A Healthy and Equitable Economy in the International Context?

January 6, 2015

by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia Institute of Technology

A socio-cultural feature of ecocities is that they support a healthy and equitable economy. The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) identifies that the city’s economy “consistently favors economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options” (www.ecocitystandards.org).

Whereas many cities focus primarily on economic growth as a means to achieve prosperity, research shows that equity is more strongly correlated with health and social improvement (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). This is particularly true for developed economies where most of the population’s basic needs for food and shelter are already met. Yet, even among developing economies, those that achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth and invest in social services, including education, achieve higher levels of development while simultaneously keeping their demand on nature’s services low.

Countries such as Cuba and Ecuador obtain similar longevity and literacy levels as the USA, but at a fraction of energy and materials consumption (Moore and Rees 2013). Germany and Japan surpass the USA in terms of quality of life (e.g., human health and social wellbeing) while simultaneously consuming less (Moore 2013; Moore and Rees 2013; Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). Not only are these countries more efficient in their use of resources, they also have lower per capita ecological footprints. An ecological footprint refers to the amount of land and sea area required to support a specified population at their current levels of affluence and technology (Wackernagel and Rees 1996). Indeed, populations in Cuba and Ecuador live within global ecological carrying capacity as measured by their ecological footprint (WWF 2009).

The World Commission on Environment and Development acknowledges that “rapid growth combined with deteriorating income distribution may be worse than slower growth combined with redistribution in favour of the poor” (WCED 1987, 24). Unfortunately, rapid growth with deteriorating income distribution has been the dominant trend for over forty years, and today many societies are succeeding in terms of material growth and failing in terms of social health (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

Poverty in the midst of plenty.

Poverty in the midst of plenty.

Ecocities support economic activities that reduce harm and positively contribute to both environmental and human health. This includes efforts to reduce emissions to air and atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels, avoiding the use of toxic chemicals applied to soils or discharged to receiving waters where they can bio-accumulate in animals and plants, and supporting locally and organically produced foods and renewable energy sources. Ecocities also support local and equitable employment options that are integrated within the design of the city. For example, the layout of land uses as well as the city’s policy framework play an important role in: a) making jobs and housing accessible and b) ensuring that companies comply with environmental protection legislation. This approach sets the foundation for “green jobs” and “ecological-economic development” (www.ecocitystandards.org).

However, the city acting alone can only go so far. A supportive framework at senior government levels (e.g. provincial, state, national) is also important. In our globally integrated economy, the implications of national government policies and international trade agreements play a determining role in the policies local governments can enact. This is particularly true with regard to efforts by cities to advance sustainable modes of production and consumption. In North America, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (http://usdn.org/home) comprising local government staff working to advance sustainability in over 100 cities is addressing this important topic. A recent workshop hosted in Eugene Oregon (http://scorai.org/eugene-2014/) by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network in collaboration with the Sustainable Production and Consumption Action Research Initiative (http://scorai.org/ ) identified the schism between i) locally focused community economic development efforts that advance equitable and sustainable economies and ii) globally focused national economic strategies that perpetuate economic growth without careful attention to who benefits and pays as a result of their implementation. Stay tuned to their research to find out whether a healthy and equitable economy for cities is possible within this international context.

Invest in your country's human capital.

Invest in your country’s human capital.

References:

Moore, Jennie. 2013. Getting Serious About Sustainability: Exploring the Potential for One-Planet Living in Vancouver. Dissertation in Partial Fulfillment of the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Vancouver BC: School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia.

Moore, Jennie and W.E. Rees. 2013. Getting to One-Planet Living in Linda Starke ed., State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington DC: Island Press, pp. 39-50.

Wackernagel, Mathis and William E. Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabrioloa BC: New Society Publishers.

Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. 2009. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Worldwide Fund for Nature. 2009. Living Planet Report. Gland, Switzerland: World Wide Fund for Nature.

