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.

Public space in the New Urban Agenda: Research into Implementation

A session at the World Urban Forum examines the challenge of creating good-quality public space in an era of rapid urbanization 

Setha Low
Anthropologist Setha Low, director of the CUNY Public Space Research Group, discusses implementation of the public space provisions of the New Urban Agenda at WUF9.

The New Urban Agenda contains nine paragraphs that deal with the key role of public spaces as “drivers of social and economic development,” “enhancing safety and security, favoring social and inter-generational interaction and the appreciation of diversity” as well as “promoting walkability and cycling towards improving health and well- being.” But the challenge of implementation remains — particularly the challenge of assembling knowledge, and systems for knowledge sharing and action in specific (often quite varied) localities.

This networking session brought key partners together who are now implementing aspects of the New Urban Agenda, and working to assemble knowledge-sharing and dissemination platforms as called for in the implementation sections of the New Urban Agenda.

The session was hosted by the Future of Places, a collaborative partnership of Ax:son Johnson Foundation, KTH University and other partners, and aimed at research, implementation, networking and advocacy, and centered on key issues of public space as a fundamental component of sustainable urban development. The four-year forum has brought together over 1,500 researchers, practitioners, officials and activists, representing more than 700 organizations, 275 cities and 100 countries from all around the world.

The panelists included: Laura Petrella (Leader of the City Planning, Extension and Design Unit, UN-Habitat), Kyle Farrell (Visiting Faculty, Harvard University, USA), Setha Low (Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Psychology, Public Space Research Group, City University of New York), Hai Dinh Dang (Senior Project Officer, Livable Cities Project, HealthBridge Vietnam), Ibrahim Maiga (Coordinator, Peaceful Roads, Niger), and Michael Mehaffy, moderator (project leader, Centre for the Future of Places at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm SE). Also participating as front-row participants were Ethan Kent (Vice-President, Project for Public Spaces, USA), Luisa Bravo (Co-Editor of The Journal of Public Space, City Space Architecture, Italy), Mirko Guaralda (Co-Editor of The Journal of Public Space, Queensland University of Technology, Australia), Ben Bolgar (Senior Director, The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, UK)

This was an important networking session that brought key collaborators together for a developing model of implementation for the New Urban Agenda, and particularly the public space agenda within it. Laura Petrella discussed the importance of implementation, and the broader context of UN-Habitat’s work on public space. Kyle Farrell discussed the processes of urbanization now under way, and teased out several important differences and their implications for public space. He called for partners to move beyond public space per se, and embrace a broader :public space agenda.” Setha Low discussed “why public space matters,” illustrating its crucial role as a forum for human interaction, participation and political contestation.

The session participants then discussed an evolving model of small, feasible public space pilot projects, working with key partners in strategic locations. These projects can be scaled up as they become successful, demonstrating the value of public space for the residents, and for local governments and other partners. From these pilot projects, larger masterplanning frameworks could be developed, leading ultimately to new national policies on the development of more and better public spaces.

The role of the Centre for the Future of Places would be primarily to offer a local “research arm” to the implementation partners – providing research on best practices, and also conducting (in partnership with local universities and others) field research to uncover strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in each locale. Coming out of each project, the CFP would share the findings with other locales, who could then adapt them to their own specific conditions and limitations.

One of the proposed pilots discussed in the session is in Da Nang, Vietnam, where the CFP partner HealthBridge is proposing to develop new public spaces in partnership with the City. This work was described by Hai Dinh Dang, Senior Project Officer for HealthBridge. This follows successful work they have already done in Hanoi and Hoi An, Vietnam. The City in turn is eager to see the benefits of this work scale up, perhaps into a city-wide masterplan. The national government has also expressed a strong interest, and asked the CFP to provide commentary in their new national urbanization policy document.

