Reflections on Gross National Happiness

June 3, 2014

On Friday, May 23rd Ecocity Builders had the pleasure of hosting Latha Chhetri, Chief Urban Planner for the country of Bhutan. Ms. Chhetri spoke to a packed room about her country’s development policies. She enlightened us about the cautious steps Bhutan is making to ensure development aligns with their cultural and historical values. Ecocity Builders’s president Richard Register also presented slides from his recent work in Bhutan.

Bhutan has a commitment to Ecocity principles nearly unparalleled in the world. Thanks to strong nature-respecting traditions, the government has sworn off any environmentally damaging industry. Electricity is produced from renewable hydropower. The government has just announced the goal to have 100% percent organic agriculture by 2025. Growth is strictly constrained to traditional styles and materials in carefully guarded development corridors.

Until the 1972 Bhutan remained a highly conservative nation closed off to outside influence. The progressive 4th Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck was disturbed by the effects of westernization was wrecking on neighboring countries but opened the country to modernization after taking the throne. Cell phones have become available only as of 2008. Yet while many of Bhutan’s citizens were kept literally in the dark beyond their neighbors, the wisdom of King Wangchuck’s hesitancy about modern conveniences has been revealed with time. Bhutan managed to avoid the disastrous industrial rush that has so irreversibly damaged much of the world. They are now entering modernity at a time of greater reflection on the practices of development.

King Wangchuck IV abdicated the throne in 2006 and turned power over to a newly established parliament. His son, Wangchuck V, holds no executive power but exercises important influence over the country. Wangchuck V is committed to carrying on the legacy of his father, most notably, the policy of Gross National Happiness. This concept, invented by the Fourth King, was also adopted by the government of Bhutan as a foundation for all their decision making.

GNH is a simple yet brilliant concept. It states that a country’s wellbeing cannot be measured by wealth, growth, or power alone, but by the wellbeing of its citizens. Gross National Happiness asks with every economic or political decision: will this result in the best outcome for the long-term happiness of our people?

Tied into this web of wellbeing is, of course, ecological health.

GNH measures closely reflect the goals of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS): easy access to meaningful employment, healthcare, and cultural activities; clean water, air, and good food. GNH recognizes that life is full of complex systems that cannot be removed from each other. Environmental quality is integral to health and happiness. Healthy, happy people, at the same time, are more inclined and able to care for their environment and each other.

How refreshing–relieving, even–to meet with a government that gets it at a fundamental level. Meeting with Latha and hearing her stories provided all in attendance with renewed hope and drive for an ecologically healthy future. In the midst of the anger, rhetoric, and willful denial that is keeping so many nations on a track for disaster, there are indeed beautiful things being done all the time. Even better to see them at such high levels of governance.

When I asked Latha what the greatest challenge was facing GNH and the ecocity goals of her country she had a familiar answer: “The people who just don’t understand what we’re trying to do.” For example, since urban growth is highly constrained, many individuals moving to the cities now build illegally outside of the city limits (and, therefore, the approval process). This practice not only frustrates the ability of planners to protect natural resources, but puts these individuals in danger of flood and earthquake-prone zones.

At an aggregated level, this behavior is maddening. At an individual level, it’s understandable. People want to move to the cities, which they have a right to do. They have few resources, and see open land. They build. And build and build.

Again, the fundamental challenge to our survival is what has allowed us as a species to get so far in the first place: the human ego, the tendency to think short term and about the self only. This isn’t an American problem, or a Bhutanese problem. It isn’t a problem of the rich or of the poor. This is a human brain problem.

Luckily, our biology and our culture also gives us the counter ability: to be altruistic, to think long-term and globally, and to care and create close bonds with others. Some cultures such as that of Bhutan promote the bonds of family and community more powerfully. Tradition, respect, and obligation are honored in these cultures. The Western perspective, and particularly in America, promotes independence, individual innovation, and self-reliance. These are also good qualities too! Yet they lean too far to only individual considerations…to disastrous results.

I don’t want to oversimplify the cultural divide. Tradition and community respecting cultures have mostly fared no better in protecting human rights and the environment (India, China). Still, the fact that the people of Bhutan have adopted GNH in the first place perhaps does come from a place of understanding the connection between the self and the other (and nature) a bit better than we do here in the West. Still the problem of egocentric thinking remains–and the urban peripheries in Bhutan expand bit by bit.

It is a human problem.

