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  • Posted May 22nd, 2019

    Introducing One Planet Cities: sustaining humanity within planetary limits

    Introducing One Planet Cities: sustaining humanity within planetary limits

    David Thorpe of One Planet Life shares the ideas and aspirations behind his new book One Planet Cities, outlining his vision for sustainable urban communities.

    How can the essential needs of the growing human population be met without breaking the Earth’s already-stretched life-support system? This is the question I set myself to answer with my new book, One Planet Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits.

    It is linked to my new campaign for cities to declare an ambition to reduce their ecological footprint, beginning in Wales, as a response to the twinned climate and extinction emergencies, which I am running with the Global Footprint Network. It is also a key textbook for a new postgraduate certificate in #OnePlanet Governance at the University of Wales Trinity St David, that civil servants and other students can undertake via distance learning from anywhere in the world, and gain CPD points. I want to train the next generation of civic leaders in how to save the world.

    Although I started my work before Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics came out, it builds on it and the work of the Global Footprint Network, whose president, Matthis Wackernagel, was extremely helpful during its writing. It is based on interviews with a great many urban leaders around the world and webinars conducted with them during my time as curator of the sustainable cities collective web forum, as well as much supplementary research.

    It’s also a follow-up to my previous book The One Planet Life, which is a manual to help individuals and households to reduce their ecological footprint and live lightly on the earth. At the end of that book there are twenty case studies, the last of which are set in cities.

    Contraction and convergence

    Four out of five people are predicted to be urban dwellers by 2080. No country or city in the world now meets the needs of its citizens in a truly sustainable fashion (within Raworth’s doughnut). One Planet Cities proposes a pathway to this genuine sustainability for cities and neighbourhoods, using an approach based on ‘contraction and convergence’.

    The book examines all aspects of modern society, from food provision to neighbourhood design, via industry, the circular economy, energy and transport, through the critical lens of the ecological footprint and relevant supporting international standards and indicators. There are recommendations for managing supply chains and impacts and considerations of how the transition to a world within limits might be financed, followed by a deep examination of the Welsh government’s pioneering efforts.

    It discusses how the dystopic stories we tell ourselves about the future can influence the future we make and concludes with an imagined vision of what a genuinely sustainable future might be like, based on the examples in the book, and an appeal for ‘one planeteers’ everywhere to step up to the challenge.

    What would setting a target to be a ‘one planet’ city mean?

    It means adopting a framework for working over time so that all activities over which a city has power and influence combine together to reduce its ecological footprint (which includes carbon and biocapacity) to a measurably sustainable level. The time period is defined. The main tools are shifts in collective awareness and in the way all money is spent. The objective is to address the combined climate, resource and extinction emergencies at the same time with win-win-win solutions to create a flagship healthy, successful and resilient city.

    One Planet City: resource dependence graph
    Credit: David Thorpe

    The 6-step path towards a ‘one planet’ city

    1. Obtain community buy-in and raise awareness
    2. Decide which standards and goals to use
    3. Determine the baseline – the current situation of biocapacity and resource use
    4. Set targets to ratchet down consumption and boost biocapacity for each sector over realistic timescales (e.g. 5 year intervals up to 2030 and then up to 2050)
    5. Set in place ways to measure them
    6. Keep checking and refining

    The basic ‘one planet’ city requirements

    1. An aim to reduce the ecological footprint to ‘one planet’ (e.g. by 2050) would become an underlying principle of all planning and policy as a verifiable regenerative strategy
    2. The same set of social and environmental criteria would be used to assess all planning applications and procurement (i.e. a reduction of ecological footprint and increase in biocapacity, step-changing incrementally over time to the level currently applied to One Planet Developments in the open countryside under TAN6 in Wales)
    3. The criteria would be informed by appropriate indicators including life-cycle and ecological footprint analysis, using the simple Net Present Value+ tool which allows you to compare all potential and actual projects for their impacts and benefits (see below)
    4. Official policy would support all areas and sectors to become more productive, more bio-diverse and regenerative e.g. supporting more food growing in the city
    5. There would be a reduction of excessive consumption by a shift to a closed loop economy using procurement tools and believing that meeting basic needs is sufficient for everybody

    How spending bodies would proceed

    Every project initiated by public bodies would be evaluated relative to the overall goal as follows:

    • Where does a city want to be resource-wise in 2030 and 2050 to position itself for success?
    • What Ecological Footprint reduction does this imply? (relative to the baseline survey – see below)
    • What is the financial budget of the city for projects over the time period (for instance up to 2030 or 2050)?
    • By dividing the reduction by the expected budget, one gets a minimal performance standard for all projects
    • Every project that does not beat this benchmark becomes a liability and should be avoided. Favour the best performing projects and learn from them.

