Last week the United Nations issued a report on the need for developing sustainable infrastructure in cities. The results won't come as a surprise to most regular readers of this site but in a broader sense they bear repeating: smarter urban infrastructure brings economic benefits alongside environmental ones. What's most useful about the report, however, was its detailed description of 30 projects from around the world meant as models for others to emulate [PDF].
A number of these case studies focus on innovations that have gained their share of recent attention. Urban gondolas have become a hit in Medellin, the conversion of an urban expressway into a pedestrian park earned awards for Seoul, and concern for the climate in Portland is bigger news when it doesn't exist. But there are several other efforts you may not know about. We've pulled out a few of the most intriguing ones.
The "zero-carbon" desert city of Masdar
Masdar is a planned city just south of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, that's billed itself as a zero-carbon response to the region's large fossil fuel footprint. Buildings will be wrapped in solar panels and angled to capture wind energy. The transport system, anchored around personal rapid transit pods, will be electric. Water will be recycled and waste re-purposed as fertilizer and power sources. Critics question the city's ambitions and its true environmental impact, and wonder whether the whole idea isn't a bit too gimmicky, but the U.N. report calls Masdar at the very least an example of how to secure investment in a sustainable vision.
Simple BRT in Lagos
Lagos, Nigeria, may be Africa's new biggest city, but until recently it didn't have an organized transit system to its name. In response, officials implemented a "BRT-Lite" system meant to decrease congestion and provide an alternative transport mode to the poor. Since there wasn't enough money to construct completely exclusive lanes for the rapid buses, designers used raised medians and road markings on existing lanes to offer at least some level of separation for 85 percent of the route. According to the U.N. report, it's estimated that BRT-Lite now carries 25 percent of commuters in the corridor on just 4 percent of all vehicles.
Vaxjo goes fossil fuel free
Vaxjo, a city of 82,000 in the south of Sweden, began a Fossil Fuel Free program back in 1996 whose target is now to decrease emissions 100 percent by 2030. The initiative has achieved its biggest success in the area of home heating: for years the city subsidized the conversion of old buildings from oil to biomass heat, and today about 90 percent of heating fuel comes from woodchips. Transport emissions have been more of a challenge, according to the U.N. report. While city officials have tried to persuade residents to purchase fuel-efficient cars — offering purchase subsidies and free parking — a more comprehensive shift toward alternative transport is in order.
Incentives to recycle in Curitiba
The Brazilian city of Curitiba is well-known for its bus-rapid transit system, but some of its most impressive sustainability measures have come through waste management programs. Much of this success has come from providing the community incentives to recycle. Officials have offered bus passes in exchange for bags of waste, and also given residents free local produce for recyclable materials. By focusing publicity campaigns on children, the city hopes to encourage conservation in the future. While there's still a problem with informal garbage collectors, these waste initiatives have extended the life of Curitiba landfills considerably.
Shifting to transit in Bangkok
After building its first expressway in 1981, Bangkok discovered the fundamental law of road congestion: more highway miles mean more traffic. Years of struggling with the problem finally gave way to a rail transit system in the capital of Thailand, and by late 2011 there were half a million subway rider each day and four new metro lines under construction. Housing has shifted along with transport, according to the U.N. report, with transit-oriented development gaining in popularity. The transition has not been a complete success — Bangkok's BRT program is a bit of a disappointment — but the importance of mass transit to the city's future is more clear than ever.