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November 6, 2015

Cities depend on having just the right amount of the important things. That includes demographic growth. In places with stagnant or even declining populations, city leaders worry. As human populations peak and then start to trend downward, the city's very future is put into question.

But all too often, too much growth is the primary concern. This month, in addition to other smart city news, we’ll compare the challenges confronting Chinese cities and African cities as they deal with different kinds of growth.

— Emily Liedel

In Vienna, 2015 has been touted as the “year of walking,” and the city has been flooded with publicity campaigns about how healthy, safe and modern it is to travel on your own two feet. So why is it that the city’s pedestrian mode-share has actually decreased since 2010, Die Presse asks? (German) Some say part of the problem lies in the way things are counted: First of all, anyone who takes public transit has to travel part of the way by foot, but that portion isn’t counted. And perhaps more importantly, most of the city’s efforts to promote walking have taken place in the city center, where walking is already a preferred mode of transit. In the outskirts, on the other hand, pedestrianism has been almost totally neglected as mobility planners focus exclusively on where to put new subway or bus lines.

Many of the world’s most important cities acquired their status because they were (and are) ports. But what does it mean to be a smart port city? According to La Tribune and France’s Smart City Channel, a smart port is equipped to get cargo in and out without getting stuck for too long at any one point. Smart city tools are best applied in port systems when they manage to connect all of the actors, both on water and land, so they are better able to work together and move an ever-increasing volume of goods quickly into and out of their docking.

“Cities compete among themselves ... They compete for talent, capital and tourists," explains Spanish economist Montserrat Pareja in El Periodico. According to Pareja, building high-tech smart city infrastructure is one way for individual cities to try to stand out in the competition. 

As more and more Africans move into cities, there are clear signs that urbanization is unequivocally good for the continent, increasing growth and reducing poverty, Quartz reports. Unfortunately, African cities do not have a strong history of sharing the benefits fairly among all their residents; and the trend towards car-dependent cities divided into slums and gated communities has barely slowed. So what does Africa need to do to build more equitable, sustainable cities? Start requiring urban development plans to pass democratically elected government bodies — in most places, there is virtually zero public input into urban planning policies — and reduce political corruption.

Would you plan your commute differently if you had instant access to all of your city’s traffic cameras? In Montreal, the city has chosen to make that information available to any motorist who wants to see what the freeways look like in real time, CNW Telbec reports (French). Montreal has cameras at around 250 intersections around the city, and they are now open for viewing to anyone. However, in an effort to protect individual privacy, the videos themselves are available only in real time and are not recorded.

Like many African nations, Ghana has seen rapid urbanization in the past 30 years. Now 51% of Ghanians live in cities, with the number of urban dwellers having more than tripled in the past three decades. Over the same time period, the World Bank found that the poverty rate in the capital has dropped by 20% and the country's average annual GDP growth rate stands at 5.7%. 

Berlin is considering a proposal that would clean up a dirty stretch of the River Spree that runs around the city’s museum island. The proposal would use a new wetland and sand to naturally clean up the polluted canal and create an urban river swimming pool that residents and visitors could enjoy, The New York Times reports. The project also has the added benefit of creating new habitat for wildlife and enlivening a place that is now completely deserted at night. Though some critics say the plan is poorly conceived, there seems to now be widening political support — so you might want to pack a bathing suit on your next trip to Germany’s capital.


"Hikari" may sound like a strange name for a development project in a French city. But the three-building development in Lyon is being constructed in conjunction with a Japanese firm, and there is more than the name to set it apart. The buildings are inspired by nature (Hikari means "light" in Japanese) and produce more energy than they consume — both by maximizing the buildings’ energy production and minimizing consumption through the latest architectural and technological innovations. 

Nothing makes a city look bad quite like piles of trash in the wrong spot. Montevideo, Uruguay is taking a technological approach to dealing with a long-term problem of illegal dumping in certain parts of the city, El Observador reports (Spanish). The city is installing between 10 and 20 cameras specifically to control illegal trash dumping in the city. The primary targets are not individuals, but rather garbage trucks that deposit their refuse in unauthorized areas. The new garbage surveillance is part of a larger push to make Montevideo an innovator in smart city applications. 

One major reason Beijing recently overturned its controversial one-child rule is a realization that, if current trends continue, China’s population will start shrinking in 2017, accelerating the aging of the population as a whole. But no one has told developers in cities large and small. As a result, urbanization in China has not been driven by people moving to the cities, but by local governments that inflate estimated populations to justify seizing land from farmers and then using the land to get business investments, Caixin reports (Chinese). In China’s industrial northeast, for example, an ambitious plan centered around the region’s largest city calls for 33 new towns and enough urban space for the population to grow by 3 million. The region as a whole, meanwhile, is actually losing population to the tune of 1.8 million per year.

In western India, a giant city is disappearing after just two months in existence. During August and September, Nashik received 30 million pilgrims, 10 times its population, during the Hindu Kumbh Mela pilgrimage. This accelerated urbanization phenomenon is instructive to an India that is expected to count 500 million new residents in its cities by 2050. "If a temporary city of several million residents can be erected and administrated, why not apply the same efficient planning methods to other urban contexts?" asks Rahul Mehrotra, an urbanism professor at Harvard University. Read this full Le Monde/Worldcrunch article, In India, A Massive Hindu Pilgrimage Is An Urbanism Experiment 


Check our special dossier of articles from Worldcrunch's news partners around the world, translated into English.

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