Sep 25, 2008

World - Cities of hope (G.Read)

Barun Roy

After Beijing, it’s now Shanghai’s turn to wow the world. One and a half years from now, in May 2010, China will once again be the focus of global attention when some 180 countries and 44 organisations will flock to its largest city to mount a World Expo expected to be one of the biggest in history. And just as Beijing had its glitzy Olympic venues, Shanghai will have its dazzlers, too, including a 5.28-sq km Expo Park branded as the largest single construction project the city has ever undertaken, an unprecedented green makeover on which over $26 billion is being spent.
But that’s not the only reason why the world will be travelling to Shanghai — some five million foreigners are expected to visit during the six months that the Expo will be on show, straddling a 31-hectare area on both sides of the Huangpu River. People will go there as much to be entertained as to pick up ideas and lessons, for the Expo theme, “Better City, Better Life”, couldn’t be more appropriate for a world that confronts an urban future with which it doesn’t know how to cope.
The urban challenge is very real and indeed very complex. Half the world’s population already lives in cities and towns. By 2050, two-thirds of humanity will. And, as urbanisation expands, especially in Asia and Africa, villages are becoming half-baked towns, towns are developing as half-baked cities and cities are turning into half-baked metropolises, where living is unhealthy, unsafe, overcrowded and, for most people, sub-human. In a condition of unplanned growth, snarled traffic, polluted air, ill-disposed waste, congested neighbourhoods and a conspicuous lack of public space, it’s not at all surprising that cities, particularly in the developing world, should show disturbing symptoms of social disintegration, unrest, and criminality.
Something must be done to arrest the rot before it goes out of control and then start the healing process. Because most of the world’s population will henceforth be living and working in towns and cities, the task is all the more urgent, and several city governments around the world have taken it head on and found their own ways to mitigate the urban pain. Their efforts constitute a significant body of urban best practices that others could study, follow or draw inspiration from.
Shanghai Expo 2010 is going to present a selection of such practices and showcase what’s actually being done on the ground to deal with the urban crisis. On a 15-hectare site on the Pudong side of the Huangpu, tagged as the Urban Best Practices Area, visitors will see 55 of the world’s most innovative city projects that offer stimulating new ideas on different aspects of urban living.
There will, for example, be the “Wall of Vegetation” from Paris, a concept developed by landscape architect Patrick Blanc that covers up huge wall spaces of buildings with self-sustaining vertical gardens, creates spectacular greenery, enhances building insulation and retards atmospheric pollution. Odense, Denmark’s third largest city and the hometown of Hans Christian Andersen, will be there to show how its strict land use policies have led to compact, mixed-use developments and made possible a remarkable revival of the bicycle. Today, Odense has a bicycle roadway network of more than 550 km with ample bike parking facilities — residents use the bike for all their shorter trips.
People will find out what endows Porto Alegre, in Brazil, with the best quality of life of all large cities in Latin America and why the United Nations considers it to be the world’s most habitable city. By allowing people direct participation in municipal budgeting for all new investments, Porto Alegre has come to be a citizen-designed city, so to say, that people feel very comfortable about.
One will also learn how Mina, the holy place in Saudi Arabia, has become the first fully fire-proof city in the world; what Venice is doing to revive its dying canals; how smart cards have revolutionised people’s lives in Hong Kong; and what Shanghai is seeking to achieve with its eco-housing initiative, where ventilation, lighting, and air-conditioning get automatically adjusted according to people’s needs and electric lights are not required during daytime.
Perhaps most interesting, from a developing world point of view, is Taipei’s “Total Recycling, Zero Landfill” approach to urban solid waste management. Strict recycling, enforced since 2006, and a fee for each disposed bag of garbage, introduced in 2001, have reduced daily domestic waste in the city by one third. People must stuff their waste in government-issued bags, which they have to buy, and throw these bags directly into collection trucks every night. No trash touches the ground. Most of it is taken directly to incinerators to be converted into electricity. Only 17 per cent of the waste goes into landfill, but the goal is to cut that out, too.

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