A few weeks ago at the Cities for People forum in Toronto – an event I was invited to as part of my Metcalf Foundation internship – a story told by the Danish architect and public space guru Jan Gehl sparked my interest:
“Do you have a baby boom in Copenhagen Mr. Gehl?” asked a concerned Mrs. Lan – an employee at the Danish embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“No at all Mrs. Lan, Denmark’s population is actually shrinking.” Jan Gehl’s was puzzled and surprised by this question.
“But I saw so many children when I was in Copenhagen!” Mrs. Lan insisted.
Jan Gehl eventually concluded that Mrs. Lan was asking a question based on the simple observation that most parents in Copenhagen bring their small children out “because it is safe to do so”. This is in stark contrast to Vietnam – which has a much higher birth rate than Denmark – where it’s rare to see small children out in the street “because parents don`t feel safe taking them out when they have to battle through narrow sidewalks and busy traffic.”
Jan Gehl told this story at the beginning of his keynote address at the Cities for People Forum held in Toronto earlier this month to make the point that “Many children present in a city is a sure sign of quality and livability”. This set the tone for the forum which was designed to bring together multiple stakeholders – including private foundations, community organizations and think tanks – to explore the question: how can we enhance social, ecological, and economic well being and help civic cultures thrive? It was about how cities can be remade so that they can be enjoyed, and not just endured – as Jan Gehl explained to the Toronto Star.
The story also reminded me of the ultimate reason why – at Sustainable Prosperity – we focus on developing and promoting policy tools to build more sustainable communities. It is not that we like sustainable modes of transportation and greater downtown density for their own sake. Rather, they can significantly transform travel to work, reduce the time spent on congested roads, encourage more active lifestyles, and improve air quality for all. Sustainable communities translate into enhanced quality of life. They turn urban spaces into Cities for People.
Jan Gehl’s story focused on the why of Cities for People. At Sustainable Prosperity we focus on the how and particularly on the wide array of market-based instruments that can help cities address their many environmental and economic challenges. These may also provide cities with a new source of revenue. When well designed and implemented, they encourage the things we need to make more livable, sustainable and healthier cities (such as greater downtown density, more and safer bike lanes and revitalized public spaces), and less of the things that make them miserable (like congestion and poor air quality).
I was therefore not surprised that the Cities for People forum participants – invited to propose and submit ideas on the type of actions that would help improve Canadian cities – raised many of the very same market-based instruments promoted by Sustainable Prosperity. Among the most relevant to SP’s work were:
• Expose sprawl’s hidden costs: Adjusting development charges to reflect the higher costs imposed on municipalities by sprawling development. Sustainable Prosperity’s Suburban Sprawl report talks more about how this can help balance municipal finances and create more livable communities.
• Use the tax system to address sprawl: Adjusting property tax rates by location to encourage denser development. The Suburban Sprawl report describes several examples; Windsor has a property tax assistance program for redevelopment of Brownfields (abandoned industrial properties), which encourages development in established areas. Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works – the venue for the Cities for People forum - is a great example of how a deteriorating site can be transformed into a dynamic public space!
• Encourage residents to use low carbon modes of transportation: Funding transit and other economic incentives can encourage greater transit use and more active forms of transportation. In France, some 20 companies and institutions – employing over 10,000 people – recently signed up to pay their staff to cycle to work as a way to boost people’s health, reduce air pollution and cut fossil fuel consumption.
This is but a short sample of market-based instruments that could be used to help cities work better for people. They are most effective – as a recent Sustainable Prosperity policy brief explained – when combined with non-market-based regulations and service provision in a deliberately coordinated approach and when equity and fairness factors are taken into account.
I feel very fortunate and grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this very interesting and unique event. As part of the Metcalf Foundation’s Sustainability Internship program, I was first invited to participate in a two-day professional training workshop where I met my fellow Metcalf Foundation and Cities for People interns and learned more about the challenging (but fascinating!) sustainability projects they are all working on. Later, we had the chance to actively participate in the forum by engaging in lively discussions on how we can make more livable, sustainable and healthier Cities for People.