To move forward with an ecologically and socially healthy future, both the world and the ecocity movement will have strike that fine balance between promoting responsibility to others and allowing personal freedom. We will all need to give up a little bit of the comfort of our daily lives for the greater good. Yet we needn’t give up all. The fear of that “perfect” world and society is all too obvious in the dystopian paradises of Brave New World and countless other fictions. It’s most vocal in the knee-jerk rantings of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists. Whether or not this fear is realistic, the ecocity movement must recognize that it is very real, and is its chief obstacle. Every human reacts negatively when he or she feels agency and independence is threatened. Getting past that instinct is the challenge.

The solution is education, as difficult as it may be. Importantly, people need to understand the constraints we ask them to abide by in order to agree to them. It is a simple but heavy lesson in cause and effect, of how individual actions aggregate into mass impact. But at the core of these lessons is what I think an uplifting message: the truth is that individually we are all powerful. Each individual life’s actions matter, whether you are simply using reusable shopping bags, or leading an eco-crusade. Or building or dumping illegally.

Embrace your own influence, and understand, in the words of a great American icon, “With great power comes great responsibility.”


Rio Aladago – The Flooded City

December 12, 2013

How well does your city move people? Chances are complaints about the inefficiencies of public transit pop up daily. After all, you interact with cars, roads, buses, and light rail constantly. At the same time, other systems of movement that go more unnoticed are essential to the functioning of the city organism. How well does your city move waste and energy? How well does it move water?

Here in Rio de Janeiro water is a constant of life. Whether flocking to the ocean, complaining of the clouds (or lack of cloud cover), or wondering when it will rain, Cariocas (residents of Rio) are surrounded by water. It doesn’t rain here as often as you might imagine, as in, say, the daily downpours of Singapore, but it is tropical. Unfortunately when the rain comes the saturated ground turns anything more than few hour’s drizzle into a potential disaster.

Tuesday night it rained as much in one night as it normally does in a month. Rio is a huge city filled with micro-climates due to the dramatic mountains that corral it. In Barra da Tijuca, a new area in the south, it seemed like a sprinkle. For the residents of the North, it was a downpour. Those living in this predominantly poor area awoke to find several feet of muddy water in their streets and homes. The extend of the flooding is astonishing. Entire neighborhoods are underwater.

Read the rest of this entry »


Ecocities to balance the new and the old in Bhutan

May 21, 2013

Richard is on the road again, leaving this week for Bhutan where he will meet with government officials about building ecocities in Panbang, a province of Zhemgang.

Bhutan is a small Buddhist county nestled in the Eastern crags of the Himalayas, commonly overshadowed in the news by its neighbors Tibet, Burma, China and India. Bhutan is most commonly known for its policy of Gross National Happiness (GHN), a metric introduced by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuckn and used to measure the well-being of its citizens and guide the development of government policy. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

The GNH measures reflect Bhutan’s Buddhist foundations which emphasize the need for spiritual and moral development to coincide with material development. Bhutan is cautious about modernization, and justly so. Most countries have embraced the luxuries of modernity while degrading precious traditional values and our connection to nature.

Slogan on a wall in Thimphu’s School of Traditional Arts. Court. of Wikimedia Commons.

King Wangchuck broke with his father’s legacy and has opened Bhutan to modern changes little by little (Television appeared for the first time in 1999), hoping to adopt the benefits of new technology while avoiding the evils. The results are mixed – crime, materialism and dissatisfaction are rising, but not to the rates of most other countries. Some educated Bhutanese returning from educations in the West seek to lead the country in a unique blend of Buddhist values and Western practices. Read the rest of this entry »


The Ecocity Summit 2013 Program is unveiled

May 3, 2013

More exciting developments on the 2013 Ecocity Summit! After culling from over 500 proposals from 48 different countries, the summit organizers have unveiled their final program selections. September 25-27 will be packed with 100 diverse, thought provoking and enlightening lectures, workshops and presentations.

A bit about the Ecocity Summit Program:

The program organizers have used a novel grouping system to select the presenters and organize the program information. Firstly, each presentation or workshop at the summit addresses one or more of the five main themes:

- Reducing the environmental footprint

- Addressing energy challenges of the city

- Organizing and systems

- Strengthening solidarity and participation

- Mobilizing enabling factors

Presentations are further grouped under approach categories, including thinking, shaping, financing and governing. A matrix of all the planned programs enables you to searching for theme or approach so you can easily find the programs and themes you are most interested in.

