review of session data also shows a general citizen desire to reconnect with one another. Participants emphasized that physical activity often occurs after the sun goes down (a time-shift effect) to avoid debilitating heat and humidity. They advocated for effective urban design and lighting solutions to ensure public safety.

We also found that participants viewed their first world tropical cities as auto-centric, but reiterated a desire for change to incorporate more active lifestyles. Finally, participants expressed a significant interest in using public space for food production, as well as capitalizing on this focus to offset gentrification and to foster more purposeful social inclusion.

The Cairns and Townsville Urban Thinkers Campus sessions provided meaningful input to conversations about how to improve public health through sustainable urban design for the tropics. Each Campus session also entertained the ongoing use of citizen-submitted visual material to assist in more meaningful dialogue and outcomes. These conversations need to expand, and we believe that they can provide a paradigm for other contexts around the world.

Do we currently have all the answers for the people of these cities? Definitely not. But we can now state with confidence that the urban diary approach provides people with a chance to meaningfully engage with the decision-makers who will influence the cities of the future.


London and Seattle-based author, consultant, and attorney Chuck Wolfe is serving as the Fulbright Specialist for an Australian-American Fulbright Commission grant to James Cook University (JCU) related to the subject of this article. The grant design and implementation has involved close collaboration with the co-authors at JCU’s Cairns Campus: Silvia Tavares, a lecturer in urban design, and David Sellars, a senior lecturer in environmental health.

This post originally ran on Planetizen at  We thank the editors!

[i] Arem, H., Moore, S. C., Patel, A., Hartge, P., De Gonzalez, A. B., Visvanathan, K., … & Linet, M. S. (2015). Leisure time physical activity and mortality: a detailed pooled analysis of the dose-response relationship. JAMA internal medicine, 175(6), 959-967.

The Urban Dimensions of Climate Change

In the battle against climate change, cities will be even more important than we realize. Research shows that Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs) are only part of the story, and should not be considered in isolation from other factors.



In the debate over climate change action, most of the attention to date has focused on cleaner energy sources, and more efficient technologies like electric cars. Surprisingly little attention has gone to one of the largest drivers of climate-changing emissions: the urban structure of our cities, towns and suburbs. There are important reasons why this is so – and why it must change.

Recent research paints a clearer picture that differences in such “urban morphology” account for major differences in emissions – in fact, much greater differences than previously thought. For example, those living in cities with average European morphological characteristics – compact, walkable, transit-served, with a good distribution of daily services – generate emissions per person of roughly half of residents of an average American city. Yet we know that Europeans do not suffer from a quality of life only half as good as residents in the US. Indeed, on many indicators their quality of life is higher.

This is a telling finding – and there is still more to the story. By combining retrofitted buildings, district-scale energy and other synergies, the reductions of emissions can be even more dramatic. (Of course, there are other significant ecological and lifestyle benefits in the European urban model as well.)

Why then is so little attention paid to this key issue?

For one thing, the form of cities changes slowly. Policy makers, tempted to look for “quick wins,” often turn to technological solutions – but those, as history shows, often don’t pan out. In fact, precisely because urban form changes slowly, its effects over time accumulate in a powerful and predictable way. The urban infrastructure being built today will be in place, and will continue to shape emissions, for decades to come. It is particularly alarming that China, India, Brazil and other rapidly growing countries are continuing to import a US-style, car-dominated model of growth: that fact alone could easily overwhelm all other efforts at reduction of emissions.

Image: Morphologies in the developing world
ABOVE: Drive-through McDonalds as an indicator species: recent examples of US-style car-based development in China, India, Brazil and Romania — all built within the last ten years, and much more can be expected.
Image: Gasoline use in different countries
ABOVE: There is an enormous difference in energy use between compact European cities and sprawling American ones – without the same difference in quality of life. This chart shows gasoline use, but other uses follow a similar pattern. Source: Newman and Kenworthy, Sustainability and Cities.


Another reason for the scant attention is that it’s difficult to grasp all the disparate elements of urban morphology, and how they work in a system. Small factors together can create a much bigger effect than they may seem to have in isolation. By contrast, it’s tempting to hang our hopes on discrete improvements in the efficiency of technology, which are more easily understood. But as noted, sometimes these don’t pan out. Perhaps even more importantly, improvements in efficiency can be quickly erased by increases in demand.

