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  • Jo Wills

Every climate action is a community action

Musings and key learning from the 2017 Eco City World Summit, a biannual international series that 'aims to unite people through a new way of living on the planet that ensures best possibly cities while enhancing, not destroying, the biosphere.' Sitting in a room full of academics gives me a thrill. Its the anticipation of knowledge that I love and constantly hunger for. Attending the Eco City World Summit fed my appetite on a grand scale. I came away with considerable learning and deeper insight about the role we have to play as part of this global community we all belong to. The summit attendees were largely academics and local/state government representatives from all over the world, with presenters and key note speakers boasting world class stature. Needless to say, I felt a little intimidated heading into day one of the three day programme of over one hundred sessions. However, that all faded away with first plenary session, when Aromar Revi, Director, Indian Institute for Human Settlements spoke about the Sustainable Development Goals under the umbrella of 'no one, no place, no ecosystem left behind'. Followed by Dr Debra Roberts, Climate Change Adviser to ICLEI sharing her insight regarding the divide between science, policy and practice and the 'knowledge community'. I felt right at home.

The focus for the summit was 'Changing Cities: Resilience and Transformations'. Rapid urbanisation; the need to feed, house, educate, employ, move about, entertain as well as keep healthy and safe millions of people comes with challenges and they extend far past GDP and politics. Cities are said to be responsible for roughly seventy five percent of GHG emissions and they sprawl, swallowing up productive land and destroying biodiversity. Issues of poverty, inequality, disease and despair are as synonymous with city living as high paid jobs and fancy cars. Cities are bulging at the seams and decision makers are being faced with incredibly difficult choices, BAU, or is there another way?

It's fair to say, unrestrained economic growth, the BAU model we have been conditioned to accept, has a lot to answer for. Our cities, economies, political and social structures are based on moving forwards, upwards, getting ahead and increasing the GDP, our cherished measure of success. This model expects us to earn more, spend more, have more and we place a lot of value on 'more'. Balance isn't something we've been taught to seek. Not work-life balance, but ecological balance. The balance that allows us to enjoy a high quality of life within the natural boundaries of the planet. This type of balance means something different. It means a fairer distribution of and respect for resources and it means a different set of measures for success.

The key theme from this topic was however, not new economic models. (I have referenced a great book at the end of this blog for that). It was really about social and climate equity. Aromar Revi and many others kept bringing us back to what was a fundamental component of a resilient city, it simply must deliver to its most vulnerable.

A 'high quality of life' is not as simple as one size fits all, but it doesn't take much to work what the basics are. This is where the Sustainable Development Goals are so important - it's delivering to those goals that requires a paradigm shift, but it's a far superior approach for societies to use when striving for success. Interestingly though, and pleasingly so, when cities start to focus on reducing carbon emissions, those goals start to become a lot more realistic.

Let's look at transport as an example. Transport is a major headache for most cities for many reasons; 1. Financially - roads cost a lot of money to build and to maintain, cars take up a lot of space on the road regardless of when moving or stationary.

2. Congestion - if people can't get to work, or to the shops, they get angry and start demanding more roads, and the economy suffers because of lost productivity and sales

3. Emissions - cities that understand their emissions profile know transport is one of the largest contributors, but its BAU to build more roads, which allow more cars...see points 1 & 2.

Accessibility and connectivity are essential components of a good city and add to quality of life, so providing infrastructure to support this means giving people an alternative to cars and to prioritise active and public transport. This needs to be done in a way that 'the poor aren't marooned in the outer suburbs with their cars' as one of the presenters expressed.

Stockholm has a great reputation for quality of life and for its commitment to reducing carbon emissions. They have plans in place to be a fossil fuel free city by 2040 and have a congestion charge on cars entering their CBD. However before introducing that charge they invested in public and active transport networks delivering accessibility and connectivity needs to their entire community, from the most vulnerable up. As a result of the congestion charge, one fifth of cars disappeared from their city streets and seventy five percent of Stockholmers now use public transport. They also developed this network with 'gender considerations' so as to not disadvantage women with prams or small children in tow. A story which struck a chord with me about how important it is to understand your community was shared by Linda Holmstrom, Policy Advisor, Climate Unit, Executive Officer, City of Stockholm. She said when it snows and the roads need to be cleared, they start with the footpaths. The reason being, people using the footpaths are more vulnerable to the conditions and have higher transit needs, than those who get to ride in warm cars.

Victoria, Australia has declared a law stating they will have zero emissions by 2050. C40 is made up of 91 cities and each have committed to over 10,000 actions to reduce GHG emissions by 2020 (to meet the Paris agreement and Zero Carbon by 2050.) All 20 cities involved in the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance have made commitments to reduce their emissions. Every city with a commitment to reducing carbon emissions will be addressing transport. Every city that does this well will be supporting all members of its community to move about safely, affordably and efficiently enhancing accessibility and connectivity within and outside of the city. And as a side note, every time a city provided carbon reduction data, one column showed emissions declining and the other showed the GDP increasing. Every time. While I don't agree with GDP as our priority measure, it can clearly be decoupled from taking a mitigation approach to climate change.

