January 1, 2013

Opinion Leaders Weigh in on 2013’s Biggest Urban Issues and Innovations

By: Penn IUR Faculty Fellows and Scholars

Expert voices: “What is the biggest urban issue, challenge or innovation that will affect our world in the upcoming year?”

In 2013, as cities around the world expand, and as urban populations grow, we will face new challenges, continue to grapple with long-standing problems, and have the opportunity embrace emerging and truly creative urban solutions.

We asked more than a dozen experts to weigh in on what, in their mind, is the biggest urban issue, challenge or innovation that will affect our world in the upcoming year. Their answers point to the magnitude of work that needs to be done, as well as to the promise of urban innovations on the horizon. 

Engaging Anchor Institutions

Ira Harkavy, Associate Vice President and Director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania

The biggest urban challenge that will affect our world in the upcoming year is to effectively engage anchor institutions, particularly higher educational and medical institutions, as democratic partners dedicated to revitalizing their local communities and cities. Simply stated, what these institutions do (or fail to do) has enormous impact on the quality of life in urban areas and metropolitan regions. America’s colleges and universities, for example, represent immense concentrations of human and economic capital (with nearly four million employees, 20 million enrolled students, $400 billion in endowments, and $1 trillion in annual economic activity). As place-based institutions, they have the potential to be sources of stability, permanence, and ongoing progressive change.

Moreover, the future of higher educational institutions and their communities and cities are intertwined. As such, they have a strong economic and intellectual stake in the health of their surrounding communities, as well as the resources, particularly the human resources, to make a genuine difference. But colleges and universities will have to undergo significant organizational change before they can fully mobilize the powerful, untapped resources of their own institutions and of their communities, including those found among individual neighbors and in local institutions (such as businesses, social service agencies, faith-based organizations, and hospitals).

By focusing on solving universal problems that are manifested in their local communities (such as poverty, poor schooling, inadequate healthcare), institutions of higher education will generate knowledge that is both nationally and globally significant and be better able to realize what I view as their primary mission of contributing to a healthy democratic society. A higher educational institution’s contributions to solving locally-manifested universal problems and to creating a just democratic society should count heavily both in assessing its institutional performance and in responding to its requests for renewed or increased resources and financial support.

Carbon-Saving Energy Efficiencies

David Brownlee, Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor, Chair of the Graduate Group in the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

The catastrophic weather events of 2012 in the United States and President Obama’s recently announced intention to focus on global warming in his second term promise to add American energy to the worldwide discussion of climate change in 2013. The implications for our cities are many, but I hope that chief among them will be recognition that high urban population density makes possible many carbon-saving energy efficiencies.

Controlling the Growth of Cars

Anthony G.O. Yeh, Chair Professor and Head, Department of Urban Planning and Design, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

The biggest challenge is whether we can slow down or stop the number of cars that are growing in the cities in the world, especially those in the rapidly developing cities in Asia. These cars are not only causing air pollution and traffic congestion but also consuming a lot of gasoline, depleting our non-renewable energy, emitting carbon dioxide, and causing global warming. Take China for example, one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, the number of cars in Beijing has grown from 57 per 1,000 persons in 2002 to 193 in 2011, an increase of over 200 percent in the last ten years. For the same period of time, cars in Hong Kong have only grown by 14 percent. As a result of the rapid increase in cars, the proportion of transportation oil consumption in China has increased from 10 percent in 1980 to 33 percent in 2007. It is not surprising that China is the world’s second-largest consumer of oil behind the United States, and the second-largest net importer of oil in the world. The rapid increase in the number of cars is greatly influenced by the rapid growth of per capita income. Although cities in Asia are in general quite compact, it is difficult to reduce traffic congestion and develop more sustainable low carbon cities if there are no transport management policies to control car growth through road pricing and improvement in the public transport system. How to control the growth of cars and make the city moving will be a major challenge to the cities in the world, especially those with rapid economic growth.

