This one chart shows the radical changes needed to achieve sustainable cities

Kuala Lumpur played host to the recent World Urban Forum. Image: Getty.

Rose Molokoane picked up the microphone at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February, and challenged the room full of policymakers, practitioners and researchers.

“I’ve been a part of every World Urban Forum, and government is always talking about needing to work together better,” said the deputy president of the Shack/Slum Dwellers International. The audience, many of them from government themselves, sat up a little straighter.

We have heard leaders talk about trust, about integration, about inclusion, she continued. “Well, we don’t know who they’re talking about because they’re not talking to us.”

Going the Wrong Way

Molokoane is one of 881m people living in slums, without access to basic services like water, sanitation and housing. If current patterns of urban growth continue, we project that the number of slum dwellers will reach 1.2bn by 2050.

This is not the only worrying trend in cities. More than 70 per cent of carbon emissions from final energy use can be attributed to urban areas. As urban populations and economies grow, greenhouse gas emissions are rising steadily.

Cities are also becoming more sprawling: the amount of land being used for urban purposes is expected to triple between 2000 and 2050. This is leading to the loss of natural ecosystems and productive agricultural land. Sprawling cities are also less energy efficient, as residents have to spend more time travelling to reach jobs, services and amenities.

These worrying trends are all obvious in one chart.

Three worrying trends: an increasing number of people living in poverty, rising greenhouse gas emissions and sprawling growth. How can cities “bend the curve” towards more inclusive and sustainable development? Image: author provided.

Bending the Curve

Molokoane and other activists were involved in drafting the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Agreement and New Urban Agenda. These global agreements envision a more equitable and sustainable world.

But cities are not on track to achieve these goals. The number of people living in urban poverty is increasing, as are cities’ environmental footprint. There is therefore a need for transformational change to ‘bend the curve’ towards greener, more inclusive urban development.

The Sustainable Development Goals commit to ending poverty in all its forms by 2030. To realise this aspiration, governments need to provide under-served urban residents with decent housing, safe drinking water, reliable sanitation and clean energy. Ultimately, the number of slum dwellers should be declining by 50-60m people a year even as urban populations rise.

The Paris Agreement commits to eliminate net global emissions by 2050. To decarbonize cities, governments will need to mobilise large-scale investment in renewable energy, public transport, energy-efficient buildings and solid waste management. Much of this investment will be needed in urban areas, which need to reduce emissions by 4-5 per cent every year.

The way that urban land is used will be key to achieving all of these global agreements. In more compact, connected cities, people have better access to jobs, services and amenities. They also don’t have to travel as far, which reduces transport emissions that cause climate change and affect air quality. Cities therefore need to avoid sprawl and pursue more efficient, inclusive urban forms.

Rose Molokoane speaking at the World Urban Forum. Image: Valeria Gelman, WRI.

From Agenda to Action

The Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement were signed in 2015; the New Urban Agenda, in 2016. Now is the time to move from setting goals to taking action. But it’s important to be clear-eyed about the radical change needed to deliver these targets.

‘Bending the curve’ will require more than incremental policy change or individual infrastructure investments. There is a need to shape urban growth in ways that meet the needs of city dwellers, reduce resource consumption and sustain economic development.

Cities are where these changes must happen – but cities can’t do it alone. National governments need to create enabling frameworks that coordinate all the different actors in cities. Private finance will be key to meeting the shortfall in infrastructure investment.


And communities like Molokoane’s must be involved in planning and implementation. After all, it is residents themselves who best know their city and must live with the consequences after all the conferences end.

Sarah Colenbrander is a senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development and Global Programme Lead with the Coalition for Urban Transitions.

Ani Dasgupta is the global director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, WRI’s program that galvanizes action to help cities grow more sustainably and improve quality of life in developing countries around the world.

Special thanks to Catlyne Haddaoui, research analyst, Coalition for Urban Transitions.

 
 
 
 

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.