You can also view a tentative scheduling of the programs here: Pre-program schedule.

Early registration is now underway for the Summit Conference and there are numerous benefits to signing up early. Visit the Ecocity Summit website to register now!

matrice-siteENHoraires


Floating cities becoming a reality

April 16, 2013

Building on water eliminates flood risk and enables expansion

For thousands of years, human settlements have clustered around flood planes, from the banks of the Amazon River to lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia, to the marshes of the Netherlands. These settlements are designed to account for the seasonal ebb and flow of sea and fresh water, often by constructing buildings on raised platforms and/or building dykes, dams and canals. Yet as global climate change leads to increasing sea levels, almost every coastal city will face the challenge of encroaching waters.

Presenters at the Global Town Hall for infrastructure solutions held last week in Germany introduced innovative solutions for cities on the brink. “13 out of the world’s 21 megacities are harbor cities, of which Shanghai is most vulnerable to flood and related hazards,” said Professor Markus Quante at the town hall.

Instead of holding back the flood, several presenters suggested ways to completely re-imagine a city on the water. Rutger de Graaf from DeltaSync, a design firm that specializes in sustainable flood-proof urban development in delta areas, says cities can float on water and yet stay dry and resilient. Floating structures on water eliminate the threat of flood damage and can be a viable option for city expansion. In addition, city waste such as carbon dioxide and biowaste can be used to farm algae and in turn raise fish in urban areas.

“Urbanization in delta areas has caused increasingly severe flood. It has also added pressure on space, food, energy and other resources,” said de Graaf, adding that by 2025 the world will run short of at least 22 million km2 of land – an area equivalent to the North American continent.

Rijnhaven Pavijlioner. Images from DeltaSync

The city of Rotterdam is already experimenting with floating urbanization, building its first floating pavilion at the Rijnhaven harbor. Designed by DeltaSync, the three domed structures cover the area of four tennis courts and are not only self-sufficient, relocatable structures that purify their own waste water, but also rise automatically according to rising water levels. The city plans to add many more floating buildings, including a park, as part of the Rijnhaven harbor redevelopment master plan.

Another 1,200 floating structures are planned to open in 2040 in Stadhavens – an area designated for sustainable housing development, floating communities, recreation, and research on energy generation such as tidal energy and cooling and heating from river water.

The city of Semarang, the capital of Central Java, and other coastal cities are working with the Dutch to implement their water management expertise in their own districts. Semarang has already lost 98.2 hectares of land between 1991 and 2009 due to land erosion accelerated by climate change.

Find out more about DeltaSync’s project at their website.


A big step forward for Oakland

April 4, 2013

Growing up near downtown Oakland, Lake Merritt was never a destination for me. My family went to Fairyland once and a while, and I have hazy memories of paddle boating. I remember a lot of bird droppings and the fruity stench of stagnant, brackish water. I heard that they pulled a dead body out of there once.

Lake Merritt, surrounded by its string of pearl lights at night, is now one of my favorite destinations in the Bay Area, and I’m lucky to live right above it near the Grand Lake Theater. Oakland City Officials and residents recognized the wisdom in restoring this civic gem when they proposed measure DD, a $198.25 million bond measure that included waterfront improvements at Lake Merritt and the Estuary. In November 2002, over 80% of Oakland voters passed Measure DD and work began, slowly and haltingly, two years later.

The Lake Merritt Master Plan is an inspiringly ambitious civic vision that allocates money towards landscaping, habitat and stream restoration, improving water quality in Lake Merritt, widening pedestrian and cycling paths and building better roadways to calm traffic around the lake. Measure DD Program Manager Joel Peter calls it “the most wide-ranging and complex series of projects ever undertaken by the City of Oakland.” It’s been a long project. Over ten years later, work is still being done (and is overdue) on the Estuary connection and new 12th Street bypass. But so far it is an incredible success. Visit the lake any time of day and you’ll see a cross section of Oakland jogging, playing, walking, picnicking, and relaxing in the sun.

We take so much time to complain about what is wrong with our cities–it’s equally important to celebrate and give thanks when things are done right. These successes often fly under the radar, especially in cities with as many problems as Oakland.

Here are five reasons to be excited about the Lake Merritt Master plan:

1. Restored walking and jogging paths

The walk around Lake Merritt used to be plagued with potholes. Many parts of it have been repaved and girdled with native and drought-tolerant landscaping. Some completely new sections of the path include a packed-earth lane for joggers.