    This implies 2 questions about all spending (in line with WBFGA)

    To make sure all of a city’s investments are effective in helping to achieve the defined objective, they would need to pass two evaluations:

    1. Is the investment producing a positive financial return (ROI)? If not, the project will not be replicable. The higher the ROI, the faster it can be scaled.
    2. Is the investment advancing resource security sufficiently rapidly? If not, a city will not be prepared for the future we anticipate. (Resource security is defined by biocapacity, population, resource (including carbon) flows).

    Tools to help:

    1. Ecological Footprint accounting

    • Provides a biological view and joins all the human pressures – water, climate, biodiversity, food, energy, etc. This allows us to solve them all together.
    • Ecological Footprint results are understandable by ordinary people (unlike carbon)
    • Makes the economic self-interest clear and obvious. It emphasises resource security
    • It allows policy analysts to identify which options reduce the resource dependence of an economy and by how much.
    • Sustainable investments that satisfy investors need to meet both the resource and the fiscal criteria

    To achieve this use:

    2. The Net Present Value+ tool

    • Expands on classical NPV. See: https://www.footprintnetwork.org/npvplus/
    • It compares different scenarios for a given spend
    • Can help you evaluate how much the spending benefits social, financial and environmental criteria
    • It also clarifies what the assumed future is within which the spend has to operate
    • Ensures all the relevant costs & benefits are counted within the WBFGA’s 5 ways of working


    We can offer a city baseline evaluation and capacity building which can be applied to any supply/consumption chain and procurement life-cycle analysis strategy. A city assessment as baseline is typically around £50,000. A city would be provided with a Consumption Land Use Matrix (measuring biocapacity against resource use) which it can regularly update itself. The result would be the beginning of win-win strategy: a city would have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

    About the author

    David Thorpe of One Planet Life is a Lecturer in One Planet Living at UWTSD and a Patron of the One Planet Council.  The author of several books and thousands of articles, he also works for Calon Cymru Network, was a Special Consultant at Sustainable Cities Collective and is a former editor of Energy and Environmental Management magazine.

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


    • 1Andrew Rollinson July 9th, 2019

      Dear David,

      I have tried three times to find some anchor point with which to comprehend this blog and I cannot. I can’t identify any substance to the content. Still, I am interested in the concept. Could you perhaps try and re-phrase your proposal in layperson/non management consultant language please?

      In particular can you be specific about fluxes of essentials like food, materials (and in this I include gaseous fluxes), energy, waste? You say for example that “the main tools are shifts in collective awareness and how money is spent”, which is a good example of where I am missing the substance. It is intrinsically impossible for urban areas to be sustainable when they have little or no agricultural land or forestry resources, and with a high population density. In all these things urban areas are parasites on the rural communities surrounding them. Or are you saying that your model is only “sustainable” when you allow movement of goods and utilities across the urban boundary? I am always skeptical when I hear of talk about sustainability and growth as a “win-win- [and in your case a further] win” situation.

      Urbanisation in the 19th Century was where things started becoming unsustainable for the earth, with energy and food and resources.


    • 2David Thorpe July 11th, 2019

      Thanks for your comment. Cities purchase stuff from everywhere. It can be done in a measurably more sustainable and resilient way. I’ve emailed you with more info, but you can also read the book.

    • 3Andrew Rollinson July 12th, 2019

      Dear David,

      The two pieces of information that you sent do not help, and contain the same language (mostly verbatim) and content as here. If you can explain this in non-management consultant language along with some substance about the commodity fluxes then please do, otherwise I’ll leave the query.

      By “sustainable urban communities”, you have to mean “less wasteful urban communities”, which of course does not have the same advertising punch when trying to entice decision makers onto your courses. Another phrase that you use is “more regenerative” which is so awkward it makes me cringe. Of course, it would not be a bad thing if more councils tried harder to operate less wastefully. Still, they’d be spending our council tax payments to go on training like this, and I think that this is one of the main areas where financial waste occurs in local government.

