What Everybody Dislikes About City Building

The way city leaders integrate the environment into economic decision making is vital to smart growth. Already, cities produce 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely from energy consumption in buildings and transportation. This takes a heavy toll on the local as well as global environment. Traffic congestion, for example, raises the cost of doing business, while the air pollution it generates threatens citizens’ health. Lack of regard for sustainability could threaten long-term growth prospects too, as resources become scarcer.


The optimum approach to environmentally aware growth recognizes the costs of degrading the environment and so integrates environmental goals into the planning process. Vancouver, for example, has a Greenest City Action Plan that sets targets for 2020. In common with Copenhagen, Europe’s most sustainable city according to Siemens’ European Green City Index, it aims to become carbon neutral (see sidebar “Copenhagen: Building for the environment,” page 12). Seattle has set a goal of zero waste to landfills, as have the Belgian region of Flanders, Kamikatsu in Japan, and Bath in England. Planning and building infrastructure in an environmentally conscious way and using a combination of pricing, regulations, and information campaigns to encourage citizens to safeguard resources can help achieve such goals.

Plan and build green infrastructure

At the current pace of urbanization, the world’s cities combined will add 65 million inhabitants a year between 2010 and 2025, according to MGI research.

  1. The resulting demand for infrastructure will mean that each year, for example, India’s cities will add floor space equivalent to the entire residential and commercial square footage of the city of Chicago.
  2. China’s cities will add 2.5 times that amount.
  3. Sustainable growth will therefore depend upon investment in infrastructure that reduces emissions, waste production, and water use, as the way we build and renovate our cities will determine their ecological sustainability for decades to come.
  4. Improving existing infrastructure, building green districts, and making the most of scarce land resources by building high-density communities can all help.

Improve existing infrastructure. Most cities have opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of existing infrastructure.

  • The 2011 retrofit of New York’s Empire State Building transformed the approximately 80-year-old building into a landmark of green construction and placed it in the top 25 percent of US commercial office buildings in terms of energy efficiency.
  • The retrofit implemented cutting-edge technologies, including windows, automated monitoring and controls systems, and highefficiency cooling equipment.
  • The $13.2 million invested in energy efficiency reduced annual energy consumption by 38 percent, generating a payback period of 3.5 years and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 100,000 metric tons over 15 years.

Many cities have sought to tackle traffic congestion and local air pollution problems by reserving stretches of road space for buses only. Istanbul, faced with delays in the construction of its subway system, dedicated 26 miles (nearly 42 kilometers) of existing road lanes to a new bus rapid-transit system. Buses in the system now travel the route approximately twice as fast as cars and arrive at 30- to 45-second intervals, giving continuous service to some 620,000 passengers a day.11 Bogotá, Delhi, and Pittsburgh are among the many other cities that have introduced bus rapidtransit systems over the past two decades.

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