What’s an Ecocity and Why Should We Care?

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“Ecocity” is a popular designation for dozens
of global urban centers. Indeed the 9th Ecocity World Summit next week in Montreal,
Canada will be packed with city officials, planners, activists, educators, and
corporations from 75 nations, as well as the United Nations–all trying to plan how the city can
be designed and conducted more in harmony with ecosystems, culture and the biosphere.

The summit will also present a scheme to assess ecocities on
defined standards and indicators. Seeing that international standards for overall
sustainability at the city level do not yet exist, how can ecocities take
things to the next level and collectively push forward urban sustainability
performance across borders, languages, cultures and local conditions?

Cities are where sustainability meets true systems approaches
and economic need: they’ll go from harboring more than half of the planet’s
people to about 70 percent of humanity by 2050.
The Earth is undergoing the greatest mass migration in its history as hundreds
of millions of rural residents of China move to its booming cities.

Some of the largest ecocity projects include Tianjin, China (pictured above);
Waitakere, New Zealand (208,000 pop.) was self-designated as an ecocity before
it was absorbed by neighboring Auckland
in 2010.

A host of other
cities in China including Changchun, Rizhao and Tangshan (“Caofeidian International Eco-city”are modeled as eco-cities, while India is
also planning development of several eco cities along its new Delhi-Mumbai
transportation and industrial corridor
. Japan, which has been
helping India plan its largest ecocity, is also sponsoring development or retrofitting of numerous ecocities or “eco towns.”

The term “ecocity” was first used by Richard Register in
1987: Register went on to found in 1992 Ecocity Builders, a non-profit based in Oakland, California. (Disclosure: my consultancy Common
Current just finished helping Ecocity Builders
and its international advisors develop standards and indicators for ecocities,
called the International Ecocity Framework and Standards, or IEFS.)

Ecocity Builders’ Register, Executive Director Kirstin
Miller, Ecological Footprint co-creator Bill Rees and other participants will be addressing the Montreal Ecocity
Conference to present the IEFS to participants and partner cities. Four Early
Partner Cities (EPCs) for the IEFS–Vancouver and Montreal, Canada; Curitiba, Brazil and Kirtipur, Nepal–will also participate.
These cities or communities are already gathering information and data for the
IEFS in order to provide initial feedback on the standard and indicator development
process.

The IEFS consists of 15 system “conditions” or
categories. Cities will eventually be
analyzed and measured based on the performance of these components, which have
an integral relationship to the city’s bioregions (bioregional mapping will
become a key IEFS activity). The 15 IEFS categories include:

·        
Access by Proximity: Walkable access from housing to basic urban services and transit access
to close-by employment options.

·        
Clean Air: Air quality conducive to good health within
buildings, the city’s air shed, and the atmosphere.

·        
Healthy Soil: Soils meet
their ranges of healthy ecosystem functions as appropriate to their types and
environments; fertility is maintained or improved.

·        
Clean and Safe Water:
Access to clean, safe, affordable water; the city’s water sources, waterways
and water bodies are healthy and function without negative impact to
ecosystems. Water is primarily sourced from within the bioregion.

·        
Responsible Resources/
Materials
: Renewable and non-renewable resources are sourced, allocated,
managed and recycled responsibly and equitably, without adversely affecting
human health or the resilience of ecosystems.

·        
Clean and Renewable
Energy
: The city’s energy needs are provided for, and extracted, generated and
consumed, without significant negative impact to ecosystems or to short- or
long-term human health and do not exacerbate climate change. Energy consumed is
primarily generated within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy and Accessible
Food
: Nutritious food is accessible and affordable to all residents and is
grown, manufactured and distributed by processes which maintain the healthy
function of ecosystems and do not exacerbate climate change. Food consumed is
primarily grown within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy Biodiversity: The
city sustains the biodiversity of local, bioregional and global ecosystems
including species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity; it
restores natural habitat and biodiversity by its policy and physical actions.

