Last year, real estate magnate Stephen M. Ross began a spending spree of the most public and benevolent kind. In September, several months after signing the Giving Pledge to donate at least half of his wealth to charity, the chairman and founder of Related Companies—the real estate company currently executing the $20 billion redevelopment of Hudson Yards in New York—gave $200 million to alma mater University of Michigan. Last month Ross honored another cause close to his heart, by contributing $30.5 million to the World Resources Institute (WRI), where he serves on the board of directors.

Stephen M. Ross
Photo courtesy Related Companies
Stephen M. Ross

Ross’s gift, the largest in WRI’s history, specifically bolsters the Washington, D.C.-based environmental nonprofit’s urban design efforts in the developing world. Its staff has planned low-carbon cities in Chengdu and Qingdao, China, and advocated the adoption of bus rapid transit through its EMBARQ Network, among other initiatives. Ross spoke with RECORD about how his donation and the accompanying launch of the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities supports and expands this roster.

What attracted you to get involved with WRI originally?

I was first introduced to WRI by Chairman Jim Harmon. I was intrigued by the organization’s ambitions—we need thought leaders on issues as important as global sustainability. When Jim also told me of how WRI planned to make a difference through results-driven, innovative solutions, I committed to serve on the board and play an active role in the organization.

WRI describes its work more as an on-the-ground consultancy than a research center.

I see it as a think-and-do tank. We can’t just study issues or make recommendations; we need to help implement solutions and achieve real tangible results. WRI does that. It makes big ideas happen.

Is there a specific WRI accomplishment you’re hoping to see replicated with your gift?

Helping Rio and Belo Horizonte implement high-quality bus rapid transit in time for the World Cup, helping Istanbul create a vibrant public space and pedestrian zone in its historic peninsula, and ensuring that Mexico’s climate change law included fuel economy standards were all great initiatives. We are focused on the compact urban form, mixed use, and high density—and that these places have high-quality public space, with smarter, more efficient, more resilient infrastructure.

WRI does most of its urban development, transportation, and road safety work in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Turkey.

Our goal is to expand our impact to 200 cities around the world by 2017. WRI will conduct independent research and analysis, develop policy and design recommendations, and provide on-the-ground guidance. The center will operate at four levels:
We will have on-the-ground, cross-sector teams providing integrated support in four cities; we will provide more targeted analytical and advisory services to 30 cities; we will respond to requests to support national policy development in up to four countries; and we will develop tools, identify best practices, and seek to influence action through global knowledge and outreach.

How will the Ross Center support—and differentiate itself from—WRI’s EMBARQ Network, which focuses on subjects like sustainable transportation, transit-oriented development, and road safety?

In its first 10 years, EMBARQ has reduced greenhouse gas pollution, saved millions of commuting hours, and prevented many traffic crashes and deaths. With EMBARQ’s support and outreach, bus rapid transit systems have expanded from 30 cities in 2000 to over 160 cities in 2014, becoming a model of scaling.

WRI’s successful track record in urban activities and sustainable transport [includes] EMBARQ. The Ross Center will allow us to integrate all of those efforts and go beyond a singular focus to look at urban planning, sustainable transport, energy and climate change, water resources, and governance.

Similar question: How do you envision working in tandem with adjacent urban-sustainability efforts like the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, or the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge?

We expect to complement all of those organizations and more. WRI has partnered with many foundations and organizations on past efforts, and, in fact, we have already met with a variety of groups to help formulate the Ross Center, and again to share the news of its launch and start a dialogue on working together.

How did you become concerned with sustainable cities in the developing world?

I have always been passionate about cities. They are at the cutting edge of sustainability challenges, and the direction that cities are heading will likely determine whether we sustain our natural resources and provide healthy environments for people in the coming century. To put it in context, cities account for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 1.2 million deaths each year from traffic crashes. At least 10 percent of GDP is lost to congestion. And new urban development between 2010 and 2030 is expected to equal what was built in all preceding human history. The time for an initiative like this is now: With strong leadership, good governance, and smart design cities provide opportunities for economic growth and prosperity for all people. 

Will there be a relationship between Related and the Ross Center?

Of course. We are very involved and will remain very involved. We will certainly be knowledge sharing from all of our city-defining developments. We have a very talented staff focusing on sustainability and I will personally remain focused on the success of the center alongside my staff.

How has signing the Giving Pledge impacted you? And, as you work to fulfill that pledge, what qualities are you looking for in potential beneficiaries? 

I have had the opportunity to give back in meaningful ways for decades, and although I have generally conducted my philanthropic efforts privately, by publicly committing to the Giving Pledge I hope to inspire others to commit to significant philanthropy the way my uncle inspired me. My efforts will continue to focus on education, the arts, healthcare, and the creation of more sustainable cities throughout the world. I have always believed that if our cities do well, we all do well. With WRI we will assist cities around the world in creating new models of livability, opportunity, and business innovation.