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New Cities Summit Descends on Dallas

More than 50 countries are represented at the New Cities Summit being held this week in Dallas, which is said to be the leading global event on the future of the urban world.

by Chad vanderVeen / June 17, 2014
A solar halo highlights one of the newer skyscrapers in downtown Dallas. Photo: Chad Vander Veen

DALLAS – More than 50 countries are represented at the New Cities Summit being held this week in Dallas. The summit, which was previously held in Sao Paulo in 2013 and Paris in 2012, is said to be the leading global event on the future of the urban world.

Taking place in Dallas’ renowned Winspear Opera House, summit organizers set about tackling the issues confronting civic leaders around the globe, including sustainable energy, waste management, transportation and urban design.

“We have a dedicated purpose to transforming cities and making them better places to live and work,” New Cities Foundation Chairman John Rossant told the audience. “We’re looking for better solutions and better innovations so we can improve our cities. The mission of NCF is to bring together stakeholders to improve our urban future.”

One of the key themes of the summit has so far been how city leaders can reconcile the ever-growing urban population and the correlated increase in the demand for services and housing.

Population experts have regularly sounded the alarm around a massive shift from rural to urban living in the 21st century. The World Health Organization, for one, has estimated that by mid-century fully 7 in 10 people on the planet will live in a city.

China is a particularly vivid example of this trend toward so-called “megaregions”. Parag Khanna, a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, spoke this morning about the unfettered growth in China and India.

Khanna pointed out that the population of China’s three largest urban areas are larger than the ten other largest non-Chinese urban areas combined. Furthering the drama, Khanna said the GDP of the Pearl River Delta, home to Chinese metropolises like Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Macau to name a few, would make the region a member of the G20 were it itself a country.

“How are cities going to build to absorb (that kind of) population growth?” Khanna said.

There were several attempts to answer that question. Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican Ambassador to the United States, said that cities cannot depend on federal assistance anymore.

“The story of cities in the 21st century is one of the most compelling things that is happening,” Sarukhan said. “Increasingly federal governments are becoming dysfunctional. Mayors and citizens have the greatest impact on public policy. If you look at what’s happening today we’re sort of going back to the middle ages as we see more ‘city states.’”

Jaime Lerner, a former mayor and governor from Brazil, took a more philosophical approach. Lerner spoke of an effort his administration undertook to pay Brazilian fisherman for the garbage they caught in the waterways of the Amazon. Any fish caught, Lerner explained, they could keep. Any garbage caught and the government would pay them. The point, he said, was to get people invested in creating a cleaner environment and, in turn, promoting the growth of new fish stocks.

The story served to underscore Lerner’s belief that “If you understand your city, you will respect it better.”

Understanding the city has been a notion threaded throughout the summit’s various sessions. Both attendees and presenters seemed keen to foster discussion about how big data can help civic leaders make strides toward creating smarter, greener cities.

Emma Stewart, the Head of Sustainability Solutions at Autodesk, said getting at that data isn’t as easy as it’s often made out to be.

“Most cities don’t have a chief technology officer, let alone a chief data officer, and those that do have been saddled with basic IT,” she said. “It’s a minority of cities that have a data strategy at all. You’ve got agencies battling agencies over whose data is whose. The pitfalls are human, not technological, but those of us in the tech sector have to empathize with this.”

Stewart even took a somewhat pessimistic turn when asked about the popular idea of outfitting anything and everything with sensors to create a “smart city.”

“If I’m a civic leader I have this buffet of data at my fingertips,” she said. “But we may spend billions sensoring every inch of the urban environment and discover what we learn was already fairly obvious.”

No summit on the future of cities would be complete without a discussion on transportation. From autonomous vehicles to high-speed rail to remote work environments, the New Cities Summit sees a role for all of it.

However, most experts agreed it’s not just a question of should we or shouldn’t we – rather, in the U.S. anyway, it’s an issue of giving citizens choice.

“What we need to do in this country is provide more choice,” said Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Make parking much more expensive. It’s a great deterrent to drive into town. We’re on the cusp of change. But we have to work harder on providing more choice, creating more housing downtown.”

Remote work environments, meanwhile, were championed but the point was conceded that until corporate management in America overcomes its archaic yet pervasive need to see employees physically at work for 40 hours each week, the workplace of the future will still largely be in office buildings, adding to traffic congestion, air pollution, and auto accidents.

“The way many companies run today it’s all centralized,” said Mark Dixon, founder of Regus, a flexible working environment provider. “Even progressive technology companies are in another age but they still feel they have to have everyone together to get the best out of them.”

The New Cities Summit continues in Dallas through Thursday.

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