·        
Earth’s Carrying
Capacity:
The city keeps its demand on ecosystems within the limits of the
Earth’s bio-capacity, converting resources restoratively and supporting
regional ecological integrity.

·        
Ecological Integrity: The
city maintains essential linkages within and between ecosystems and provides
contiguous habitat areas and ecological corridors throughout the city.

·        
Healthy Culture: The city
facilitates cultural activities that strengthen eco-literacy, patterns of human
knowledge and creative expression, and develop symbolic thought and social
learning.

·        
Community Capacity
Building
: The city supports full and equitable community participation in
decision making processes and provides legal, physical and organizational
support for neighborhoods, community organizations, institutions and agencies.

·        
Healthy and Equitable
Economy
:
An economy favoring
economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and
human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options
– the foundation for “green jobs”.

·        
Lifelong Education: All
residents have access to lifelong education including access to information
about the city’s history of place, culture, ecology, and tradition provided
through formal and informal education, vocational training and other social
institutions.

·        
Well Being–Quality of
Life
: Strong citizen satisfaction with quality of life indicators including
employment; the built, natural and landscaped environment; physical and mental
health; education; safety; recreation and leisure time; and social belonging.

While some of these categories are being matched to existing
tools and indicators (i.e., Walk Score and similar GIS mapping for Access by
Proximity), other categories will need a period of innovation around analytical processes or tools such as the Gini co-efficient (which may be used to measure income level disparities in the category Healthy and
Equitable Economy) and the Ecological Footprint (to determine Earth’s Carrying Capacity).
These have been extensively modeled on the national level, for instance, but have
yet to be consistently applied on the local level.

The lack of international urban sustainability standards has
perplexed and bedeviled cities, planners, developers and companies wanting a
consistent scorecard across global urban management and development.

True,
international sustainability standards exist for buildings, such as the US
Green Building Council’s LEED, and the BREEAM
standards from the United Kingdom, even neighborhoods (LEED for Neighborhood Development). China is also developing its
own Three Star standard for buildings. Emerging from the Harvard School of Design is the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, while BREEAM is launching BREEAM for Communities.

But the time has come for consistent urban sustainability
frameworks and indicators across everything from infrastructure and mobility, to
urban agriculture, energy, water, materials and biodiversity.

The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) is
one of the main entrants in the global race to define and measure what makes a
city sustainable. With the cooperation
of its Early Partner Cities, Ecocity Builders and the IEFS will hopefully begin
to answer these key questions along while getting down to the real business: helping solve how the cities of the world are
remaking themselves as ecocities or more sustainable cities to prepare for a future
of more extreme risk–which equals opportunity.

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
  

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Vision for Sustainability, Resiliencey by Post Carbon Institute

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What will we do post growth, post cheap energy, post resource abundance and post climate change? The Post Carbon Institute (PCI) convened its first meeting of Fellows this weekend in Berkeley to address these concerns. Many there and elsewhere have argued that these transformational changes are already becoming evident.

PCI Fellow Bill Rees, the co-originator of the Ecological Footprint, captured the mood of the group best when he said, “We have to adapt to the change rather then repress the change.”

The Institute’s Fellows were gathered by PCI from a wide variety of fields: energy, transportation, population, food/ agriculture, building and development, economics, social justice, education, urban issues, health, climate, biodiversity and water. The event marked a maiden face-to-face (and virtual) voyage to examine the brave new waters of the 21st century. About 25 of PCI’s 29 Fellows participated.

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PCI Fellows Retreat, David Brower Center, Berkeley (Post Carbon Institute photo)

Asher Miller, PCI’s executive director set the table for the three-day event. “Facing such daunting issues, we can either: 1) pack up and go home; 2) be a witness to history; 3) save what we can, which I call the Noah’s Ark approach; or 4) work as hard as we can, and go as big as can go. Collectively we can come up with one thing, or do lots of things–we don’t know which one will bring the best results.”

