The most resilient cities are the ones that listen

A couple wearing a face mask rides an electric scooter along a Navigli canal in Milan on May 8, 2020. (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

I have spent the better part of the past 10 years working with cities across the world, helping them to become more resilient – in many cases to the impacts of climate change, but also to other disruptions such as earthquakes, financial crises or disease outbreak – by analysing the underlying causes to their most pressing challenges, and developing strategies to tackle them. A common thread throughout my experience is that cities can only succeed in achieving their goals of becoming more sustainable, resilient or inclusive if they listen and respond to their citizens’ needs and have a trusted relationship with them.

Covid-19 has forced local governments to quickly shift the way they use data and technology. Technology will form a critical part of the recovery process, but this doesn’t just involve investing in more smart city solutions or technological capabilities – the process of involving citizens in this effort is arguably more important. Creating a trusted environment and embracing bottom-up approaches will enable cities to harness the power of citizens’ ambition to drive change and allow governments to better serve their needs.

We have seen how quickly local innovators and entrepreneurs have stepped up in the crisis and mobilised to contribute their resources and ideas to address all areas of the pandemic. From making face masks and delivering groceries and medical supplies to vulnerable citizens, to developing creative solutions to address loneliness and connectivity during self-isolation, crowd-sourced and open-sourced solutions have been co-created by communities around the world. Innovators within local communities and from across universities and industry have been quick to pool their knowledge and create useful resources and tools to respond to the most pressing needs emerging from the crisis. Plenty of this has happened without government support or coordination.

Local governments need to understand, encourage, and work alongside communities so that we can not only recover from this major crisis, but also become more resilient, no matter what disruptions occur in the future.

Since 2015, we at the Greater London Authority have been leading Sharing Cities, a collaborative European project of 34 partners across the public, private, and academic sectors, including the local municipalities of Lisbon, Milan, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London. The project demonstrates how thoughtfully designed, integrated, open source solutions can be developed to improve the wellbeing of citizens and reduce our collective impact on climate change. The programme is built on the three principles of People, Place, and Platform: engaging effectively with citizens to implement sustainable, low-carbon technologies in local neighbourhoods, using shared platforms to manage data-driven solutions. From designing electric and shared mobility schemes, to conducting building retrofit works, Sharing Cities developed and applied co-design approaches to ensure that citizens have been engaged from the very beginning of the design process.

So, what can cities do to fully harness citizens’ ambitions and mobilise local action? Here’s what we’ve learned:

Democratize data and enable collaboration

Data is a city’s greatest asset when it comes to planning for the future. Sharing data through open data platforms empowers local communities to take solution development in their own hands and has been done successfully for years now. Citymapper is one of the most well-known examples, using data from the London Datastore, London’s pioneering open-data platform which turns 10 this year. Citizens want to contribute, and many governments have realised this potential and have taken co-creation with communities to the next level during the pandemic, with Hack the Crisis-type events being held all over the world – Estonia, Tel Aviv, New Zealand, just to name a few.

One-time events like Hackathons and Challenges are valuable in establishing a connection with citizens, but in order to have sustained impact, locally driven solutions need to be supported with tangible action and investment, and this requires local governments to maintain a trusted relationship with citizens.

(Re-)Build and maintain public trust

It is important for local governments to listen to citizens before taking action. Citizens experience the impact of disruptions in different ways – this has been made painfully obvious by Covid-19. The pandemic has shown that those already disadvantaged are disadvantaged further during times of crisis. But cities have been using tools and technologies at their disposal to actively engage with communities, to understand their lived experience in a way that informs the development solutions and policies and to maintain trusted connections with citizens.

Milan’s SharingMi is a citizen engagement platform that seeks to encourage residents to adopt sustainable behaviours in exchange for rewards that can be spent in their local communities. Connections on the online platform are rooted in the real physical community, established when the platform was launched last year, with residents from the neighbourhood of Porta Romana. SharingMi was co-designed with residents, and the municipality partnered with local organisations to hold events and challenges such as #MilanoPlasticFree and My Food Revolution, to challenge people to actions such as reducing waste and supporting sustainable food ecosystems. As the pandemic took hold of Northern Italy in early March, the city quickly pivoted and used the platform to help residents maintain their connections to their local community, while at the same time not losing sight of the tool’s foundational aims of encouraging people to adopt sustainable behaviours, all while staying at home.

In Belfast, the city council quickly established, an easy-to-use platform, working with government, universities, and the third sector to support a coordinated contribution by the innovator community to solve local Covid-19 challenges. With this platform, they have been able to mobilise their local civic and business community to donate and match resources and specialist skills. Technical infrastructure and hardware, such as laptops, have been requested by local charities to enable those who don’t have access to technology to work remotely. Data analysts and software developers have been matched to develop digital solutions to help solve challenges such as managing the distribution of food packages to vulnerable individuals.

Good listening needs to be followed by tangible action and clear communication. In a design sprint recently run by the London Office of Technology and Innovation and Sharing Cities, one of the key challenges experienced by participants from industry and local government alike was that they often found it difficult to explain how smart cities technologies, such as the internet of things (IoT), 5G, and artificial intelligence, could benefit citizens in a simple way. The instinct to hide behind jargon and technical language is tempting, but can be harmful, placing a barrier between the solutions and the people that stand to benefit from them, ultimately leading to distrust between communities, industry, and government. The answer is straightforward, although by no means easy: local governments need to explain what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why, plainly and simply, in ways that are relevant and accessible to citizens. In a recent webinar hosted by Reuters, London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell described how citizens were more willing to share their data “provided that you spoke clearly to people about it, told them what it was for and instituted some governance around how it is used”.

Building and maintaining a trusted relationship with citizens is a difficult task, and one that requires continual investment from the start. Smart cities aren’t smart if people are left out of the process. The recent news that Sidewalk Labs is pulling out of Toronto’s Quayside project demonstrates the importance of trusted relationships with communities and the need for local governments and developers to listen and respond to the needs of their citizens. While some have reacted more quickly than others in dealing with Covid-19, the reality is, some local governments have lost some degree of trust with the public. However, things need not remain this way – times of crisis often brings out the best in people, and this has held true during this difficult time. We have also seen really positive examples of local governments working together with communities, and making the best of the technology we have to co-create solutions and support those most in need, and ensure that we all recover together.

Sandy Tung is based at the Greater London Authority and is the Programme Manager for Sharing Cities, a pan-European programme that tests out innovative smart city solutions across major European cities, replicating and scaling what works through new business and investment models.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.