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  • Posted January 9th, 2018

    Urban one-planet development: how can cities reduce their ecological footprint?

    Urban one-planet development: how can cities reduce their ecological footprint?

    The last post in this series looked at the vital role of ecological footprinting in ensuring that our individual actions are truly sustainable – i.e. within the limits of what the Earth’s resources can provide. This is called ‘one planet’ development.

    This post will begin to look at how communities of varying sizes might transition to one planet living, in other words, how towns and cities can reduce their consumption levels.

    The challenge

    The world’s citizens must reduce their collective footprint to one planet equivalent or face various catastrophes: out-of-control climate change, mass extinctions, famine and the death of the oceans to name but four on the agenda.

    The global population is now 7.5 bn. and is predicted to peak at 11.2 bn by 2100 (UN). By this time up to 84% of us may be dwelling in cities. A frightening thought.

    Yet all around the world, many different projects and initiatives to tackle their impact – both top-down and bottom-up – are evolving, especially in urban areas, as cities gain more confidence. They are supported by a plethora of pan-global organisations such as C40, ICLEI and the World Future Council.

    These initiatives cover most fields from energy and water to transport, buildings and industry, with the latter being particularly tough to tackle.

    Cities hoover up resources from the rest of the world. Unless those resources are both replenished in their place of origin and reclaimed for reuse in closed loop systems within cities, then cities cannot survive indefinitely.

    So it is in cities where the battle for the future will be most harshly fought.

    Standards? What standards?!

    To help us fight this battle effectively, we need assured processes. Enter the role of standards.

    Standards are essentially manuals containing a set of guidelines and metrics to be followed and met in pursuit of whatever goal you’re setting yourself.

    There is a new standard to measure the sustainability of cities: Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life (ISO 37120). It is being piloted as part of an integrated suite of standards for sustainable development in communities by such as Mexico City.

    There are many other indicators and standards for measuring sustainability: for example the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals contain a goal specifically about cities, and there is the New Urban Agenda, not to mention the Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint Standards 2009

    Which standards should we use?

    Standards can be relative or absolute. In other words, they can set a target of, say, a (relative) 50% reduction from a certain baseline, or an (absolute) target of, say, zero waste to landfill.

    Absolute targets enable comparison and ranking between different cities or projects; we can compare the performance of communities by dividing their consumption by their population.

    Absolute targets can also be linked to the (absolute) resources of the planet. In fact, standards must refer to planetary boundaries.

    Standards should also be simple to communicate and implement – especially in relation to the gathering of the necessary data.

    They might be designed to make it easy to automate the gathering of data from existing data collection methods.

    According to John Delaney of the British Standard Institute, “What option is chosen depends on what suits a city and/or what they are most comfortable with.

    Mathis Wackernagel, president of the Global Footprint Network, says that, “Perhaps the driving question becomes – what do places need to know in order to operate safely in an ecologically ever more constrained world. Cities need to have the critical information.”

    Back to Wales

    Back in Wales, the home of One Planet Development, its Well-Being of Future Generations Act is its very own charter to make Wales sustainable within a generation or two. It uses various metrics and standards to measure this and some have yet to be decided at the local level.

    The seven well-being goals in the WBFGA.

    It is essentially about spending. The Act means to ensure that the spending of public money is done in a sustainable way. That is to say, it does not jeopardise the ability of future generations both to live well and within planetary limits. The list of metrics includes:

    • Economic output – Gross Value Added

    • Social Justice – percentage of the population in relative low-income households

    • Biodiversity conservation – status of priority species and habitats

    • Ecological footprint – national EF against the UK and global average

    • Wellbeing – a standard set of 36 health questions which ask respondents about their own perception of their physical and mental health.

    • UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

    • Carbon footprinting.

    To try and ensure this is done, procurement strategies still need to be thrashed out.

    And there is an independent Commissioner for Future Generations, who acts as a government watchdog.

    (In England, the Tory Government abolished this role, which was held by Jonathan Porritt, in 2011).

    The path towards One Planet Towns and Cities

    So here is my deceptively simple six-step process for a town or city that decides it wants to reduce its ecological footprint to a fair and sustainable level:

    1. Decide which standards to use

    2. Obtain buy-in from citizens and all branches of government and obtain feedback at all levels

    3. Set the baseline – identify the current situation for each of the impacts (energy, water, food, minerals, biodiversity, carbon, pollution, health, income inequality, etc.)

    4. Decide the objectives to be set for each aspect of the footprint over realistic timescales. These should ratchet down consumption in stages over one or two generations.

    5. Set in place ways to measure them and to independently enforce them.

    6. Celebrate all your achievements!

    This makes it sound easy. But the task ahead is momentous. Above all it requires skills, knowledge and leadership.

    You know, anyone can become a leader. You just have to decide to do something.

    If you doubt this, look for a moment at the enormous difference a small group of people in Todmorden have made. They started ‘Incredible edible’ guerilla food-planting movement now copied all over the world.

