Postcard from Rio, Part 3

June 28, 2012

This month, a team of Ecocity Builders associates went to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to give talks, listen, collaborate with local communities, and promote the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative. This is part 3 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Jonn Braman, IEFS Core Advisor

As a public servant and environmentalist, one of the things that impressed me at Rio+20 was the number of Environment Ministers attending who took time to interact with the Major Working Groups.

Rio Centro exhibit, photo by Rick Smith

Brasil’s minister spoke at a couple of events I attended, highlighting her country’s achievements toward sustainability, which are many. I am not sure their shift in policy around the Amazon forests is being seen as positively by others as she described. But certainly their progress away from fossil fuels is impressive and if my nose’s impression of Rio’s air quality is accurate, even with this cold, vehicles burning cleaner fuels will be most welcome here.

Denmark’s Ida Auken spoke briefly about the successes and challenges in her country. Geothermal energy provides them with huge potential for green energy export, but comes with nature’s own air quality challenges for the planet, and in particular for those living on the smaller islands, while the much larger Greenland continues to “green” as the ice pack on it melts at an ever alarming rate. Recent measurements of CO2 levels at 400 ppm on Canada’s equally northern Ellesmere Island seem to indicate the permafrost melting feedback loop may have begun. I would very much liked to have heard more from her, but she cut her talk short to accommodate Ban Ki-Moon arrival at the session.

Of all the environment ministers I heard (and I didn’t get to all sessions) it was the Singapore Minister for Environment and Water Resources that resonated most for me. As a city nation responsible for 5 million citizens on a 30 km long island they, like many island nations, are good allegories for our only planet. They do not have the space for waste or contaminants and they have a very real water supply challenge with a fully built environment. Unlike our planet, they do have neighbors to trade with and they are supporting their commerce, in part, with “green economy” such as export of their desalination technology. Tianjin, a Sino-Singapore Eco-city development is another example. While neither Singapore, nor Tianjin are ‘perfect’ EcoCities in the visionary sense, they are huge steps forward in the recognition of the finite capacity of our planet and our species essential role to ‘get it right’. We can only hope all our countries ‘get it’ and soon!

Petroleo e morte bici e vida. “Oil is death, bicycle is life.” Photo by Rick Smith.


Postcard from Rio, Part 2

June 27, 2012

This month, a team of Ecocity Builders associates went to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to give talks, listen, collaborate with local communities, and promote the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative. This is part 2 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Jennie Moore, IEFS Core Advisor

Richard Register at the ICLEI Townhall. Photo by Rick Smith.

At the ICLEI Town Hall meeting held at Rio Centro on June 21st, several sustainable cities approaches were showcased. Jeb Brugmann, ICLEI founder and past Secretary General, highlighted the value of “productive cities” that can produce food, energy and water within the built environment through use of various technologies including passive solar for water heating and space-conditioning, photo-voltaics for electricity generation, urban agriculture, rainwater harvesting, etc. He called upon the mayors and city officials present to puruse creativity and courage in leading their cities to innovative solutions that address the need for more sustainable modes of production and consumption. While he acknowledged that transformation in the economy is also critical, his message that cities are key to sustainability solutions echos that of Richard Register’s message about ecocities.

Register’s presentation at this same event emphasized the important role of cities in addressing climate change by creating places where people can live free from automobile dependency. Register outlined the five strategic areas that must be addressed to acheive cities that are in balance with nature:
i) population: enable women to access education, jobs and family planning services
ii) agriculture – diet nexus: secure productive agricultural spaces within and surrounding cities and avoid excessive consumption of meat and other foods that are energy-intensive to produce
iii) built environment – design cities, towns and villages to meet the needs of the human body, not hte car body
iv) generosity – this is the opposite side of greed! We must focus on how we can help each-other to produce safe, happy and fulfilling lives while living within the means of nature
v) education – that helps inform people about the above four issues.

Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Rick Smith

Konrad Otto Zimmerman, the current ICLEI Secretary General, sumarized the ICLEI Town Hall Cities Day event by observing that “if you listen to the political statements, you realize that we are going to need ecocities.” At the ICLEI World Congress 2012 held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil prior to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, ICLEI agreed to launch the Global Ecocity Network comprising five cities that will engage with Ecocity Builders to test and further contribute to the development of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards. Mayor Joao Coser of Vitoria, Brazil, has agreed to chair the ICLEI Global Ecocity Network. Mayor Coser is also the President of the Brazilian National Front of Mayors.