One crucial issue is that each locality has its own mix of opportunities and constraints, and in each case, all of the potential barriers and incentives need to be considered, and revisions or alternatives may need to be found. This is the hard work of reform of the many barriers like obsolete zoning codes, traffic engineering standards, bank lending rules, and myriad other elements of the “operating system for growth.” Some of these are universal (like the dynamics of global real estate investment) and some are extremely specific (like local ordinances and customs). Often, however, they have enough in common that sharing of tools and strategies can be enormously helpful. This is a key goal of the collaboration, as discussed in the session.

Another goal is to build a knowledge base of research findings about public space, and the benefits on offer for those who improve their quantity and quality, as well as the issues to manage and accommodate in public space projects. To that end, the CFP has begun to develop a “public space research database” with key research literature from a number of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, environmental psychology, economics, ecology, urban design, and other fields. This resource can be of value in providing the initial consultation for those seeking to develop a pilot project. In turn, the various pilot projects might themselves offer useful field research to add to the literature, and to the database specifically. Such a “virtuous circle” approach, connecting research to practice and back to research, should be helpful for both the state of practice, and for the research literature as well.

Other participants discussed their related work on implementation. Ibrahim Maiga presented a similar pilot project in the country of Niger. Ethan Kent discussed the value of an evolving global network of activists using and sharing “placemaking” tools to develop and improve public space. Luisa Bravo and Mirko Guaralda described the new efforts with this very journal, the Journal of Public Space. Ben Bolgar showed a new toolkit for rapid urbanization, developed by The Prince’s Foundation in collaboration with the Commonwealth Association of Planners, to be applied in the 53 Commonwealth countries (and others countries and local governments as well, should they choose).

During the discussion, the session participants emphasized one finding that should be encouraging to all. We do know how to make public spaces – and cities – that are thriving, successful, equitable, and sustainable (because they have sustained). We have done it innumerable times throughout human experience. Perhaps our biggest obstacle, then, is in the holdover of our own attitudes from the recent past – mired in a now-obsolete way of seeing the world. As Dr. Joan Clos has said, the essential problem before us is simply this: to recover this lost art and science of building cities.

Five key takeaways from the World Urban Forum

Now comes the hard part of implementing the “New Urban Agenda.”

MOU Signing
The author meeting at the World Urban Forum with representatives of UN-Habitat to finalise a partnership for pilot projects, helping to implement the New Urban Agenda. L-R, the author, Shipra Narang Suri, Coordinator of the Urban Design Branch of UN-Habitat, and Saidou N’Dow, Head of Legal Office, UN-Habitat.

Here is our report from the international gathering of over 25,000 government officials, NGOs, professionals and activists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in February 2018, running in the web journal Planetizen:

From the report:

It’s been over a year now since all 193 countries of the United Nations adopted by acclamation the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the Habitat III conference held in October 2016. The historic nature of that achievement is hard to over-state: for the first time, we have a world-wide agreement embracing walkable mixed use, mixed transportation modes, polycentric regions, diversity and affordability, and other elements of a “new urbanism” (by any other name).

But now comes the hard part of implementation. That challenge was the focus of the Ninth World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in early February of 2018—the first since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, and the first to take up the specifics of implementation.

The obstacles are daunting. “Business as usual”—especially sprawl—still dominates in too many places. Yet there is considerable good news about the human benefits of urbanization: improvements in health and well-being, more opportunities for women, moderated population growth, better access to services, better resources for human development and cultural growth, and much more.

Those benefits don’t come equally to all, of course, and that is one of the biggest challenges: creating a form of urbanization that is more equitable, and more effective in delivering on the great promises of cities for all. Of course that is the core reason that so many of us are drawn to cities and towns in the first place. That was, in fact, the theme of the conference: “Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda.”

So for one week in early February, 25,000 participants from all 193 countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur and took up those challenges, forging partnerships and developing pilot projects. I noted five key takeaways from the conference:

1. The world is urbanizing at a blistering pace. At present rates—and there’s currently no sign this will change—the world’s urban population will more than double in the next 40 years. That’s a staggering rate and quantity of urbanization. Essentially we will create more urban fabric than has ever been created in all of human history up to now.