The group of Fellows up until this point has been focused on producing a book (cover pictured above) of essays and case studies that will be released by University of California Press with Watershed Media in July, The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises.

The Berkeley retreat focused on developing connective tissue among Fellows through facilitated exercises, planning and presentations. Some highlights–or lowlights–as many of the participants (myself included)  could be accused of being bearers of bad news:

Richard Heinberg, the Senior Fellow whose extensive work (The Party’s Over, Blackout, Peak Everything) has provided a nexus for PCI while helping define “Peak Oil” thinking, has spoken to world leaders from Congress to European Parliament.

“I have nothing to show for all my presentation to political leaders,” Heinberg said. “Anyone who questions the concept of growth is shunted off.”

Erika Allen, Chicago manager for Growing Power, a national land trust that provides access to healthy local food in disadvantaged communities, explored a scenario where food supplies are cut off because of an energy supply disruption or other crisis. “We’ve been preparing around the principles of providing seven days of food for Chicago–what systems are in place to respond? We need to be able to grow food on concrete and on the tops of buildings.”

The issue of sustainable agriculture, both urban and rural, was an overall emergent issue of the weekend, with talismanic Wes Jackson, founder and director of The Land Institute, providing an urgent view into a survival system that has been taken for granted.

“In the long run, soil is more important than oil,” Jackson said, citing research that soil carbon concentrations in US have been halved since non-indigenous settlement, from 6 percent to 3 percent, because of poor conservation and industrial practices.

Grave consequences for climate-change influenced mass migrations were forecast by Brian Schwartz, a Johns Hopkins professor in public health. “Moving populations (because of climate change) will be very bad for society, the environment and health in every aspect.”

Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course presentation examined unsustainable levels of US debt, uncovering shocking new snapshots on the historic level of government and personal debt after a decade with zero job growth.

Martenson, a former corporate executive, later confessed that there are emerging opportunities in certain investments, job sectors and geographic areas. He was also optimistic about the can-do nature of Americans: “Give people something to do, and they’ll put it together with joy and creativity, such as the Burning Man village.”

Similarly, Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition Town movement, reported from the UK via Skype video (he gave up flying three years ago) that the effort to form locally organized community resilience around food, energy, construction and culture is rapidly multiplying in global locations. “It’s spreading very, very fast, with new Transition Towns in Chile, Sweden, Canada, Italy and Australia.”

“With resilience, we see an opportunity to take a shock and then make a step by the community in the right direction so it can advance itself,” Hopkins said of the 300-plus transition initiatives. “Our role isn’t to manage a lot of projects, but to support projects as they emerge.”

Other Fellows presenting included author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and 350.org), Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, and Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Joe Brewer, founder and director of communications strategy consultancy Cognitive Policy Works, also led sessions on communications and messaging.

The results of the event included a forthcoming mission statement that was co-authored by nine different groups. My group on cities also consisted of Johns Hopkins professor Schwartz, City University of New York professor (and former New York City green building standard originator) Hillary Brown, and transportation expert Anthony Perl, author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil.

We contributed concepts around “bioregionally grounded human communities” based on non-automotive transportation options, human-scaled neighborhoods and regionally produced sustainable food and energy. 

Groups also prepared proposals for collaboration and post-event project action, including a Resiliency Preparedness Kit; a communications strategy and roll-out plan; a regional sustainable agriculture investment model for production, processing and urban distribution; and a PCI-informed community development prototype approach for both domestic (Oberlin, Ohio) and international (most likely India or China) communities.

“We need to foster experimentation, re-localization,and  differentiation in our redundancies and behavior,” said PCI executive director Miller. “Simple living can make us happier and can tap into the long history of humans as a species.”

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author
of
How Green is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon
Institute
.

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Urban Resilience: climate change, peaking resources, economic crash. Next?

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How do we put the pieces together to make our cities and metro areas stronger than they were before climate change, energy volatility and the Great Recession?