Even many champions of urban land use as a climate change issue often focus on the relatively narrow topic of automobile travel, and so-called Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs). Although this is indeed an important emissions source, the research shows that it’s only the beginning of the total contribution from urban form. As a result, VMT reduction advocates miss the bigger picture, and argue over relatively modest reductions of emissions which may – or may not – be possible through a variety of strategies. This was illustrated most clearly in debate over a recent study released by the National Academy of Sciences, which looked only at emissions from “personal travel” – and was accompanied by the headline in MIT’s Technology Review, Forget Curbing Suburban Sprawl: Building denser cities would do little to reduce CO2 emissions, a new NAS report concludes.

But this is far from what the latest research really shows. This author was part of a team that presented and discussed survey research at last spring’s Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen, a research symposium of 2,000 leading scientists hosted by the International Alliance of Research Universities. The conclusions are dramatic.

The research suggests that a change in the way we build cities can, in the coming decades, cut total emissions by one-third or more. Conversely, if we do nothing, the way we build cities and suburbs will likely continue to increase emissions – possibly dramatically, as large countries like China, India and Brazil continue to develop their cities in the coming decades, and choose whether to copy the American sprawl model, or other, much lower-carbon models of urban morphology.

Image: Projected growth in worldwide car fleet
ABOVE: The International Monetary Fund has projected a four-fold increase in the global fleet of personal vehicles over the next four decades. Even if all of these vehicles are electric, it is likely that the enormous increase in energy demand will be fueled largely by coal, significantly adding to emissions.


Many authors have noted the strong correlation between urban density and emissions per person – particularly when it comes to the role of personal travel by automobile. But density, like automobile travel, is only the start of the story, and we need to tease out the other factors “packed in” to density, and how they operate together within urban systems.

In addition to the effects of personal travel by automobile, our research identified significant sources of emissions from urban form in five key categories: infrastructure, and its embodied and operating energy; other advantages of “location efficiency,” including additional benefits of walking; optimized size, orientation and urban shaping of buildings; lost ecosystem services; and behavioral factors and “induced demand.” Taken together, these factors account for an amount equal to or more than (and up to twice as much as) the emissions from personal transportation and VMTs alone. This is a compelling finding, warranting more research – and much more awareness and action among policy-makers.

Infrastructure, Embodied and Operating Energy

As noted, tailpipe emissions from VMT are only the beginning of the story. To that we must add the emissions from the construction of the vehicles; the embodied energy of streets, bridges and other infrastructure; the operation and repair of this infrastructure; the maintenance and repair of the vehicles; the energy of refining fuel; and the energy of transporting it, together with the pipes, trucks and other infrastructure that is required to do so.

Research indicates this is another roughly 50% again of energy and emissions over tailpipe emissions – and much of it occurs regardless of VMT. It is, however, very sensitive to urban morphology: it is greatly affected by the amount of infrastructure per person, the need to have cars available when other options are not available, the need to build and maintain more shops and service stations for an auto-dependent transportation system, and so on.

Image: Emissions beyond the tailpipe
ABOVE: Tailpipe emissions from driving are only the start of the energy and emissions related to urban form. Just the infrastructure needed to supply and accommodate a fleet of vehicles, regardless of how many miles driven, is significant. Source:


Moreover, to the factors above we must add other significant contributions: the embodied energy and repair of other infrastructure, such as water, sewer and gas pipes, wires and so on; the energy required to pump or otherwise operate them; the significant “transmission loss” of energy to more dispersed users; the very high efficiency possible in district-scale energy – particularly when it captures waste energy; and the ability to capture other efficiencies of co-location, such as waste heat from sewage.

Location Efficiency

Another significant area is so-called “location efficiency,” or optimal distribution of the various destinations within a city – jobs, shopping, schools, recreation and so on. As many advocates note, this helps in reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled — but here again, that’s only the beginning of the story. Location efficiency also reduces the need for long travel on public transit, and it increases the efficiency in the public transit system itself. It can also facilitate walking, bicycling and other modes that have additional positive effects.

The Urban Shaping of Buildings

In urban studies, we quickly learn that no building is an island. Buildings respond to the structure and density of their neighborhoods, and their complex mix of proximities, market dynamics and other factors. Among the urban factors we must consider: prevailing housing type and size; adjacencies with other units (e.g. common walls and floors that reduce heat loss); efficiencies of exposure and shelter, from sun, shade, wind etc; efficiency of private outdoor space: large yards versus compact ones, or other small outdoor spaces, and the resources they require for maintenance; and ability to support a walkable streetscape. Many building types, notably those that orient parking toward the street, are not conducive to a walkable public realm.