The De-industrialization of Cities; Implementing Innovation

Catherine L. Ross, Deputy Director, National Center for Transportation Productivity and Management, Harry West Professor of City and Regional Planning, Director, Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, Georgia Institute of Technology

The de-industrialization of large and small cities provides opportunities to better contain and get rid of industrial pollution sources within residential and commercial areas. As a result, we can reconstruct those areas as healthier, more equitable economic centers—providing sustainable travel options, more affordable mixed housing choices and enhanced revenue streams.  Infill development is a lever to accommodate the burgeoning urban population in many cities and the redevelopment of surrounding areas. These opportunities allow changes in economic activity through the introduction of technologies, industries and products that tap the potential of cities to sell services and goods with a focus on the global economy. We now have more innovative ways to make better use of abandoned buildings and existing infrastructure and to create more green space, active pedestrian ways and enhanced social capital environments.  Transportation investment strategies that facilitate economic rejuvenation reduce environmental degradation and create healthier, more accessible mobility options are no longer options but imperatives. 

Implementing Innovation

Public institutions and governments are increasingly opening their files and sharing data.  Along with this, communication networks, information systems and computing power are constantly improving and expanding. These developments make possible new evidenced based data sources and information to enhance innovations in planning and policies.   Yet our methods, strategies, policies and practices have not evolved to take advantage of these new opportunities and technologies.

How do we implement innovation, not just in technology but in practice?  This is a new mandate. We must not turn our backs or fall short in the responsibility to take advantage of this new frontier. Ultimately, it will allow us to create better places to live.

The New Year 2013 presents the opportunity for planners to integrate innovation, so often talked about in our profession, into practice. That would allow the application of new and innovative planning paradigms and technologies to solve the problems of our cities and regions.  The challenge is to change and improve not just our operations, but also our practice.  In the New Year, we must focus on improved innovative service delivery and enhanced stakeholder satisfaction. 

Educational Stratification

Laura Perna, Professor, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

One of the biggest urban challenges facing our world in the upcoming year is the persisting stratification of educational outcomes across demographic groups.  Educational attainment is critical to the economic and social well-being of individuals and society, as higher levels of education are associated with greater earnings, lower rates of unemployment and poverty, better health, and a host of other benefits for individuals and the communities in which they live.  Yet, differences in educational attainment across income, racial/ethnic, and other demographic groups mean that these benefits are unequally distributed across the U.S. population. The need to improve attainment for Blacks and Hispanics in particular is underscored by demographic trends, as the non-White population in the United States is growing substantially; several U.S. states are already “majority-minority” and more will be soon.  Raising overall educational attainment and closing gaps in attainment across groups requires public policymakers and educational leaders to pay greater attention to the many structural forces that limit the ability of individuals of different groups to progress through the educational pipeline from elementary and secondary education, and into and through postsecondary education.  Particular attention is required to improving the availability of academically rigorous curricula that adequately prepare students for college and careers, providing the supports that students require to succeed in rigorous courses, ensuring the availability of information about how to successfully navigate and persist through various educational pathways, and ensuring the availability of resources to pay educational costs.  Improving the affordability of postsecondary education is especially important given the escalation of tuition and fees, substantial reliance on student loans, and questions about the future of federal Pell grants. 

Improving Infrastructures

Lynn Hollen Lees, Professor of History, Vice-Provost for Faculty, University of Pennsylvania

Improving infrastructures is one of the biggest challenges facing cities today. In the U.S., urban bridges rust and crumble; our cities’ transportation systems are antiquated and underfinanced. Water mains leak and sidewalks crack. Hurricane Sandy revealed the need for underground power lines and flood control barriers to protect East Coast towns. In developing countries, urban immigrants crowd into mega-cities where the poor lack decent housing, sanitation, and access to clean water. Mike Davis describes a “Planet of Slums,” in which shanty towns multiply on waste land without paved roads, public transit, electricity, or sewers. The exploding megacities of the world urgently require better social infrastructures —schools, hospitals, and recreation spaces. Urbanization has far outpaced social investment in a majority of the world’s cities. Although existing technologies can cleanse and modernize, free market systems direct capital expenditures to those who can pay for services, and too few governments have sufficient will, skill, and resources to upgrade the urban environment for the benefit of all residents. The stark differences in environments for rich and poor work against political integration and the inclusion of all citizens into an urban community. Cities as sites of research, development, and innovation should take the lead in developing affordable new technologies for the provision of clean power, water, and waste disposal, which could lengthen and improve the lives of urbanites around the world.