2. Much of this urbanization is sprawling and resource-inefficient. While the number of people is set to double, the amount of land that will be consumed at present rates is significantly more than double. In other words, urban density is going down—and the cause of that trend is easy to spot. In a word, it’s sprawl: fragmented, unwalkable, resource-intensive, car-dependent (which places an unconscionable burden on the poor, the aged, children, the infirm etc)—and simply unsustainable. At a time of accelerating resource depletion, climate change and other natural and human challenges, the implications are increasingly undeniable, and “business as usual” is increasingly unacceptable.

3. Growing numbers of people recognize that we must change business as usual. This is a hopeful trend, evidenced by the New Urban Agenda itself. It’s not just that we need to avoid disaster, but we need to seize the positive human opportunities too. In fact, the common understanding of cities is changing—from a simple-minded notion that “that’s where the jobs are” to a deeper understanding of cities as creative engines of human development, with a remarkable inherent capacity for resource efficiency. But in turn, that new understanding implies a new appreciation of what cities must do to achieve their potential—especially, how cities need public spaces, and public space systems, including walkable streets and paths. (More on that point below.)

4. But there are many who haven’t “gotten the memo.” Many people are still addicted to the short-term profits from sprawling, resource-intensive urbanization, and too many places look like they could have been designed for 1940 (with updated avant-garde art packaging) instead of 2020. GM’s “Tomorrowland,” with its vast superblocks, segregated freeways, gigantic art-buildings, and degraded public spaces, might have been a profitable model for the last century, but we need a new model today: one that is more attuned to human needs and natural complexities, and the urgent need for a more sustainable form of urbanization. That is what the New Urban Agenda provides.

5. The New Urban Agenda represents a hopeful way forward for all. We now have a landmark agreement by 193 countries to move in a new direction—a “new paradigm” in the words of Dr. Joan Clos, who just retired as head of UN-Habitat. Behind this agreement lies a new understanding of cities and their inherent capacities as engines of human development, and powerful tools in meeting our larger challenges of resource depletion, climate change, inequality, geopolitical instability, and other ills. But along with that comes a sober recognition of the great dangers ahead, if we fail to make the needed changes.

Conclusion: there is much work ahead to change the “operating system for growth.” The current system of “business as usual” is the interactive result of all the laws, codes, rules, standards, conventions, models, incentives, and disincentives, that collectively shape what can be built and where—and whether it will be profitable (which almost always means whether it can be built at all). There is a lot more to it than whether someone thinks a particular project is a good idea—or a bad one.

We can liken this vast set of rules and standards to a kind of “operating system for growth”—its structure governs what can “run” on it (or what can be built and operated). It includes the rules of local and national governments, but also the international rules of global finance and real estate capital, among others. It is a kind of “massive multi-player game” in which we are all players, but some of us get to shape the rules of the game itself. Increasingly that is what we must all work to do—changing zoning to allow better projects, reducing regulatory burdens for desirable projects, and assessing and re-aligning many of the obsolete and conflicting codes from older ways of doing things. It is tedious work, but it could not be more important.

Government policy is one important dimension of the problem—especially in democratic countries. One of the issues we will surely have to confront is the question of how resources are taxed relative to the products of human creativity. By shifting the burden away from creative outputs and toward the consumption of resources (including land) we can reward efficiency, compactness, and the improvement of long-term “externalities” (like greenhouse gas emissions). This “Georgist” approach to economics is one of the kinds of issues we will have to confront globally in changing the “rules of the game” for better-quality urban development in the future.

One of the other issues taken up by our research center in Stockholm—the Centre for the Future of Places—is the fundamental role of public space in sustainable urbanization. We’ve come to recognize it as a kind of essential “connective matrix” of healthy cities. It’s public spaces—including streets—that give us the access to all the benefits of cities, and that connect private spaces to each other. It’s public spaces that ultimately connect us to each other, as the research shows, and underlie efficient creativity and exchange within cities and towns.

