Making Cities Work

An Interview with Aniruddha Dasgupta

This Feature interview appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Aniruddha Dasgupta is the Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and a widely-recognized expert on sustainable development, public transit, and governance. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Mr. Dasgupta about the role of cities in confronting the climate crisis.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What does WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities do, and what have been its major accomplishments so far?

Aniruddha Dasgupta (AD): WRI Ross Center does three main things. First, we partner with cities to guide problem-solving and implementation. Most cities don’t have finances or the right capacity or the political coalition that is needed to do some big reform, so we advise them on a long-term basis. That’s what makes us different from other organizations; rather than advising and walking away, we actually stay and guide implementation. We do this with 110 or 120 cities around the world.

Second, we actively research topics related to city development. We publish regularly on a variety of topics based on what we learn on the ground.

The third thing we do is shape the global agenda on cities. One example of this is our recent effort to shape the narrative of city sustainability to be about equity. We’ve found that without equity there is no sustainability.

JIA: Why are cities so important to mitigating climate change?

AD: There are three reasons. The most obvious reason is that most greenhouse gases are produced in the city or because of the city. Depending on how you measure it, 65% or 75% of greenhouse gas emissions (a lot of it from energy consumption) are caused by cities. Right now, 3.5 billion people out of 7 billion people on Earth live in cities. More people will live in cities by 2050. So if you can’t figure out how to make cities work, you’ll never get to a more low-carbon society.

The second reason is the economy. Most of the GDP in the world is produced in and around cities. For us to decarbonize, it is not just about gasoline and electricity; we have to actually have a different economy, an economy that is greener and produces jobs. For our economy to work differently, cities have to work differently. Cities have to incubate that new economy.

And finally, cities are important for the welfare of people. As the climate changes, people in cities are going to face heat, water scarcity, and air quality issues. One billion people who live in cities live in shanty towns and informal settlements without access to water or sanitation. So the ways in which cities develop is going to be important to how this new economy and new climate affects people.

JIA: With climate change accelerating, more and more cities are experiencing extreme heat waves on a regular basis. How can cities go about addressing this challenge?

AD: In countries like Pakistan or India where extreme heat is commonplace, it can be a silent killer. People think that the climate is gradually warming, but in fact it has got significantly hotter in more places, and many people are literally dying from it. In India, for example, there were 21,000 heatrelated deaths last year. And globally, heat-induced deaths have increased significantly. This is not a future problem; we’re already seeing it.

There are few different ways cities can address the heat island effect. One is working on the layout of the neighborhood. People have done a lot of work on tree covers and shade centers. One of the best examples of this is in Medellín [Colombia], where they created “green corridors” that empirically reduced temperature by two degrees.

Another way is to work on buildings themselves. That is where most of the savings can be made. The Cool Roofs Challenge is one example. In India, the majority of roofs are metal so they capture a lot of heat. Simply by using a different material—often recycled or a green roof—the Cool Roofs Challenge was able to reduce the extreme heat.

The other side of the heat island effect is that if you do not do something to make this buildings cooler, people are going to want to air condition all their spaces. This will cause a significant negative impact on climate emissions. So it’s imperative, not only for health reasons, but also for climate reasons, to meet this challenge at the neighborhood and building level.

Our team has been very involved with this issue. We’ve made a lot of progress using spatial data to map trees and to show their cooling effects. We think this will help governments plan better by showing how cities can plan walking with shade in mind.

JIA: “City planning” has been a central component of your work. What is the danger of a big, unplanned city?

AD: Most cities are growing unplanned because they lack capacity, finances, or investment infrastructure. And the biggest challenge of unplanned growth is the lack of services. People living there don’t have adequate access to water, electricity, or education.

But the bigger problem I see is not just the immediate lack of services. It’s the problem of “lock-in.” Even when the city gets richer and wants to provide services, sometimes they’re unable to do so. I’ll give an example: if you build an informal community with just a three-meter-wide road, even when you have the finances to provide services, a bus cannot go through it. This community will never have public transport, which means they’ll be dependent on private transport. They’re not only locked out of services, they also get locked out of connecting with the rest of the city. This is a very significant problem in India and a lot of Sub-Saharan Africa. So we are trying to help cities avoid this challenge in the future.

JIA: What does that look like? What sort of intervention can cities make to forestall the problem of lock-in?

AD: The best thing you can do is to get a city to be proactive about it. We try to get them to think, “We may not have the resources now, but what would we want to see when we do?” It is securing their right of way, so to speak. A lot of it is about securing land for future access, knowing that you will need it to provide future services.