Mayor Coser of Vitoria, Brazil joined Richard in a panel discussion at the June 21st ICLEI Town Hall (Cities Day) to talk about the importance of sustainability in cities. Other panelists included Tong Yen Ho, CEO, Sino-Singaporte Tianjin Ecocity, Investment and Development Company and Marianne Fay, Chief Economist for the Sustainable Development Network of the World Bank. While panelists represent different perspectives and experiences, they all agree that moving towards sustainability in cities is key.


Postcard from Rio, Part 1

June 27, 2012

This month, a team of Ecocity Builders associates went to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to give talks, listen, collaborate with local communities, and promote the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative. This is part 1 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Rick Smith, IEFS Core Advisor

Rick Smith’s view of Rio

What do Ecocity Builders, Jeff Sachs, and Walmart have in common? They each came to Rio+20 to promote the need to measure, set standards and goals for sustainable development.

In 2008 in San Francisco at the Ecocity Summit, attendees urged Ecocity Builders to launch a program to create an Ecocity labeling system for cities. After all, anyone could claim that they were an Ecocity and not have to justify the label. Well meaning developers build green buildings in locations that have a bioregion that cannot support a major city. Until that point, Ecocity Builders focused on design, advocacy and demonstration projects. After almost three years of incubation with a set of core advisors, the International Ecocity Framework and Standards was launched at the 2011 Montreal Ecocity Summit. This new framework proposed 15 Ecocity Conditions that include the Bio-physical, Socio-Cultural and Ecological Imperatives. Ecocity Builders has partnered with the British Columbia Institute for Technology (BCIT), the William and Helen Mazer Foundation, Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLIE) and China to move the IEFS forward. The next step will be joining Early Partner Cities to crowdsource and Beta test the standards.

Kirstin Miller at Rio Dialogues

The excitement of the IEFS launch helped bring Ecocity Builders into the Major Groups process for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Rio+20. For 10 months, Executive Director Kirstin Miller flew back and forth to New York to help negotiate the zero draft of the cities portion of the outcome document. While this conference was not set up to have a treaty as an outcome, the consensus document for the conference was anticipated to be a firm global policy framework to encourage voluntary commitments among member states and civil society. As it turned out, the section on cities was rather uncontroversial in the ideological and vested quagmire of population planning, technology transfer, technology transfer, armed conflict, and carbon emissions. The Vatican will not allow a statement that remotely resembles a call for contraception. Wealthy countries do not want a statement that remotely resembles an obligation to increase development assistance or weaken intellectual property rights. Few nations wanted to give up war or burning.

Demonstration at the People’s Summit. Photo by Rick Smith

Although the cities section placed an emphasis on cities as a solution to sustainability, the document did not contain any language to encourage an IEFS. However, the Government of Brazil provided one bright opportunity unprecedented in United Nations conferences. They created a social media site for conference participation and invited the world to join. Global citizens were asked to crowdsource ideas and vote on the best ones. Ecocity Builders convened a meeting with other city NGOs and came up with a proposal to promote global standards of sustainability for cities. Two weeks before the conference, this proposal was selected by an expert panel to be in the top ten that went to the world for a vote. When we arrived in Rio, the Government of Brazil schedules a panel discussion for these recommendations on Monday, June 18th. The world would pick one of the top ten by an internet vote, the attendees of the conference would pick one and the expert panel on cites would come up with a third recommendations. For about a week, we had no idea if our proposal would go forward or exactly how this would work. We even had to apply for special tickets to the Dialogue Days events that were to occur between the Preparatory Conference and the Main Summit.