Yet ironically, public space is most under threat in the current wave of urbanization. For “informal settlements”—slums—public spaces are shrinking, mostly because the illegal “developers” who lay them out have little incentive to create public spaces. For “market-rate development”—essentially everything else—there is also an economic pressure to get rid of public space, replacing it with more profitable private domains—shopping malls, gated communities, high rises, and the like. But that degrades the very connective tissue that makes cities such powerful engines of creativity, and efficiency too. It also has important impacts on equitability and “cities for all.”

In all these challenges, we will have to learn how to value public space and other “positive externalities”—how to assure that the very real human value they generate gets translated back as economic value in the development process, to reward those who make more public spaces, and reflect the true cost to all of us on those who diminish them. Similarly, those who create other “externality costs” borne by us all—like greenhouse gas emissions—ought to pay a fair amount to offset that cost—with a basic exemption for those with lower incomes. Such pricing mechanisms are a fair way of paying true costs—instead of pushing those costs onto our grandchildren’s bill.

For related reasons, these kinds of economic tools may also be necessary for building “cities for all.” Research is showing that the more we exclude parts of a city from equitable development, the more those parts of the city place a drag on the economic performance of the city as a whole. We can readily understand this in the loss of productivity, the costs of policing and incarceration, and the other costs borne by all. But the new insights show how much it’s true that “cities for all” are not just a matter of justice, but are also good for everyone’s bottom line. That economic incentive is a very helpful resource when it comes to making the needed changes.

So how do we implement such an ambitious agenda? One model discussed at the World Urban Forum is what we might call “snowball projects”—initially small, implementable pilot projects that are structured to scale up as they become more successful, and gather up momentum—like a growing snowball rolling downhill. (In our case they may be public space development projects, but they could be other kinds of urban projects as well.) As the pilot projects are developed, the knowledge gained from them is combined with other knowledge, and exchanged through international wiki-like platforms for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and development. These “toolkits” of open-source implementation tools can then be tailored to different local conditions, using local universities, NGOs, businesses, governments, and other existing local resources, and then the lessons an be distilled and exported out again for use by others.

I came away from the World Urban Forum well aware of the daunting challenges, but also hopeful and energized. In a sense, we might well conclude that cities (and towns) pose the biggest problems for the future—simply because that’s where most of us increasingly live, and consume. But in a deeper sense, cities and towns are the solution—because, when they function well, they have an inherent capacity to produce beneficial human development with increasing efficiency and diminishing resource consumption In fact, their performance rivals the “organized complexity” and the resulting stellar performance of many natural systems.

It is exactly that “stellar performance” that we must now put to work in our cities, more reliably and more equitably, and on a much larger scale.

Brief Report from the World Urban Forum

The seminal conference in Kuala Lumpur brought together 25,000 people from around the world to focus on achieving “cities for all”

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Several members of the Future of Places team gathered at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur to discuss implementation of the New Urban Agenda. That document, focusing on how to create better quality cities, was developed at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016 ,and later adopted by consensus by all 193 member states of the United Nations.

Here is an introductory video from Kyle Farrell and Michael Mehaffy of the Centre:

The Future of Places played a key role in developing aspects of the New Urban Agenda, particularly its focus on “well- connected and well-distributed networks” of public space, as a key framework for sustainable urbanization. Over four years, the forum gathered some 1,500 researchers, practitioners, government officials, NGOs and citizens from 700 organizations in over 200 cities and over 100 countries.

Now the attention is on implementation, and the Centre for the Future of Places, a new research hub, will link with other hubs internationally to develop platforms of knowledge-sharing,

We asked Genie Birch, former chair of the World Urban Campaign and a key partner in the General Assembly of Partners, how she saw the role of the Centre for the Future of Places in the work ahead. Here is what she said:

We will have additional videos on line as well as other reports form the World Urban Forum. Please stay tuned!