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Mayors, Innovators Explore Solutions for City Sustainability

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By A.D. McKenzie

PARIS (IDN) – As thousands of Parisians headed to work on a recent Monday morning, an underground train in the Eiffel Tower area clanked to a halt, with the driver announcing an accident involving a member of the public on the tracks. Commuters had to quit the vehicle, scrambling to find alternative means of getting to their destinations.

The irritation and confusion were palpable, as streams of people exited the station. But for those who could cycle, Paris provides a public bike-sharing system, and dozens rushed to the bicycle stands, even as others headed to nearby bus stops or made the decision to walk.

Across the city, meanwhile, Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo was discussing ways of “creating a sustainable city that works for everyone”, outlining some of the measures she has instituted – policies that have angered some owners of private cars in the French capital.

“We’ve proposed [public] bikes, electric cars,” said Hidalgo, a key speaker at the fifth annual CityLab conference, which took place October 22-24. “You cannot just leave your car everywhere, that won’t work.”

Since Hidalgo became mayor, Paris has increasingly taken steps to lower the number of private vehicles on the roads and has reduced the number of car lanes on major thoroughfares in the city.

The idea is to reclaim certain zones for bicycles and pedestrians, with the aim of ensuring sustainability and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, as Hidalgo explained at CityLab.

The conference, described by organisers as “a celebration of cities and city life”, brought together some 40 mayors from around the world, joined by “urban experts, business leaders, artists and activists”.

Co-hosted by The Atlantic media platform, The Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the main objective was to “explore solutions for the most pressing issues facing city leaders and city dwellers alike”, according to the organisers.

Participants engaged in panel discussions, on-stage conversations, workshops and field trips, with topics ranging from “automation and the future of work” to “a vision for more inclusive transit”. Businesses such as General Motors, MasterCard and McKinsey & Company sponsored some of the events.

A major concern for local government, as the underground-train disruption illustrated, is how to provide and maintain reliable as well as “green” transportation in crowded cities.

Paris has led the way in public bike-sharing projects, and similar systems now exist in hundreds of cities. They currently include dock-less bike-shares that have seen huge success in China and other countries.

At CityLab, French company Smoove showed off colourful new bikes that will replace the current Paris Vélib’ system in January 2018. It is expected that these lighter bikes will lead to an increased number of users, for added impact on car-free policies, which is a global movement. One-third of the bikes are also electric.

In Japan, some municipalities are taking actions similar to those of Paris, according to speakers at the conference.

“I met mayors across Japan working on the same issues, but whose work isn’t so widely known,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, as she introduced Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo.

Koike, who is Tokyo’s first female governor, said that through various measures such as reducing the number of cars, the city aims to cut climate temperatures in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change. Tokyo also wishes to increase renewables to 30 percent of the energy mix by 2030, she said.

“I think that the economy and ecology can go together,” Koike told listeners.

The business side of sustainability was a significant aspect of the conference, with start-ups displaying and describing various projects taking place around the world.

“I think that the focus on local government, civic groups and start-ups provides clarity to help drive innovation and social impact,” said Marcus Shaw, executive director of The Company Lab (or CO.LAB), a non-profit start-up accelerator that supports “entrepreneurial growth” in southeast Tennessee.

“My role here is to understand what other local ecosystems are doing to drive innovation, and to see how local leaders are looking to drive development,” he told IDN.

“Certainly in most cities, the local government has as much impact on cities as national governments. Here, everybody can learn about best practices and share their experiences.”

According to billionaire businessman and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, cities are “more important than ever before.”

Bloomberg – who opened the conference – said that the United States could reach its Paris Agreement goals through the action of cities.

Whether spelled out or not, it was clear that many participants at CityLab were concerned by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement in June that the United States would withdraw from the agreement. In fact, at the conference, Hidalgo termed the withdrawal a “catastrophe” and “a major error”.

The withdrawal will no doubt feature strongly in upcoming UN climate talks known as COP 23, taking place November 6 to 17 in Bonn, Germany; but the spotlight more than ever will also be on local governments, their actions and the particular issues that cities face.

United Nations projections suggest that by 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, with an increasing number of challenges.

Some 82 percent of cities (home to 1.9 billion people in 2014) were located in areas that faced high risk of mortality associated with natural disasters, the organisation says.

“Similarly, 89 percent of cities – home to 2.1 billion people in 2014 – were located in areas that were highly vulnerable to economic losses associated with at least one of the six types of natural disasters,” the United Nations said in the data booklet The World’s Cities in 2016.

Recent hurricanes have borne out the publication’s statement that “cities in the less developed regions were at higher risk of exposure to natural disasters and were more vulnerable to disaster-related economic losses and mortality than those in the more developed regions”.

With such statistics in mind, one might have expected to see a higher representation at CityLab from cities in developing countries (local government officials from the Philippines, Jamaica, Colombia, Jordan, Zambia, Malawi and Ethiopia were among those present), since urban areas in regions of the Global South require specific solutions.

According to some CityLab participants, the theme of “think and act globally”, as voiced by Hidalgo, might have to become the new mantra – whether one is part of local, regional or national government.

“As a developing country, we have limited infrastructure, but through [partnerships] we’ve gained from research about road safety,” said Solomon Kidane Zegeye, head of the Road and Transport Bureau in Addis Ababa, who took part in a panel titled “From Seatbelts to Smoke Free Cities: Local Strategies for a Healthier World”.

Zegeye said that dangerous roads “should not be a price” for development. He told participants that the Ethiopian capital had developed a three-year action plan to make its roads safer – for vehicles, pedestrians, and perhaps even a bike-sharing system in the future. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 October 2017]

Photo: Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (left) discusses sustainability measures at CityLab. Credit: A.D. McKenzie

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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