Most city leaders would agree that sustainability is a laudable goal. Yet for a term that suggests longevity and benefits for the long haul, it’s also an idea that calls for a broad perspective.
Urban sustainability isn’t simply a catchphrase. Nor is it limited to “green” efforts. A more valuable view of sustainability looks holistically across all the things that define a successful city. In this way, infrastructure can be seen as a driver for multiple sustainability benefits.
The very idea of being a sustainable city suggests that city leaders have anticipated that development in one area will seed further growth all around it. In other words, building toward one sustainability goal will bring others with it. The measures of sustainability connect to each other and to city life. Even one success in this web of sustainable qualities can produce gains that ripple across the urban landscape. As soon as you start looking for the connections, you will see the impact carrying through in some unexpected ways.
The Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index was developed as a ranking of 100 global cities to bring key components of urban sustainability together, revealing our cities’ strengths and areas for improvement. The report groups its 32 indicators into three categories (see Figure 1): People (quality of life), Planet (environment), and Profit (prosperity).
The following review of the 2016 index points to how cities that achieve goals in one area often enjoy additional benefits that feed into the economy, the environment, and quality of life. These examples also provide insight into how the work of engineers and planners can ignite the spark for future sustainability — and indeed how they can position their efforts as drivers to achieve sustainability far beyond the footprint of an individual project.
1. Sustainability driver: Environmental remediation and regeneration of developed sites
- Economic development
Old-style manufacturing left its mark in many cities across the country. In some cases, especially those involving now-defunct companies, the legacy is not simply the waste itself or even the liability no one will claim, but the pride and prosperity of once-thriving neighborhoods. On the other hand, remediating this land can jump-start the opposite effect. Clean-up restores land to value both as real estate and as renewed economic vitality.
For instance, the Belmar Urban Center, located in a suburb of Denver, is considered one of the most successful greyfield redevelopments and brownfield remediation efforts to date, as well as a model for mixed-use development. Previous operations of a 100-acre mall property that had deteriorated in the 1990s had left behind an environmental legacy that had to be safely and effectively managed in order to resuscitate the site, delivering a once-again vibrant resource for the community. Today, the redevelopment has increased community property values, adding more than 12,000 jobs, $17 million in annual tax revenue, and $200 million in annual retail sales. Testimony to the success of the redevelopment, Belmar was sold in 2015 to a private developer for close to $300 million.
2. Sustainability driver: Affordability
- Economic development
- Ease of doing business
- Work-life balance
Maintaining economic diversity is not only healthy for a city; it underpins the entire economic structure and prospects for the future. Yet cities on the rise often struggle when their own success prices out the very people who made the city desirable to begin with. It’s become a classic scenario — a city does well, neighborhoods gentrify, and soon lower-income residents who support the local economy can no longer afford to stay. Companies have a harder time attracting and keeping talent.
Projects that enhance affordability aren’t just an investment in real estate — they are an investment in the social and economic diversity that makes a city tick. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago all have initiatives to increase the minimum wage rate and provide affordable housing options as part of their sustainability plans. New York also launched a free pre-k program recently by implementing policies and an aggressive facilities development and teacher recruiting effort to offer early childhood education for all, regardless of income. Since New York’s Pre-K For All push, Seattle and Philadelphia are also planning similar programs. Access to pre-k has been linked to improved literacy rates that extend into future academic life.
3. Sustainability driver: Public transit systems
- Economic development
- Ease of doing business
More than half the world’s population now live in urban areas. By 2050, an estimated 70 percent of us will live in cities. When transportation infrastructure fails to keep pace with growth, highway congestion becomes a drag on mobility, quality of life, and economic vitality for both cities and surrounding regions. Cities therefore look to public transit and rail expansion programs to reduce traffic in and around urban areas.
With highways, airports, and rail networks already operating at capacity, it’s no secret that California’s infrastructure has not been able to keep pace with the increase in population, tourism, and economic growth. Federal, state, and city authorities are addressing both existing demand and future growth needs with modernization and expansion programs. As part of the effort, the California High Speed Rail Authority is planning, designing, and building a high-speed rail link from Los Angeles to San Francisco — the first system of its kind in the U.S. The rail link will connect the mega regions of the state, boosting the economy in the area while preserving agricultural and protective lands.