British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative


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.”


Ecocity Insights: Wellbeing and Quality of life, Beyond the GDP

February 25, 2014

ECOCITY INSIGHTSjenniem
by Jennie Moore, Director, Sustainable Development
and Environmental Stewardship, British Colombia
Institute of Technology

The International Ecocities Framework and Standards (IEFS) identifies human wellbeing and quality of life as an essential social feature. Specifically, “residents report satisfaction with their quality of life including employment, the built, natural and landscaped environment, physical and mental health, education, safety, recreation and leisure, and social belonging” (www.ecocitystandards.org).

Human wellbeing depends on access to resources sufficient to lead a dignified life (Raworth 2013). This includes access to natural resources such as clean air, water and energy, as well as nutritious food. It also includes access to social resources including education, healthcare, employment and recreation, participation in decisions that affect one’s life, and freedom from persecution for one’s religious beliefs.

Ecocities not only support wellbeing and quality of life through provision of affordable shelter and services, they also enable people to: access jobs close to where they live, breath clean air in car-free cities, and enjoy nature at their doorstep (Register 2006). This is achieved through compact design of the built environment that takes advantage of roof-tops (e.g., for parks and restaurants) and spaces below ground (e.g., for storage and shopping). Landscaped environments at grade blend with the natural environment to foster ecological connections that invite nature into the city (Register 2006).

Residents of ecocities enjoy a high quality of life regardless of their socio-economic status. This means that social services are provided based on need, not just an ability to pay.

An important measure for wellbeing is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). Invented by Redefining Progress in 1995, the GPI considers changes in income distribution, volunteerism, crime, pollution and resource depletion as factors that affect quality of life (Redefining Progress 2013). This stands in contrast to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which measures the sum of a nation’s financial transactions, but does not consider whether those contribute or detract from the wellbeing of citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

References:

Raworth, Kate. 2013. Defining a Safe and Just Space for Humanity in Linda Starke, ed., State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?  Washington DC: Island Press.

Redefining Progress. 2013. Sustainability Indicators: Genuine Progress Indicator (online resource) http://rprogress.org/sustainability_indicators/genuine_progress_indicator.htm (Accessed on November 14, 2013).

Register, Richard. 2006. Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola Island BC: New Society Publishers.

Register, Richard. 1987. Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. Berkeley Ca: North Atlantic Books.

British Colombia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment is Lead Sponsor of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Initiative


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 »


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.


Green Collar Jobs, Industrial Policy and a Society with a Future

July 2, 2008

This article on Green Collar Job recently appeared at www.BeyondChron.org, San Franciso’s Alternative Online Daily, and was written by Bernard Marszalek

“Green Collar Jobs” have gone mainstream. Obama endorses it. And a plank in the Democratic Party Platform calling for green collar jobs would solidify it as Democratic Party policy. Even if that expectation is premature, the popular reception of this program is a remarkable achievement for what began only a few years ago as an under-reported campaign uniting a few progressive labor leaders and some politically astute environmentalists. Despite its popular appeal, or maybe due to it, “Green Collar Jobs” lacks clear definition. The term arose from the groundbreaking, alliance between labor and environmentalists to create a massive national effort to “jump-start” an alternative energy program. They modeled it after John Kennedy’s well-funded Apollo Project to get an American on the moon, fast.

(link to rest of article)


Eric Holt-Giménez on Day 3

May 1, 2008

Eric Holt-Giménez, FoodFirst/Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland, CA

Eric Holt-Giménez has been executive director of Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy since July, 2006.  Eric is the author of the latest Food First Book, Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture which chronicles the development of this movement in Mexico and Central America over two and a half decades. Eric worked with farmers, participated in their farmer-to-farmer trainings, and recorded their triumphs with his camera and pen. Eric came to FoodFirst from the Bank Information Center in Washington D.C. where he has served as the Latin America Program Manager.

Food Policy Council: www.foodfirst.org