Urban Areas Innovating for a Sustainable Tomorrow

Four cities of the future

Cities around the world are beginning to recognize the need to make changes in areas like waste management and environmental stewardship to ensure a more sustainable future for its citizens. IN highlights four international cities that are taking innovative actions to address these pressing issues.

South Korea: Futuristic Waste Collection

13 years ago, the city of Songdo in South Korea was just a massive sand dune, recently reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. Now, it has transformed into a thriving community close to Seoul’s main airport that features green designs and futuristic technology on every corner. Charging stations for electric cars and a water-recycling system that doesn’t require clean drinking water to flush office toilets are just two of Songdo’s exciting innovations. But perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of Songdo’s municipal infrastructure is its waste collection system.

In Songdo, garbage trucks are a thing of the past. So are trash cans – at least in the traditional way. Instead, a complex network of tunnels that run beneath Songdo processes the city’s waste in an environmentally friendly manner. From private homes and workplaces, trash flows through the tunnels to underground facilities where it is automatically sorted. Throughout the process, sensors track data on the city’s energy use – data that authorities can use to formulate future enhancements. When this system is fully operational, it may even be able to generate renewable energy. The ingenuity of Songdo’s waste management system is just one reason that Songdo is called “The City of the Future.”

Hong Kong: Face of Litter Campaign

Despite Hong Kong’s steep fine of HK$1,500 (about US $200) for littering authorities still estimate that around 16,000 tons of rubbish is illegally littered every day. To better deter would-be litterers, the environmental group, Hong Kong Cleanup, has embarked on a new campaign to give littering in Hong Kong a face, or rather 27 faces to be exact.

Confused? Don’t be. The group’s new project, the aptly-named “Faces of Litter,” uses cutting-edge technology to unmask Hong Kong’s litterers.

First, activists collect human DNA from pieces of garbage, for example chewing gum and cigarette butts, to send to an American lab. At the lab, geneticists analyze the DNA to reconstruct the faces of the litterers. With this information, the scientists are then able to reconstruct the “faces of litter,” which are sent back to the group in Hong Kong. The NGO (non-governmental organization) then posts pictures of the faces in public spaces throughout the city with the caption “Most Wanted”.

27 faces were on full display by Global Earth Day (April 22). Time will tell whether this program reduces the level of littering in Hong Kong, but the project did achieve one objective: litterers in Hong Kong are no longer anonymous.

Singapore: Land-Scarce, Idea-Abundant

Land is scarce and expensive in Singapore, which has the third highest population density in the world (7,814 people per square kilometer1) and contains some of the world’s priciest real estate.2 As a result, Singapore can’t rely on traditional, land-intensive methods of waste management like landfills or composting to dispose of its waste, so the government has turned to green waste management techniques. The city’s excellent recycling program and waste-to-energy facilities are two of the city’s most forward-thinking and environmentally-friendly waste management practices.

Singapore’s recycling program has grown dramatically since 2000, when Singapore only recycled about 40 percent of its waste.3 To increase this rate, Singapore’s National Environmental Agency (NEA) undertook initiatives such as the contracting of recycling collection services to private firms and a tax on construction and demolition waste. Due in no small part to these and other NEA initiatives, Singapore’s recycling rate rose to 60 percent in 2014,4 with energy recovery facilities managing the remaining 40 percent. Looking forward, Singapore must now focus on efforts to raise the recycling rate of private households, which recycle much less than businesses and the government.

Biofuel Buses: Johannesburg, South Africa

Rea Vaya, which means “we are going” in Scamto, is a new fleet of 134 biofuel buses that has begun to operate in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the city’s largest climate change initiative. The new buses run on low-sulphur diesel, which will reduce the city’s CO2 emissions by an estimated 1.6 million tons by 2020.5 Additionally, the use of biofuel creates a way for the city to recycle its waste through the production of the biofuel.6

These buses are the cleanest on the African continent and are equipped with advanced pollution reduction equipment.7 Designed to seamlessly integrate into Johannesburg’s existing infrastructure and cover people of all income levels, Rea Vaya will reach over 80 percent of the residents of Johannesburg when fully operational.8 In part because of its new system of buses, Johannesburg ranked “above average” in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s African Green City Index along with Cape Town, Casablanca, Tunis, and Accra.9


1World Bank, Urban Development Data (2014) http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.POP.DNST

2“Welcome to Singapore, the Most Expensive City in the World", Business Insider Australia, http://www.businessinsider.com.au/what-its-like-in-singapore-2015-3#downtown-singapores-skyline-is-dominated-bymassive-modern-towers-1

3“Singapore Waste Statistics 2014", Zero Waste Singapore,http://www.zerowastesg.com/2015/03/18/singapore-waste-statistics-2014/

4“Singapore Waste Statistics 2014”, Zero Waste Singapore

5“City of Joberg", Johannesburg Official Website, http://www.joburg.org.za/index.php?option=com_ content&id=5497&Itemid=339#ixzz3lsn2IOqC

6“Green Cities on the Rise in Africa and the Middle East", Our Planet, http://ourplanet.infocentral.state.gov/greencities-on-the-rise-in-africa-and-the-middle-east/

7“Who We Are", Rea Vaya, http://www.reavaya.org.za/welcome

8Johannesburg: Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit", C40 Cities, http://www.c40.org/profiles/2014-johannesburg

9And the Greenest Cities in Africa Are…." This Big City, http://thisbigcity.net/and-the-greenest-cities-in-africa-are/