Nourishing Our Cities

Carolyn C. Cannuscio, ScD, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, Section on Public Health, University of Pennsylvania

Almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night. The World Food Programme has aptly named hunger “the world’s greatest solvable problem.” Across the life span, hunger devastates health. Hungry mothers give birth to more fragile children. Hungry children are more likely to miss school; they are less prepared to learn. Hungry adults are more susceptible to declines in the most basic functions, like walking. Hunger kills more people than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

Beyond its health implications, hunger destroys human potential. Our cities need to harness and cultivate that human potential — the source of all innovation. As we were starkly reminded by hurricanes and horrific crimes in 2012, each year offers a new set of environmental, social and economic challenges. A hungry city is not a nimble city; it is an enervated and brittle one. Fundamentally, the resilience of cities demands a secure base, beginning with a well-nourished citizenry. 

Hunger is a global problem, and it is a local problem. In the United States in 2012, requests for emergency food aid increased in almost all cities surveyed. Here in Philadelphia, the first Congressional District ranks as one of the “hungriest” in the nation, with over a third of households reporting food insecurity.

So as we close our holiday season of consumption, we can renew our focus on strategies for nourishing our cities and our world, including: supporting smallholder farmers, shoring up school feeding programs, and advocating for government support of nutrition programs. At home, we can contribute by reducing food waste, participating in meatless Monday (or any day), and giving to innovative urban agriculture projects like The Food Project. 

For the future of cities, the best ideas will come on full bellies. 

Creating Stronger Links Between the Urban Design and Public Health

Shiriki Kumanyika, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and Associate Dean for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, School of Medicine

“Big” can have several meanings, for example, large number of people affected, many sectors involved, wide geographical spread, billions of dollars at stake, high impact in pain and suffering; major challenge to our presumed common moral principles, or extreme complexity of finding solutions.  A BIG challenge that encompasses all angles is to establish a broadly-based commitment to a convergence of urban design and public health policies so that cities do not inevitably ruin the health of those who live within them. This will require reframing goals of urbanization and development to include health promotion as core to success (which also requires that the success of urbanization be seen as core to public health goals).  Urbanization, particularly when rapid, and the structural and lifestyle changes associated with urban living, have huge effects on health that are far too often in an unfavorable direction.  Adverse health effects occur through numerous, interlinked, multi-sectoral pathways that end in intractable and often escalating poverty, unemployment, environmental injustice, food insecurity, interpersonal violence, mental health problems, and epidemic obesity and diet-related diseases.  These pathways occur in cities in all types of societies and economies, although in different proportions and, in turn, compromise productivity, healthy living, and viability.  Creating stronger links between the urban design and public health communities is essential to achieving greater critical mass, integration, and voice, as both the urban and the health issues are high on this year’s global policy agendas. 

Restoring Public Finances

Janet Rothenberg Pack, Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy, Professor of Real Estate, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania

State and local funds support all the fundamental urban necessities: education, housing, public safety, infrastructure, employment, social services, and health care. Although most of these receive aid from the federal government, when all sources of funds (federal, state, and local) are simultaneously subject to setback — as they are now —these critical responsibilities suffer. Over the last several months, news articles and opinion pieces have flagged this issue as a critical one:

This summer, the New York Times reported that “More than a quarter of municipal governments are planning layoffs this year, according to a survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. They are being squeezed not only by declining federal and state support, but by their devastated property tax base.” The article points out that “Trenton … has already cut a third of its police force….[and] the only way the city will forestall the loss of 60 more firefighters is if a federal grant comes through.” (“Public Workers Face New Rash of Layoffs Hurting Recovery,” New York Times, 6/20/12.)

A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that “States have made steep cuts to education funding since the start of the recession and, in many states, those cuts deepened over the last year.  Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding in the 2012-13 school year than they did last year in 26 states, and in 35 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels — often far below.” (“New School Year Brings More Cuts in State Funding for Schools,” Center on Budget Priorities, 9/4/12.)

In August, the New York Daily News reported that “Camden, N.J., consistently ranked among the 10 most dangerous cities in the U.S., is losing its police department in an attempt to shave millions of dollars from its budget.  The city is not becoming a completely lawless land. It will be under the jurisdiction of a new, non-union division of the Camden County Police.”  (“Budget cuts leave crime-ravaged Camden, N.J., without a police department,” NY Daily News, 8/27/12).

