Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Herrie Schalekamp about new working relationships between researchers and paratransit operators in South Africa and beyond. Herrie is the ACET Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. In addition to his research, teaching and consulting in the fields of paratransit and public transport reform he is involved in specialised educational programmes for paratransit operators and government officials. Herrie’s activities form part of a broader endeavour to investigate and contribute to improved public transport operations and regulation in Sub-Saharan African cities under ACET – the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport.
A Tale of New Cities
As read in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, “New York City (is) to replace pay phones with free Wifi”. Some could argue that this simple transition is nothing more than a logical evolution of the telecoms landscape, driven by incremental technology advances. Others will lament at the fact that this move represents a big blow for screenwriters – no more characters picking up a random ringing phone to suddenly plunge into a world of adventures – and for Clark Kent himself: where to change into Superman, in the absence of booths?
Coming at this from a slightly different, and perhaps more ‘big picture angle’, one could also see the municipality’s decision as a sign of a transition underway: one that directly impacts the public space – since every street corner becomes a global library – and reshuffles the card decks at big players’ tables. Just think what free voice over IP available everywhere means for phone network operators, as an example…
Cities traditionally have been the place where modernisation hit first and was the most visible, hence their strong power of attraction and rapid growth over the course of the 20th century. Yet even this is an obsolete worldview: since 2007, more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas, and this figure is forecast to rise to 66% by 2050, according to the United Nations. We are no longer experiencing a world of rural exodus as such, most people are already in cities and these will develop endogenously… whilst producing the bulk of global GDP – 85% of it, as shown by the New Climate Economy reports.
Yet systems have histories, and as complex ones cities have accumulated layer upon layer of infrastructural decisions, planning choices and architectural whims. As such, depending on the context in which they evolved, they are sometimes radically different: for roughly the same population, car-reliant Atlanta and Roman-founded Barcelona have respective footprints of 4,280 and 162 square kilometres. What all cities do have in common, however, is the fact that they act as concentrators of materials and nutrients: ‘stuff’ flows to them, but apart from copious amounts of waste and sewage, hardly anything comes out… Cities are not, in our current linear “take, make, dispose” economy, regenerative in the slightest. Think for instance that over the course of the 20th century, the recycling rate of food-derived nitrogen dropped from 40 to 5% in Paris.
There is however huge potential for urban areas to take their place at the leading edge of a system revolution that combines pervasive connectivity, reverse logistic chains, precision small-scale agriculture, decentralised (re)manufacturing, multiple use buildings, multi-modal transport systems featuring autonomous vehicles… the list goes on. In the face of increased commodity price volatility, energy concerns and growing awareness of negative impacts, the call for a revised economic operating system is getting louder, and municipalities around the world have taken an early lead in the debate: organisations such as the C40 or the Covenant of Mayors as well as individual cities are driving the agenda forward, fostering circular economy initiatives and creating virtuous loops.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent research, sponsored by SUN (Stiftungsfonds für Umweltökonomie und Nachhaltigkeit) and developed in collaboration with the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, focused on three main sectors at European level: mobility, built environment and food – all very relevant to urban environments. Strikingly, considerable amounts of structural waste have been highlighted in the process, as for example the average European car sits idle more than 90% of the time. For buildings, conclusions are very similar, with an occupancy rate seldom exceeding 65%, even during business hours. Both these figures show a very poor utilisation of heavy assets that have required large quantities of materials and energy – not to mention water or valuable labour hours – in their production phase.
Integrating new technologies and business models, which generally are bundled together and generically branded ‘digital revolution’, could generate what we call a “Growth Within”, and create value without resorting to consuming more finite resources. To put things simply, the power of digital networks and intelligent assets can act as the new infrastructure, helping share vehicles, tracking materials, enabling collaborative platforms. Information technologies will play a crucial role in enabling a fully functioning circular economy, by streamlining reverse logistic operations, for product take back, or embedding recycling / refurbishing instructions in the assets themselves. Given the infrastructure already present in cities – the New York example is enlightening in that regard – and the recent global uptake of the ‘Smart City’ concept, one can easily identify the potential at stake.
This optimisation of material flows is not only valid when it comes to metals, polymers and other man-made compounds, and a move towards restorative and regenerative circular models entails significant reconnections throughout the economy – both on a literal and metaphorical level. The traditional divide between town and country is being eroded by new architecture trends which acknowledge the importance of bringing living systems into living spaces, as seen with Singapore’s Skygreen urban farming venture or Milan’s Bosco Verticale.
With a city the size of London being added on the world’s map every 35 days or so, urban areas are at the epicenter of the 21st century’s economic and social transformation. The whole model is impacted by this evolution, with political power gradually shifting from regional to municipal, which enables bold development choices to be made by cities themselves – the fact that many internationally significant ones have chosen to go down the circular economy path can only be seen as an encouraging sign.
 Prof. Stéphane Guilbert, SupAgro Montpellier – INRA
 For example, London has set out to become a ‘circular economy capital’ and is currently developing their circular economy route map. In the same vein, the city of Paris has launched a circular economy plan in 2015, and “>recently published their white paper on the topic.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Brownfields are sites that are vacant or underutilized due to environmental contamination, real or imagined. There are brownfields of some kind in virtually every city and town in the U.S., usually related to a gas station, dry cleaner, auto repair shop, car dealership or some other ubiquitous local business that once benefited the community it now burdens with environmental hazards or old buildings.
In addressing this issue, technology has not been effectively deployed to promote redevelopment of these sites and catalyze community revitalization. We find that the question around the use of technology and data in advancing the redevelopment of brownfields is twofold:
How can current and future technology advancements be applied to upgrade existing brownfield modeling tools? And then, how can those modeling tools be used to accelerate transformative, sustainable, and smart redevelopment and community revitalization?
Across the country, urban parks are enjoying a renaissance. Dozens of new parks are being built or restored and cities are being creative about how and where they are located. Space under highways, on old rail infrastructure, reclaimed industrial waterfronts or even landfills are all in play as development pressure on urban land grows along with outdoor recreation needs.
These innovative parks are helping cities face common challenges, from demographic shifts, to global competitiveness to changing climate conditions. Mayors and other city officials are taking a fresh look at parks to improve overall community health and sense of place, strengthen local economies by attracting new investments and creating jobs, help manage storm water run-off, improve air quality, and much more. When we think of city parks holistically, accounting for their full role in communities, they become some of the smartest investments we can make.