    One Planet Towns vs. Transition Towns

    I believe that ‘one planet’ towns should be what ‘transition towns’ transition towards.

    Transition towns do not generally measure the efficacy of their actions. While they may very well be doing lots of good work, it may be that the efforts of some are only scratching the surface of what needs to be done, and at worst, wasting their time.

    They would have to account for the whole picture of consumption of their community in order to be sure, and then check what difference their actions are making over time. This is hard for voluntary organisations to do, and indicates why it is crucial to work with the authorities.

    But the authorities often do not want to know. In such cases they need to be trained to see the benefits that would accrue to their communities. Success depends on both top-down and bottom-up co-operation.

    The need for training

    In 2018 I am setting up a new body called The One Planet Institute that will contribute to this work. Contact me ([email protected]) for more information or to get involved.

    Measurement and verification may be boring. It may be hard work. It might even seem a waste of time to some people. But I know from my experience in energy management and in the post-occupancy evaluation of buildings that were intended by architects to be low-carbon, that it is the only way to be absolutely sure we are NOT wasting our time.

    In short, that we are targeting our efforts in the most worthwhile directions.

    Next article

    The next article in this series will look at the hardest component of the ecological footprint to reduce – food production and consumption.

    One Planet Living is about showing the way:

    • To enquire about hosting a workshop or training in One Planet Living, or anything else, email David – [email protected]


    David Thorpe of One Planet Life is a Lecturer in One Planet Living at UWTSD in the School of Architecture and a Patron of the One Planet Council. He also works for Calon Cymru Network and was for two years a Special Consultant on Sustainable Cities Collective (see below) and, prior to that, was for 13 years news editor of Energy and Environmental Management magazine. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on these subjects.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1Daniel Scharf January 9th, 2018

      In Oxford a start has been made on attracting support for adopting the ‘bioregion’ (socio-region?) as the focus for achieving genuine low impact living. There are innumerable citizens and government groups in the region involved in aiming at more sustainable development and it will be interesting to see whether a new framework enables this potential energy to be galvanized to avoid just scratching of the surface and time wasting.

    • 2Dave Darby January 9th, 2018

      I love the concept of one-planet living. It’s a very easy way to show how the human economy is overshooting the natural limits of its home planet. I remember when I first came across it, I don’t know how many years ago now, when humans had a 1.2-planet footprint. In other words, to continue consuming at the levels we were then, we’d need 1.2 planets – which clearly we don’t have. If we couldn’t reduce our footprint to less than one planet, that would mean we’d be on a more-or-less suicidal trajectory, as we eroded our life-support system. Several years later, the next time I looked into it, rather than falling, it had risen to 1.4 planets. Now it’s something like 1.7, showing that we’re moving in exactly the opposite direction to where we should be headed, and so whatever we’re doing, it’s the wrong thing. So much so that the august and conservative Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA recently suggested that we were headed for ‘biological annihilation’ – not very comforting.

      I also like your suggestion that the Transition movement might want to use the one-planet model in their Transition towns. That might tighten up their analysis of where we actually are, ecologically-speaking. I think there are a couple of problems with the Transition movement. First, it only exists in a small minority of places, and is absent from vast swathes of the working-class midlands, north-west, north-east, Scotland and South Wales, as well as working-class towns in the south. I’ve watched the town I grew up in lose most of its small shops and markets as everything gets bulldozed for corporate supermarkets, shopping centres and dual carriageways. No-one walks or catches the bus to shops any more and everyone is encouraged to go into debt to finance excessive consumption – and it’s a pretty typical town. Second, many Transitioners I talk to think that Transition is ‘it’, and is slowly going to spread and solve all of our problems, not noticing that since Transition was born, our footprint has been growing remorselessly. I just feel that many well-intentioned people need a reality check – which could be provided by the one-planet approach.

      I still think that Transition is a good thing though – it’s a tool for bringing people together in (some) communities, which can’t be a bad thing. One-planet development is an excellent tool too, but again, I don’t think that it’s the thing that’s going to turn things around. The stumbling block will be getting governments on board, I think, influenced as they are by moneyed interests, via donations, the lobby industry, the ‘revolving door’ and ownership of the media, to name just a few. Trying to persuade them that we need to consume less is not going to be received enthusiastically, and any country that tries to reduce consumption unilaterally will be a victim of instantaneous capital flight, orchestrated by financial algorithms that don’t need to be told what to do to any country that doesn’t roll out the red carpet for corporate growth interests; and just to press home the point, Trump (Mr. ‘anti-establishment’) has filled his cabinet (the global boardroom, if you like) with Goldman Sachs people. There’s a pretty obvious reason why bankers are in the driving seat, rather than academics, scientists or teachers. Even if that weren’t the case, it would be very many years before the world is more influenced by the human global footprint than by the global advertising industry. We might have to use this tool from the bottom up, and expect obstruction from most governments (Trump? May?) rather than support.

    • 3David Thorpe January 10th, 2018

      Daniel, if you would like me to come and give workshop do let me know!

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