(See “*answer” at end of this post…)

That’s what I’ll be discussing tomorrow (Tuesday) night on a panel, “Urban Resilience in Post-Carbon World,” in Vancouver with Bill Rees, of Ecological Footprint fame, and Daniel Lerch, author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty.

The panel, sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute, will be open to the public and is part of a larger event on urban resilience bringing together local government leaders from Canada and the United States, as well as academics and practitioners in urban sustainability–er, resiliency–management.

Vancouver has been viewed for a decade as a success story in sustainable planning and programs. From the city’s emphasis on increased downtown density, bikability and green buildings, including its sponsorship of a “21 places for the 21st century” contest, to a city farmer program for exchanging surplus fruit, Vancouver is on the vanguard of urban resiliency innovation. It also is one of Canada’s most diverse cities, home to significant numbers of Asians from many countries, including India, as well as indigenous North Americans.

The rich offerings of the Resilient Cities event demonstrates that Vancouver is thinking ahead once more. Besides its Mayor Gregor Robertson, minions of regional and local government, non-governmental and business leaders will be putting on events, including:

  • The Vancouver Design Nerds and Open Space Network will be facilitating an urban agriculture ideas jam while another group of food system experts and producers will examine “Planning Metro Vancouver as if Food Matters.”
  • A local university campus (BCIT Burnaby Campus) will be having a design charette, led by Ecocities founder Richard Register, to reduce its ecological footprint by a factor of four.
  • City government and groups including TransFair Canada will examine how to invigorate local economic development through fair trade and sustainable purchasing.
  • The city’s “Greenest City Action Team” including the manager of the City of Vancouver Sustainability Group will share advice on engaging people in change.
  • BC hydro will lead an interactive session on sustainable community energy.
  • Provincial official will examine convening action throughout British Columbia (Vancouver’s province) that achieves settlement in balance with ecology.
  • Real estate experts including David Suzuki Foundation author Nicholas Heap will explain how climate change could impact the region’s real estate.
  • Other cities, from New York City, with former Sustainable South Bronx’s Majora Carter, (a Fellow at Post Carbon Institute along with Bill Rees and myself) to Berkeley, California, will have case studies presented. AAt in 

Key to a successful event will be how well presenters and activities engage systems approaches for resilient communities, rather than just repackaging siloed sustainability chestnuts under a new label.

Besides regional government organization Metro Vancouver‘s hosting of a session on “The Politics of Decision-Making for Sustainability,” Vancouver is making attempts at coordinating with Seattle and Portland on how to make the Cascadia region a more interconnected and better managed bioregional market. Cascadia forces helped push Amtrak to connect Portland and Vancouver for the first time without border fees, for instance.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams will be at the event with a contingent from that Oregon city, as will Jim Diers, author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.

* The easy answer to my opening question, by the way, includes providing better regional
collaboration, particularly in the area of land use, planning and
transportation.

Unfettered growth in car-dependent sprawled communities proved during the past few years to be the biggest economic risk factor in real estate, endangering the whole US economy. Exurban Sun Belt homes and entire neighborhoods went from being hot properties to foreclosed or even largely abandoned, as rising gas price rises changed speculative economics from 2006-2009. 

Sprawl also has which has massive implications for higher average water, building and infrastructure energy use, increasing greenhouse gas production beyond tailpipes.

Which means that because of climate change, the issue of how to control and rethink sprawl on the regulatory and policy level should become a leading order of business in metro areas, states, nations and the world.

The unplanned sprawl that already exists will need to be re-engineered or “undone,” which means that the alternatives provided by the Vancouvers and Portlands–transit-oriented development, multi-model mobility (including walking and biking), regional energy and food production–will need to be applied at regional levels throughout North America.

The suburbs and exurbs are ground zero for change, particularly in the United States, where though most people live in urban areas (79% in 2000), they do not live in big cities. Only a quarter of US residents live in cities above 100,000 in population, so no matter how green cities become, we must think in terms of metros and their smaller cities if we really want to prepare for the future.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency     

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