I’ll give you an example. Bangalore is a water-scarce city in southern India. There has been a lot of growth from private developers developing acres and acres of housing outside the city. Most of the prime land where these people are developing happens to be on top of well-known aquifers that the city needs to provide water. But when you create a concrete barrier on top of the aquifer, you don’t give it a chance to recharge. So as a result, the whole city doesn’t have water. By planning ahead and securing these plots of land, the city could have secured its own water supply.

JIA: How can cities promote equity while preparing for climate change? How can they avoid the phenomenon of “green gentrification”?

AD: It needs to happen at multiple levels: at a city level, at a neighborhood level, and at a building level. And in many cases, equity and sustainability go hand in hand.

Let’s look at an example. One of the biggest culprits of greenhouse gas emissions in cities is transport. There are two reasons for this: there are many cars choking up cities, and a lot of poor people have to live very far away because they can’t afford to live in cities. It’s a city planning issue and an affordable housing issue. If you create affordable housing inside city boundaries and make better public transport, it doesn’t gentrify (forcing poorer people out of the city) but actually brings people in.

But green gentrification plays out much more at a neighborhood level. There have been a lot of studies that show that access to green spaces can increase property values, driving out a neighborhood’s poorer residents. That’s a very good example of what green gentrification might look like. The most successful models I’ve seen at avoiding this are where cities actually work with community during the process of improvement to make sure they’re protected. Where I live in D.C., there’s an urban park that’s being developed on an old bridge across the Anacostia River in a relatively poor part of the city. And in the beginning there were worries that the rich would come in and take over this part of town. But an NGO that is developing this, called 11th Street Bridge Park, did an amazing job working with the community to create land banks and work with the renters. They used a lot of tools to ensure that making a park here would not push out those who were already living here.

JIA: How does city governance influence the outcomes of urban planning and urban sustainability?

AD: It affects it immensely. There are five important considerations in how effective city governance can be. One is the power cities have to enact policy; that’s fairly self-explanatory. The second is the jurisdiction over implementing sustainability. What I mean by this is that sustainability has many connected parts. Transport policy affects land use policy, land use policy affects energy policy. One thing that determines how successfully cities can plan and implement policy is how well they can coordinate across these different domains. The third is the capacity of cities. What level of professionalization their staff has, how well they can navigate these interconnected systems. Many cites have struggled to maintain a professional staff, so this is a big issue.

Fourth is regional planning. One challenge to all this is that most issues are not confined to city boundaries. Most require a regional planning approach. A city must coordinate with its neighbors. Housing policy in San Francisco affects transportation throughout the Bay Area, for example.

Finally, what relationship does the city have with the national government? Most cities can do a lot of things themselves, but they can’t do everything themselves. C40, our partner organization did a study that showed that about one third of the things cities need to do for sustainability they can do themselves. One third they need to collaborate with the region, and one third only national governance can do. So if they don’t have a supportive relationship with the national government, it can be difficult for cities to be sustainable on their own.

JIA: A number of cities, such as Milan, Paris, and London, completely closed off their downtown areas to cars during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are considering making this change permanent. What are the benefits of a car-free downtown?

AD: It’s not just Milan and Paris and London. And I want to note that the London Ultra Low Emission Zone is a different initiative than car-free cities. Car-free cities are more walking and biking, and in London’s case it’s also about taxing emitting vehicles. The reason I point this out is because London is doing something amazing. The tax revenue – they raised £300 billion last year – is plowed right back into public transport. So people who live in London can see a dramatic improvement in the public transport because of it.

On the COVID-related seat reduction of traffic, I think Bogotá has done a phenomenal job of opening miles and miles of its streets to pedestrians. And I hope this trend will continue because cities and cars just don’t mix. They don’t work together. Cities need to have public transport. City roads are a limited, finite open space. When you drive a car, you use that space the most undemocratic way possible. One car takes 25 square meters; many more people could use that to move by bike or a bus or something else. I want to make a very clear point of this because there’s a lot of good news about electrification of cars these days. I think electrification is good. But there are a billion cars in the world today. If current trends are a guide, there will be 3 billion by 2050. If you electrified all of them, you’d still have a problem because it takes energy and resources to electrify cars, and you’re still left with the congestion. Cities need public transport, and while public transport solutions may look different in every city, it is still preferable to adding more cars.