The challenge is: what will it take to restore public finances — local, state, and federal aid — and thus the public services they support? The obvious response is a substantial economic recovery. Although this is happening albeit at a slow pace, it is thus far and for the foreseeable future, too little to reverse the substantial cutbacks that have occurred. Moreover, demands for public services are increasing: demand on the health system and social services is increasing as the population ages; the need for employment assistance and special education is increasing as the immigrant population grows; the need to maintain and improve infrastructure is increasing as it continues to age and suffer from maintenance neglect; and the need to address unfunded pension liabilities will soon become unavoidable, to name just a few.

Urban America’s Fiscal Cliff

John J. DiIulio, Jr., Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, and Professor of Political Science, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Over the last few years, Detroit has cut city services and reduced its municipal workforce. Still, in 2013, the city’s budget deficit could exceed $100 million. About 40 percent of Detroit’s residents live below the poverty line. The city’s murder rate rose about 10 percent in 2012 and is higher today than it was in the mid-1970s. Maybe additional budget austerity measures can boost Detroit’s credit rating above “speculative grade,” but they would not cut its poverty or murder rates, and they could have other adverse civic consequences.

Detroit is not the only U.S. city, big or small, that begins 2013 in acute fiscal distress. Together, state and local governments spend about $3 trillion a year and are about $3 trillion in debt. Most states have reduced pension benefits and trimmed the aid that constituted a third of local revenues. But most states still face major fiscal challenges, not least with respect to financing health care for low-income urban citizens, from preschoolers to senior citizens, via the federal-state program Medicaid.

Over the last several years, numerous municipalities have gone bankrupt or explored bankruptcy proceedings. In a June 2012 report, the Pew Center on the States noted that “most localities have tackled budget pressures by reducing spending.” Among the results gave been “increased class sizes and shortened school days” plus cuts to services ranging from “trash collection to public safety.”

So, many cities begin 2013 bunched together near the edge of urban America’s fiscal cliff. How best to help Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Jefferson County, Philadelphia, San Bernardino, and other cities to find safe and sustainable fiscal ground while doing the least civic harm in the process? And how to ensure that the federal government and state governments do not pull themselves back from their respective fiscal cliffs by pushing local governments over theirs?

I have no answers, but a bipartisan, presidentially-empaneled “Simpson-Bowles” Commission that focuses on state and local government finances and reports before the next New Year just might.

A Low-Hanging Fruit: Dealing with Urban Congestion

Gilles Duranton, Professor of Real Estate, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania

As a society we have come to accept traffic jams as a fact of life and part of the price to pay to access our jobs, go shopping, and visit friends. It is true that we should not expect free-flow traffic on major arteries at 8:00 am on weekdays. Nonetheless, the extra car that, every morning, blocks a major intersection can bring hundreds if not thousands of drivers to a standstill. Since drivers only pay the average cost of travel and not the overall cost that they impose on others, there is too much driving and unnecessary congestion. With my co-authors Victor Couture and Matthew Turner we estimate that the value of the time lost by drivers because of congestion is in the order of $80 billion per year in urban America (Speed). Because this estimate ignores fuel costs, commercial trucks, and extra pollution caused by traffic jams, it is very conservative. The true cost of congestion may be twice that figure.

What can be done about this? Traditionally we have built more roads to accommodate growing traffic. While building roads may be necessary for many reasons, this does not cure congestion. As I have shown with Matthew Turner (The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities), building more roads only elicits a proportional increase in travel. More recently it has become fashionable to argue that transit was the solution to our traffic woes. While transit will be necessary to accommodate travelers who have left their car, it cannot be a solution on its own. Every time a driver can be convinced to take public transportation, he or she frees up space on the roadway. This space then gets taken by another driver. Some cities in Europe have attempted to make life impossible to drivers by reducing the roadway. While this may reduce travel, this certainly does not reduce congestion. Some cities regulate traffic by using plate numbers to prevent access. This is not very effective either. The residents of those cities only keep more vehicles. These vehicles tend to be older and pollute more.

This leaves us with only one solution: urban roads should be priced. Implementing road pricing was, for a long time, a technically difficult proposition. Tolls could only be imposed around a cordon – a crude instrument that often led to long queues outside the cordon. However, technology is moving our way. Transponders are now widely available and the next generation of GPS-based technologies will make pricing roads even easier. The other obstacle to road pricing is political. This difficulty is unfortunately not going away. Drivers instinctively refuse to pay for something that has been hitherto free. The good news is that once they can see the benefits of road pricing, drivers like it. London re-elected Mayor Ken Livingston in an election that was a referendum on the London `congestion charge’. After a trial period of six months, the inhabitants of Stockholm voted in favor of road pricing. Unfortunately, the New York State Senate killed a road pricing proposal for New York City put forward by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Is there another city official somewhere in America willing to try road and demonstrate its benefits to the rest of the continent?