Exhibit at Rio Centro. Photo by Rick Smith

When the winner was announced on Saturday, June 16th, we were devastated. Our proposal came in 6th and the winner was to use waste as a source of energy. While biomass has a role on a small scale, it is not always the most efficient use of resources because some biomass has embedded energy that can be recycled for other purposes. However, when we saw that the panel had our old friends Janice Perlman, Jaimie Lehner and David Cadman we saw some hope that they would be able to present our idea to the world. We arrived at Dialogue Days with a prepared question for the panelists. The panelists had a similar reaction to the world vote on solid waste for energy. Indeed, informal waste pickers staged a bit of a protest in the audience when it was time for questions and answers. Millions of people–mostly women in the world make a living in recycling industries. If we simply burned our trash, it would but these families out of business. Mayor Lehner made a good pitch for standards as did Mr. Oded Grajew, President Emeritus of the Ethos Institute. However, when it came time for the Sustainability Director of one of those “self-proclaimed” ecocities to speak, she said, “We do not need sustainability standards for cities because every city is different. If you want to see a sustainable city, come to ours.” An architect on the panel chimed in to say that you know a sustainable city when you see it.

Our proposal was doomed. With 76% of the vote, the audience voted for “Plan in advance for sustainability and quality of life in cities.” While it was not our proposal, it was not anything to disagree with. Our proposal sunk with only 15% of the vote. However, when the panel deliberated, Janice Perlman said, “You know, we are all of one mind here at the table, let’s integrate some of the comments.” The moderator proposed this text and it was adopted by the panel:

Each head of state should identify a sustainable city to develop a network for knowledge sharing and innovation. Governments should channel resources to develop people-centered sustainable cities with timed and measurable goals, in such way that empowers local communities, promotes equality and accountability.

This recommendation, in a nutshell is the IEFS and engagement with Early Partner Cites, or something very much like it.

Measuring sustainability was very much a theme in other parts of the conference. Business will further advance the Global Reporting Initiative. The consensus document embraced the concept of the Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Kirstin Miller observed the tail end of the SDG negotiations. She observed that the diplomats scratched their heads and didn’t know what to say and called out for the experts to guide them on developing SDGs. We will do just that and we are not alone. ISO will also be engaging with sustainability measures for cites. And UN Advisor Jeff Sachs remarked at a panel for youth, “The Sustainable Development Goals will work because they are not a treaty. The three treaties from Rio 92 were excellent and never implemented but created a cottage industry for lawyers. The MDGs work because no country wants to be seen as being worse off than others.” Ecocity Builders will be moving forward with the IEFS to encourage each city to race to stay within the earth’s carrying capacity.


‘Global Standards of Sustainability for Cities’ proposal advances to the final round of Rio+20 Dialogues

June 8, 2012

Ecocity Builders and the United Nations NGO Major Group’s proposal ‘Global Standards of Sustainability for Cities’ has advanced to the final round of the Rio+20 Dialogues. Please support us so that the proposal can be delivered directly to Heads of State at Rio+20. Everyone can vote directly from the link.

1. Go to http://vote.riodialogues.org
2. Click on ‘Your Vote’
3. Scroll to : Sustainable Cities and Innovation
4. Vote for: Promote global standards of sustainability for cities.
5. Share!

As the Earth’s ecosystem and climate is rapidly reaching a “tipping point” it’s becoming increasingly clear that we humans all have to pull together to turn the mothership around. Luckily, the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (Rio+20) from June 20-22 (and the weeks leading up to it starting right now) is offering many great opportunities for people from all over the world to come together, build bridges, and draft a common path upon which all residents of this breathtakingly beautiful planet we call home can journey towards a sustainable and equitable future.

Read the rest of this entry »


EcoCitizen World Map Project

June 1, 2012

Just in time for Rio+20, we’re happy to announce that Ecocity Builders has launched the EcoCitizens World Map project in conjunction with nonprofit tech company Ushahidi.

This map, based on the Ecocity Framework, offers a place and a pathway for people everywhere to add their voices and be counted as contributing members of the new green and equitable economy.

From community garden, clean energy, or ecoliteracy projects to waterway restorations, green businesses, or new bicycle pathways, the EcoCitizen World Map Project is an invitation to ecocitizens around the world to share anything that is improving the health of the complete urban ecosystem somewhere in their neighborhoods and communities.

The Santa Teresa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro has taken the lead in mapping their diverse community. We are now inviting all parties interested in increasing visibility and outreach for their Rio+20 related work around the world to join as part of the Rio+20 process.