2. Bike paths

The entire lake can now be circumnavigated on bike paths. The East Bay Bicycle Coalition along with TransForm are also working on connecting other existing bike paths to the lake to serve as a bike transit hub.

4. Reduced car traffic

The four lane road around the lake has been reduced to two and complimented with generously landscaped medians. The South end of the lake used to be a 12 lane street. That’s right: practically a highway. Planners cut those lanes by half and put them on an elevated bridge, accompanied by bike lanes and an adjunct foot bridge. A small park now stands between the road and the lake.

5. Reconnecting the Estuary

Lake Merritt was originally part of a tidal flat that was cut off from the estuary to create a more aesthetically pleasing lake. The destruction of the 12 lane road at the South end has connected the lake with the neck of the Lake Merritt Channel, and in the next two years a few more culverts will be removed to finally reunite it with the Estuary. This will allow the natural tidal system to operate freely in the lake for the first time in over 140 years.

Mayor Jean Quan celebrates the opening of the Lake Merritt Channel.

“Lake” Merritt and Alameda “Island” area circa 1800.

3. Wetland restoration

Lake Merritt became America’s first wildlife sanctuary in 1870, which unfortunately coincided with the slow destruction of the wetlands that supported the wildlife. The estuary reconnection mentioned above includes plans for a park and wetland restoration. Additional landscaping around the lake is recreating marshy areas and serving as natural management systems for storm water runoff, called bioswales.

Bioswale (in the background) and living roof.

The Lake Merritt Master Plan is reuniting Oaklanders with nature and the ancient Bay environment, hopefully to the great benefit of both. Go check it out for yourself!

Read more:

Polishing Oakland’s Crown Jewel, KQED.com

Oakland Lake Merritt Master Plan

Gateway to the Bay reopened, SFgate.com


Why Nantes? Europe’s Green Capitol 2013

March 12, 2013

To those who say Ecocities are impossible, that a green economy will fail, and that citizens will never support or get involved in Eco-principles on a large scale, I give you Nantes.

Nantes: The Venice of France

Following in the footsteps of Stockholm, Hamburg and Vitoria-Gasteiz, Nantes Métropole is the European Union’s Green Capital for 2013. The European Commission launched the Green Capital project in 2008 to recognize and reward cities’ efforts to increase sustainability and improve quality of life. Addressing these issues is a pressing concern for European cities as three in four European citizens currently live in urban areas and that number is expected to grow to four in five by 2050.

This year will bring many exciting events to Nantes including ten local or national conferences and 11 European or international conferences, not least of which is the International Ecocity World Summit this September 25-27th.

Few outside of France may have ever heard of Nantes–it is well worth paying attention to.

Nante’s story mirrors that of many industrial cities in Europe and the United States. After the closure of the city’s main economic source–the shipyards–in the 1980s, city leaders were faced with a struggling economy, civic stagnation and abandoned, decaying industrial sites. But instead of trying to recreate failed systems and lingering in the industrial past, Nantes took a unique leap of faith and decided to invest in sustainable infrastructure, culture and quality of life. No mean feat for the 1980s.

Planners carefully redeveloped the shipyards into green public space and focused on highlighting the city’s history (dating to Pre-Roman times), fostering culture and community development, and connected the city via high speed rail to Paris. Nantes’ planning framework promotes urban density, solidarity, and equal access to green living amenities for citizens of all income levels. The result: in 2004, Time Magazine named Nantes the most livable place in all Europe.

A few numbers from Nantes:

  • 57m2 of green space per person
  • 15% of residents use public transportation daily
  • Everyone lives within 300m of a green space in the city
  • 80% of the Nantes/Sant-Nazaire metro area is natural and farmland space
  • Only 11% of household waste goes to landfills

Nantes works hard to encourage dense urban development to accommodate its growing population rather than sprawling into surrounding green areas. In addition many riverbanks, wetlands and green spaces have been restored to support a thriving wildlife population.

Nante’s city governance also attempts to break with a long history of top-down city planning that has often been patronizing and alienating. City leaders name civic pride and involvement a top priority for the city, and their policies reflect this. Vigorous public outreach campaigns involve citizens with the planning of their neighborhoods and the government also holds household workshops on carbon footprint reduction and sustainability.

Of course it is all a work in progress; still, Nantes is a consummate example of the Ecocity principles in action and we are so excited to come together for the 2013 World Summit in such a remarkable city!

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