Upon completion, this project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contribute to economic development, and create thousands of jobs. In its first year of operation, the rail system is expected to replace 31,000 passenger vehicles and reduce CO2 emissions by 68,000 tons through its electrification program.
4. Sustainability driver: Coastal resiliency
- Green space
- Economic development
When Superstorm Sandy slammed into New York City in 2012, the massive storm surge, wind, and rain caused massive damage and flooding, closing businesses, Wall Street, and schools; disabling medical facilities, sanitation, and public transportation; and bringing down vital telecommunications needed in times of emergency.
And the problem is only expected to worsen. According to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Studies on Water, by 2050, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population will live at risk from floods. Flooding also impacts urban economies. Even without factoring in possible effects of climate change, the economic value of assets at risk from flooding is expected to increase to approximately $45 trillion by 2050, a 340 percent increase from 2010 levels.
For New York, Sandy had the positive effect of galvanizing city leadership to respond with planning, policy, and infrastructure to address sea level rise and the threat of massive storms. One far-reaching initiative is the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, combining elevated flood protection with green space to provide extra flood resilience to lower Manhattan, from Montgomery Street to the northern end of Battery Park City, while improving access to the waterfront and enhancing public spaces in the community.
New York also has future disaster plans to prioritize the most vulnerable and most critical systems, restoring hospitals, transit, and communications quickly. Addressing the city’s social and economic resiliency is integral to the larger goal of helping New York City to withstand and recover from major weather events and sea level rise.
In the end, projects that combine resiliency with green spaces and development projects serve to improve city life while increasing resilience for the future.
5. Sustainability driver: Water reuse and diversification
- Drinking water security and resilience
- Economic development
The combination of urbanization and the whims of nature have put extreme pressures on many water supplies. Continued drought in the West could become a limiting factor for growth as competition intensifies for water use, from drinking water to agricultural uses to recreation and industry.
Fortunately, infrastructure development is making a difference that will have long-lasting effects. The City of El Paso, Texas, lies in an arid, desert region on the Rio Grande River that creates part of the border between the United States and Mexico. The nearest reservoir on this stretch of the Rio Grande is the Elephant Butte reservoir, which is shared by Texas and New Mexico, with a significant portion of the water rights allocated to agricultural users for irrigation. Since 2011, the reservoir has been nearly empty (at less than 10 percent capacity) and it is estimated that more than 20 years of above average flows from the mountains would be required to restore the reservoir to its full capacity.
As population increases and the surface water supply remains unreliable, the city is committed to increasing the use of more sustainable supplies. Consequently, El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) is developing a direct potable reuse (DPR) project to recycle 10 million gallons per day (mgd) of treated secondary clarifier wastewater effluent to supplement the city’s current drinking water supplies. Unlike other potable reuse facilities in the United States, which return the drinking water to a treatment plant or blend with other raw water sources, EPWU’s Advanced Water Purification Facility (AWPF) will use a direct-to-distribution approach, with the purified water flowing directly into the drinking water distribution system. Upon completion, the AWPF will be only the second true DPR plant worldwide.
Projects that increase water supply reliability provide cities with more than just drinking water. Today, more corporations need assurance that water supply will meet their needs now and in the future. Building water supply capacity and diversity puts cities in a better position to attract new businesses and jobs.
While each city has its own challenges and sustainability goals, all can enjoy multiple successes from sustainability initiatives. And as planners and engineers, a holistic approach that connects the dots of sustainability benefits will further propel cities toward improved economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and quality of life. As final proof, the Sustainable Cities Index points to the cities that have leveraged their projects as selling points, positioning their cities as attractive places to live, work, and invest.
However, reaching these goals takes vision and even political will. It’s often easier to plan as a reaction to an issue than to build proactively with an eye toward future needs. For cities with an expanding population and aging infrastructure, proactive measures are imperative to attract and retain residents, businesses, and investors. Balancing the immediate needs of people today without compromising the needs of tomorrow is at the heart of being a sustainable city.
Peter Glus, P.E., serves as Arcadis’ city executive for New York City, where he manages large-scale water, resiliency, and environmental projects.
Download the 2016 Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index at www.arcadis.com/en/global/our-perspectives/sustainable-cities-index-2016.