Informal-Informal in New York

March 24, 2012

This week a small but poised Ecocity Builders delegation including Kirstin Miller, Naomi Grunditz and myself got to spend time at UN Headquarters in New York to witness the first round of ‘Informal-Informal’ negotiations on the Zero Draft of the Outcome Document of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.

As the issue of sustainable development, or how all humans can prosper without destroying the planet we live and depend on, is global, far-reaching and multidimensional in nature, these negotiations do not only involve governments and diplomats…

Delegates during the negotiations, Photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

but active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people – consumers, workers, business persons, farmers, students, teachers, researchers, activists, indigenous communities, and other communities of interest, also known as major groups.

Farmers representative in the plenary, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

As such, we were invited to join the discussion on how to solve these complex problems, not only with a keen eye toward the role cities will play in the final outcome document, but also to network and exchange ideas with other stakeholders on how to ultimately translate all the talk into specific action on the ground.

We were pretty excited to see the paragraph ascribed to cities in the zero draft of the document, which is the agreed upon starting point of the negotiations:

We commit to promote an integrated and holistic approach to planning and building sustainable cities through support to local authorities, efficient transportation and communication networks, greener buildings and an efficient human settlements and service delivery system, improved air and water quality, reduced waste, improved disaster preparedness and response and increased climate resilience.

Of course, by the time the UNCSD delegates had gone through their first reading of Section V (Framework for Action and Follow-up), a whole new picture appeared. Here just a small sample from the third day of informal consultations, as excerpted from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

On cities, CANADA supported the US proposal on sustainable transportation. NEW ZEALAND recommended maintaining resilient ecosystem services. The REPUBLIC OF KOREA introduced its proposal on including greener buildings in city planning. The EU reserved on Japan’s proposal to establish a platform to promote sustainable cities. Proposals for a new title included “Human Settlement, Sustainable Cities, Rural Development and Housing” (G-77/CHINA) and “Cities and metropolitan regions and opposed to extend it to rural development” (EU). The US suggested replacing “low carbon cities” with “sustainable cities” or “low emission cities.” The G-77/CHINA identified slum prevention and upgrading as key elements.

Delegates consulting on the text, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

It’s a little bit like a global sausage-making town hall, and actually quite amazing how courteous, efficient and fast-moving this process is, considering that it literally involves the entire world.

While the process is quite fascinating and I enjoyed my time sitting in the plenary, the real action for us happened in our major group meetings, side events, and casual meetings in the UN cafeteria, aka the Viennese Cafe. It’s in those meetings where NGOs and civic groups can get a chance to talk to some of the delegates and give their input on what should be included in the draft.

John Matuszak, US, meets with NGOs, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

There’s obviously no guarantee that any of it will be included, or if it does, it may very well get deleted again at a later point in the negotiations, but just this morning at our daily major groups briefing, Nikhil Seth, Director for Sustainable Development at the UN, reiterated that civil participation is strongly encouraged and asked us to not get frustrated by the sometimes very arduous process. He likened it to a wave that kind of sucks you in and spits you back out, but ultimately will move us all forward.

There’s definitely a palpable excitement about this new commitment by the UN to include stakeholders from all walks of life and society. While most of the input may not make it into the final document, there’s no doubt that people at the highest levels are willing to listen to a broad range of ideas and let their thinking be inspired by the experiences and lessons from the ground.

For example, for us it was pretty cool to be invited, along with a group of other interested NGOs, to Swedish ambassador Staffan Tillander’s office, to discuss a possible ‘friends of the city’ network that could pool our knowledge and broaden our scope to make the voice of sustainable cities stronger.

Naomi, who is fluent in Swedish, had a chance for a photo-op with the ambassador.

This is really just the beginning of a non-stop process that will go on throughout the coming weeks, into June, and really, beyond the conference. Whatever language ends up in the final document, the real challenge will be to translate the words, intentions and treaties into action. I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks about some really exciting projects Ecocity Builders is working on for Rio and beyond, but for now, as I’m heading out of the laboratory of UN Headquarters into the field of the New York Highline, I’ll leave you with a photo of Kirstin and me, with hopeful hearts for big deeds.


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