The Potential for Urban Innovation

Dana Tomlin, Professor of Landscape Architecture
and Co-director, Cartographic Modeling Laboratory, Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania

One needn’t venture into metaphysics or even very far into biology in order to accept the notion that we, as humans, tend to form social organisms for which that term is entirely appropriate. Even without embracing any Gaian ideas of coevolution with the world around us, it is clear that our ability to interact with that world has evolved over time and has recently done so at a dramatically increasing rate.

An important part of this evolution can easily (and perhaps usefully) be compared to that of the human nervous system. Just as neurons evolved into nerve nets and nerve cords with ganglia and sensory organs that would eventually lead to the human brain, so has our information technology now evolved to the point where we can be so presumptuous as to draw reasonable analogies. What was once little more than an ability to sense stimuli (to record sights, sounds, and so on) has quickly been followed by an ability to retain those recorded sensations (to store the data), an ability to interpret them (analyze and synthesize those data), and an ability to communicate both (to transfer derived as well as raw data) to other parts of an interconnected system (the Internet) in ways that provide not only for self-adaption (reconfiguration of the system itself) but also for kinetic reaction (triggering an output device).

So, what’s the biggest urban innovation that will affect our world in the coming year? I suspect that your part of it is right there in your pocket, if not your hand, and that you have already made good use of it many times today. As for the rest of this innovation, we can safely assume that the coming year continues to bring dramatic advances on all fronts. My own current favorite is the personal drone.

Veterinary Medicine and Urbanization

Joan Hendricks, Gilbert S. Kahn Dean, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

One of the most important trends influencing the veterinary profession is continuing urbanization.  Animals who produce food and fiber for humans, as well as wildlife, generally live in rural settings.  The challenge of training professionals to work in urban settings when virtually all students have an urban/suburban background is severe.  Further, the general public has virtually no experience with rearing animals in a farm setting, nor with the realities of food production.  Thus, there are increasing societal concerns about farm animal health and welfare, food safety, and the environmental impact of intensive farming.  These concerns have an impact on farmers and on veterinarians and the necessity of educating and responding to these concerns while continuing to be efficient and cost-effective in producing animal protein for the developed and developing world present enormous challenges.  A related question is whether and how food production can be integrated into peri-urban and even urban regions in a fashion that preserves the wellbeing and health of both the humans and the animals.

Improving Women’s Health and Opportunity

Afaf Meleis, Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania

More recent dialogues continue to highlight what we have known for many prior decades – women’s situation and health are compromised because of societal and culturally imposed inequities. With the anticipation that the world is becoming more urbanized, 75 percent by 2030, it is apparent that in spite of many gains through urban living, women become more vulnerable to poverty, their health is more compromised, their safety is undermined and there are limited venues for their voices to be heard. Within this context of urban living for women, many questions about the future become imperative to address. Among these questions are the following: What will it take to create safe and healthy environments? What will it take to stop trafficking, violence and exploitation of women? What will it take to eliminate disparities and to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which has appropriately focused on insuring women are educated, empowered, and that their voices are heard, valued and taken seriously? What will it take to ensure that women are able to reach their full potential and capacity to be productive members of society? 

Addressing these questions will take much effort, systematic and deliberate planning, and strategic actions that are based on the partnerships of the different sectors of societies. It will take the development and implementation of a collaborative and coherent framework that is driven by the values and principles of justice and equity. There has been some progress made toward these goals and powerful examples of best practices that have resulted in outcomes that many thought leaders envisioned and articulated for many years. The creation of innovative partnerships from different parts of the world have led to progress in women’s situations. These partnerships and best practices have had an impact on bringing women’s issues to the forefront, raising consciousness of leaders or enhancing women’s opportunities to influence policies. Fast forward - by continued work toward a future of equity, safety, well-being, and productivity we may be able to make that future happen sooner for women world-wide.


Urban Link January 2013 (Volume 2013, Issue 1) »

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