    • 4David Thorpe July 12th, 2019

      I’m sorry if you feel this is jargon. The word regenerative means putting nature back into our lives to repair the damage we have done to nature, to grow more food in cities, and to reduce the pollution and heat island effect in cities. It is a word taken from Herbert Girardet’s book Regenerative Cities. Herbert is a very clear writer and if you wish to find out more, please read this book. He wrote an introduction to my book by the way.

      I do not know what you mean by commodity fluxes. I did not use this term.

      There is an absolute correlation at the moment between the level of ecological footprint of anything from a country to the city to a person and the level of spending. The more you spend, the greater your footprint.

      But we need to spend money to give ourselves the things we need. Yet there are many ways of achieving the same result: to get from here to London, I can walk, take a train, go in a car, or fly; same result, different impacts.

      To understand how to reduce the ecological footprint of spending decisions it is necessary to find out first where everything comes from that is bought and where it goes to, and what are the impacts of these processes which are usually, today, linear (this is called life-cycle analysis).

      In order to lower their ecological footprint, cities, nations and individuals need to 1) source things more locally, 2) encourage less waste and a more circular economy, where things become endlessly reused used as in nature, 3) find less impactful ways of doing the same things.

      Examples of these include: energy efficiency; creating markets for recycled products; when authorities issue tender documents for services and goods, to include social and environmental criteria not just purely economic ones, and to break bids down into smaller lots so that smaller, more local supply chains can set themselves up to satisfy these demands. This happened, in Preston, Lancashire, and really help boost employment and the local economy, whilst reducing ecological impact.

      And in Germany and Austria, for example, there is a system where similar social and ecological criteria are used when seeking developers for housing projects, which also limit the profit they can make to no more than 15%.

      This is about using procurement techniques to create markets for a new kind of supplier that takes the needs of the planet into account. Since public bodies spend a great deal of money they are in a superb position to help transform the market in this direction.

      Ecological footprinting is one of the tools that can assist decision-makers. NPV+ is another one, since it factors in these presently off-balance-sheet costs and benefits. The fact that these environmental and social costs have been off the balance sheet for so long has got us into the mess we are in now.

      Since I have studied energy management, where what gets measured gets saved, I am a great believer in using monitoring and measurement to continually check whether something that is claimed to be sustainable, genuinely is having a good all round effect.

      I also don’t believe that it is sufficient for anyone just to engage in a few so-called sustainable projects here and there. The entire system needs changing to address the climate and extinction emergencies. What I’m proposing is a way to do this. The system can only be changed by a change in the way that money is spent – taking into account every effect of that spending – whilst still giving people what they need to be healthy and happy, for if they’re not they will not welcome these changes.

      For further reading, please see Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, and remember while reading it that nowhere in the world does this doughnut exist, where people can live safely, healthily, happily and with justice within the limits defined by what the planet can offer.

      My book is a proposal for how we can do this. I urge you to read that as well.

      I hope this helps.

    • 5Andrew Rollinson July 15th, 2019

      Dear David,

      That helps, thank you. But I’m still not convinced enough to buy your book.

      The use of the word “fluxes” was mine. I am referring to the movement of goods and intangible matter (such as energy and greenhouse gases) across the city boundary. Cities must be net importers and I cannot see how they could ever be sustainable.

      From your latest description, it appears that you advise councils and others on how to plan for operating with less waste and less environmental impact based on financial management. The advice that you give appears to be based on third-party life cycle analyses. Is this a reasonable summary?

      I suggest that yours is also perhaps another case of the word “sustainable” being used incorrectly.

    • 6Dave Darby July 15th, 2019

      David – good to hear you’re on board with the Preston model. Lots of other local authorities are leaning that way – but the corporate world has other ideas of course – they’ll have to compete with Amazon, for example – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2018/07/29/amazon-start-supplying-public-sector-600m-yorkshire-deal/. But also, public sector unions have come out against mutualisation – they see it as handing the public sector to capitalists through a mutualist back door – https://www.unison.org.uk/motions/2015/local-government/when-is-a-co-op-not-a-co-op/. They’re also opposing this in Preston, according to David Boyle – http://www.newweather.org/2019/06/28/a-new-economics-is-emerging-but-not-from-the-traditional-left/#comment-50166.