Lost Ecosystem Services

Another important area that has only recently begun to come into focus is what is known as “ecosystem services.” The more we achieve compact growth, leaving existing areas of vegetative cover, wetland, permeable ground and so on, the more we can leave intact ecosystems that perform potentially costly services to clean our water, air and soil. The factors here include vegetative cover per person (the amount of area left, or re-grown, which helps to clean the air and remove CO2); infiltration zones that allow water to be cleaned and purified as it re-enters the ground, or passes through wetlands; and albedo effects – that is, the ability of surfaces to reflect solar energy back into space, or in the case of plants, to convert it to use in the breakdown of CO2.

Behavioral Factors and “Induced Demand”

Perhaps the most poorly understood area, and yet what may prove to be the most important, is that of growth in demand for the consumption of resources, and related behavioral effects. “Induced demand” is the tendency to use up additional efficiencies of the urban system (e.g. to drive more, use more drive-through facilities, fill up new roads, etc).

There is intriguing evidence that urban and building morphology shape individual consumption patterns, and thus demand, in important ways. For example, evidence suggests that a large suburban house that affords few nearby outdoor activities, may encourage more energy-consuming indoor activities, and potentially more consumption of relatively disposable goods.

Conversely, evidence suggests that a more compact neighborhood, offering walkable streets, inviting public spaces, recreation areas, and a mix of daily amenities and needs, does promote much more walking, social interaction and other low-carbon activities. (It also offers significant health benefits, and other long-term benefits.)

We suggest that this important topic requires more careful research. Although it is a thorny area — as human and behavioral sciences often are — we need not fear any behavioral determinism. The built environment merely defines the scope of options available to citizens, so that they can choose more desirable options for themselves — and for society as a whole, through democratic decision-making about the shape of the common realm.

We see this principle working very well in empirical examples of the most desirable neighborhoods – we already mentioned Europe, but there are other equally good examples in the United States, and many other countries as well. On a comparable, income-adjusted basis, research suggests that for the citizens of Paris or London or San Francisco or Vancouver or many other vibrant urban places – places where people freely choose to live, and often pay handsomely to do so – the carbon footprint per person, and the ecological footprint in general, are dramatically lower.

On the other hand, sprawling, high-carbon suburbs do not appear by miracle, or by virtue of pure consumer choice in a vacuum: they have been no less consciously planned, and they continue to exist through a powerful system of economic and regulatory incentives and disincentives. They also effectively push off real costs into the future, when our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay for increasingly alarming environmental costs like climate change – not to mention for costly and inefficient infrastructure, and for the broader consequences of unsustainable housing economics.

In this respect, the current global financial crisis – which originated in the sprawling suburbs of the US – may be seen as a harbinger of the likely devastating economic consequences of continued “business as usual”. By contrast, new research is pointing the way to promising – and feasible – reforms of the “operating system” of urban growth and change.

Density.jpgABOVE, higher density strongly correlates with lower emissions, as this striking illustration of total emissions by household demonstrates.  The lower emissions of central San Francisco (in green) correlates with higher density in yellow), whereas in the East Bay neighborhood near Hayward, higher emissions (in red) correlates closely with lower density (in blue). Source: ESRI

Image: East Bay, CA
However, it’s important to understand that it’s not just density that varies, but also urban form, including walkable mixed use. In these two areas, climate, government, income and other factors are all comparable – and reveal that dramatic differences in urban form produce dramatic differences in carbon emissions.  ABOVE, this newer Bay Area neighborhood has a very different urban form from its San Francisco counterpart (below). Not only is it lower density, but its street pattern is sprawling, and it is functionally segregated, car-dependent, and lacking in walkable public space.  By comparison, the San Francisco neighborhood (BELOW) is a tight walkable grid with regular transit, a mix of uses, and relatively compact homes.  
Image: San Francisco, CA



It must be acknowledged that in the fight against climate change, we will certainly need new, cleaner forms of energy, and much more efficient technology. But we will need more than that. As the compelling research shows, it is in our cities, towns and suburbs that the vast majority of the demand for the world’s resources originates — and in turn, the vast majority of the emissions that cause climate change. These places cannot force people to live a more elegant, satisfying, low-carbon way of life. But they can make it possible – or, as is far too much the case now, they can make it improbable, or even impossible.

Image: Pie chart


Our job as professionals and citizens, surely, is to make it possible, and moreover, desirable – working in concert with policy experts and researchers to understand better, and to act on, the growing body of evidence discussed here. That research begins to show us how we can build a world of far more efficient, lower-carbon urbanism – which is, at the same time, more livable and beautiful. As the clear findings from the world’s top researchers demonstrate, very much is riding on it.

This post also appeared on at  We are grateful to the Planetizen editors.