We are seeing really good progress in these cities that are converting their streets to walking and biking. They are helping people see what a city would look like without cars, with cleaner air and more retail. Hopefully one silver lining of COVID is that it will give political leaders the support to pursue this sort of policy.

JIA: What options are available for rapidly expanding cities without much public transport infrastructure? What solutions do you recommend?

AD: Luckily there are many options available, with different price tags. It all depends on passenger density. How many passengers do you need to move a particular distance in a given hour? If it’s more than 150,000, then a metro system like New York’s subway will make sense. Most places don’t have this kind of density. So their other options are what people have called BRT, Bus Rapid Transit, where you protect a lane for buses so the bus can move much faster. This approach has been very successful in a lot of places.

Basic bus systems are the minimum cities should do, and most cities don’t even have a basic public bus system. Building this out is the first part of the answer. The other part of the answer is to encourage the connectivity from the bus stop to people’s homes, whether it’s a scooter, cycle, electric moped, or anything else that encourages people to use public transit. I’m a big proponent of investing in walking infrastructure, making walking easier and more pleasant.

We generally don’t think of walkability as public transportation because it is not a vehicle and is not motorized. But something doesn’t have to be motorized to be a public transit solution. You can’t find a better investment than cycling infrastructure. Our evidence shows that infrastructure for cycling has a big return when it comes to mobility and job creation. In Europe, cities are trying long-distance cycling. It’s not just three miles, which is what people think about, but greater distances because of electric bikes. So I see a huge space there for us to think about.

JIA: Motorized bikes fall into what many people consider “last mile transport,” a category that can also include ride-hailing and electric scooters. What is the role of these new forms of transportation and how do you balance them with more traditional forms of public transit, such as buses and trains?

AD: Buses and trains will always be needed if you’re going to go far away. So every big city will require some form of buses, trams, or trains. But it turns out that most trips people take in cities are actually three miles or less. So there is a huge space for innovation in that distance. You don’t have to use your car—you could walk or you could bike. This space of transportation is innovating at a very fast pace and we haven’t reached the plateau yet. I want cities to create the space for innovation. But if cities are willing to invite innovation like this, the goal has to be what is good for the city and its people, not just for the company.

One consideration is how to protect the needs of disabled people, especially those in wheelchairs. Scooters may not work for them, so when we allow space for innovation, we need to keep different needs in mind. It has been a somewhat chaotic process, but I think cities are learning from it.

JIA: Do you worry that some of these modes of transport, such as ride-hailing services, will displace ridership from buses and trains?

AD: I do worry about it a little bit, but I think it will even out. Initially Uber rides were displacing subway riders in New York City. That is a very bad outcome. The last thing we want is to take a passenger away from public transit. We want more passengers. And there is a role for public policy discouraging this sort of shift. As long as you have a well-functioning public transit system, there are ways to discourage this. At the same time, if you don’t have good public transit, especially at night, these options can provide a safe way for people to get home. São Paulo did a very good job discouraging Ubers or Uber-like services in the middle of the city but encouraging them in the periphery where they did not have bus service. This kind of coexistent policy creates an ecosystem where Ubers or Lyfts can be beneficial and additive to existing service.

JIA: You mentioned earlier that over a billion people worldwide live in informal settlements. How can city governments care for individuals without permanent housing?

AD: Building more affordable housing is definitely part of the solution. But it is deeper than that. A few different things need to happen. A billion people live in these informal settlements and they’re not going away. For a long time, cities tried to remove them somehow. When I started my career, demolition was a commonplace occurrence. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Another important piece is to actually improve these informal settlements. We strongly encourage cities to work with these communities and provide them water, sanitation, roads, schools, all the things that increase the value of a house.

Another thing I wanted to say: cities need to focus on rentals because a lot of the poorer families are renters, not owners of their houses. A lot of housing programs in the developing world, as well as in this country, focus on ownership, meaning helping poor people own affordable housing. We think creating rental or supporting rental housing for the poor is a very important step.

The point is that there are multiple ways of meeting housing needs. Creating affordable housing is one thing, but there are many more tools cities can draw on.

This comes back to the issue that my team and I feel most strongly about: the interconnectedness of city development. What I mean by that is that we talk a lot about climate and about productivity and about equity, but we rarely connect the three. If you don’t pursue sustainable growth, you won’t have productivity, and if you don’t have productivity, you can’t have equity. That connectivity is something that we all need to appreciate and work toward. How can cities develop balance and progress on these three issues together? I hope that your readers will appreciate this complexity and dig into it more.