      Shame – but this isn’t going to be the usual left-right thing.

      I think ecological footprinting is a great tool. Unfortunately, since I first came across it, the global human footprint has crept remorselessly up. It was around 1.2 planets when I first discovered the concept, and now it’s (I believe) 1.7. That’s 1.7 planets we need to keep living the way we do. Which we don’t have, of course, and so we have to destroy the ecology of this one, in a futule attempt to maintain our level of economic activity.

      Our global footprint will never start heading towards one planet until and unless we shrink and stabilise the global economy or suffer a massive die-off of our species. Sadly, the latter looks much more likely.

      I think what you’re doing is good – energy efficiency (although, in a growth context, the Jevons Paradox will negate it), bringing ecological problems to a wider audience, promoting ecological footprinting, local procurement etc. – but (as with lifestyle change), within a context of eternal economic growth, all it can do is push back the date of our demise.

    • 7David Thorpe July 15th, 2019

      Dear Andrew

      The only way for you to be convinced is to read the book, because I distinctively examine different claims for sustainability and whether they pass muster. The question of standards by which we measure sustainability is the subject of two long critical chapters near the beginning of the book.

      The only standards that matter is are those which make reference to planetary boundaries.

      I completely agree that the term sustainability is frequently misused.

      You are jumping to conclusions. It is a bit like someone condemning a film without having seen it.

      You also have quite clearly not got what I’m talking about yet. It’s not just councils I am advising. The way we spend all money has an impact. We need to change this in order to be sure we are doing the right thing and along the way, to move to a closed loop, more local economy, which will have all sorts of other benefits.

      In the world of technology, when something is broken and you want to fix it, they say “read the fucking manual”. I’m telling you to read the book if you really want to understand what I’m saying, and don’t misrepresent me. No one has said this before.

      If you can’t afford it, ask a library to get it for you.


    • 8David Thorpe July 15th, 2019

      Dear Dave

      There was an extended feature on the Preston model yesterday, Sunday, on Radio 4’s World at One. However nobody mentioned that as well as all the other benefits from procuring locally, there are environmental ones as well. You can probably listen to it on iPlayer.

      Best wishes


    • 9Andrew Rollinson July 16th, 2019

      Dear David (Thorpe),

      If I were one of your students seeking some clarification, would this be your response, and is there any need for profanities? Is that how you teach?

      You’ve advertised your book and courses on here and I have asked for a bit of clarification. I’ve even attempted my own summary which you have not commented on. As an author of a blog you have some obligation to respond to honest queries as best you can.

      Yes, you can probably gauge that I am skeptical about what you are proposing in terms of your notion, value of your proposed methods, and as I have stated – your choice of phrases. This skepticism has been strengthened, which is a shame.

      Because of this, and as mentioned in comment 3, I’ll leave the query. Again, let me stress: I won’t be buying (nor borrowing) your book.


    • 10David Thorpe July 16th, 2019

      Hi Andrew, sorry if you’re offended at a bit of playful banter…

      You are a person engaged in technical work on bioreactors, I gather, so used to handling technical info and measuring the effectiveness of technology, which is one of my foundational principles. I must say I’m puzzled by your lack of engagement with the substance of my replies. What gets measured gets saved, is a mantra of energy management, and applies to resource management too… right across the life cycle impacts of any activity or product.

      Most people live in cities. Unless we help cities become sustainable then they and the rest of the planet are doomed. That’s the challenge the book addresses.

      Of course cities are net importers. That is why they must reclaim the residues of what they import after they use them; and reuse the products of that reclamation; they must procure more effectively so that their suppliers don’t trash the planet; become more regenerative by incorporating more nature within themselves; and incorporate some of the many more solutions in the book.

      You say you can’t see how cities can ever be sustainable: I say read the book to find out.

    • 11Dave Darby July 16th, 2019

      Andrew – not wading in on the content – I said my piece on our global footprint and the growth agenda in comment 6, above. But, RTFM is a standard techie to non-techie response. He wasn’t aiming a profanity at you.

    • 12Andrew Rollinson July 17th, 2019

      Okay, as we are all very busy, let us move on.

      Dave [Darby], I infer from your comment 6 that you get the essence of my skepticisms.


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