For more insight into transit, check our Andy Likuski's page Rescapes. I met Andy at the summit, hes an urban planner and technologist living in San Francisco who doesn't own a car. Andy's experience of public transport is vast and his commitment to not needing a car is awesome. His choice is supported by the city's commitment to public and active transport. I use my bike as transport as often as I can but even with the best intentions I still have little choice but to drive on many occasions. Take a look The Transbay Transit Center Project, this project set out to 'transform downtown San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area’s regional transportation system by creating a “Grand Central Station of the West” in the heart of a new transit-friendly neighborhood.' The images are pretty impressive and look a little futuristic with a 5.4-acre rooftop park, but Andy told me its seventy five percent completed.

This brings me to the next major opportunity for cities to reduce emissions and provide a higher standard of living for its people. Urban greening. I attended an academic session by Anne Cleary, a student at the School of Medicine, Brisbane entitled Nature Connection. This something I understand innately, but to hear respected medical research backing up my own values was not something I was prepared to miss.

By 2030, depression is predicted to be the number one global disease. Consider that alongside the prediction that seventy percent of people will be living in urban areas by 2050 and the first visual to come to my mind is concrete, grey concrete. Couple that with the manufacture of cement contributing six percent of global emissions, the outlook is potentially bleak. However, nature in its simplest form can help deliver a different outcome, supporting ecological systems, biodiversity, reducing emissions and improving peoples emotional and physical well-being. Cities and urban sprawl is notorious for clear felling land and calling it progress. Turns out that practice is flawed. We need to bring nature back into our cities and actively plan for this when developing areas. Here are the benefits of having green spaces as part of our city form, credit to Anne Cleary and her work. It can:

  • reduce urban heat

  • reduce impact flooding

  • improve air quality

  • provide noise buffering

  • reduce UV exposure

  • act as a carbon sink

  • improve social interaction

  • foster community cohesion

  • increase physical activity

  • reduce stress and anxiety

  • improve attention restoration

Bringing accessible and functional green spaces into our city and urban areas by design is essential. Yes these spaces will cost to maintain but measure that cost against the negative social and environmental costs of not doing it and see what adds up faster. In Tauranga 'health services' are currently the largest contributor to our GDP. This screams 'we have a problem'. The problem is systematic however providing accessible and functional green spaces, linked with active transport networks is a medicine that will pay for itself in no time, and it will be generational.

Functional urban greening can be rain gardens, storm water management systems, even urban forests and community gardens are great examples. When medium or high density housing is planned, so should accessible green spaces (not just a grassed area) and so should community gardens. A roof top garden is another example and can be retrofitted into existing built up areas providing access and function with shade, food and community spaces. While communities are benefiting, so is the environment - which benefits the community.

Another strong theme for the summit was community involvement. Every time a city

shared success, every time a world renowned leader spoke, they all had the same message. Community participation in planning, design, decision making and even implementation of city projects is vital. Communities only tend to bite back when they are ignored, not when they are intentionally and genuinely involved. There were a number of grass roots organisations profiled. Beyond Zero Emissions is a community Think Tank producing independent research, showing that 'zero emissions is technically feasible now'. The Rescope Project produces podcasts, hosts large public forums and small community gatherings 'taking the national dialogue beyond the consumer growth society, to new visions and systems for what’s most important in life.' These are both Australian initiatives, we have them here in NZ as well, Generation Zero is a great national example and locally there is the Tauranga Carbon Reduction Group. There of course many more.

One presenter made the comment 'people need to realise they have a choice' and that they could be a different person in the world, living their values if there were the systems and services in place to support that. Not everyone has the courage or support networks to choose a different path, we're so conditioned to follow the pack. Fortunately these grass roots groups are forming a new pack, advocating for new systems and leading change.

The Elderman Trust Barometer global annual study reports that only fifteen percent of the general population believe the present system is working. That's got to be encouraging for local and national government to start taking a leadership role in the change is needed. For this to happen though there needs to be a high level of acceptance that there is no other option. I guess that's where Al Gore comes into play who was a guest speaker on day two. His message packs a pretty decent punch.

The summit was three days of intensive learning and sharing. I could go on for days. Instead, I will finish with (just) ten of my favourite one liner takeaways, sometimes these are all that's needed to be jolted back on track.

1. 'Problem admiring' - we need to stop this. We know what the problems are inside out, so let's shift our energy (and investment) into solutions, new ways to do things. The problems are largely the same across the globe, let's get over ourselves thinking our problems are different and get on with it.

2. 'Every climate action is a community action.' (John Mauro, Chief Sustainability Office, AK City Council)

3. 'We are the people we've been waiting for.'

4. 'No one, no place, no ecosytem left behind.' (Aromar Revi) No excuses.

5. The 'Holy Shit Network', this from the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance on the realisation of what's at stake,

6. 'Keep calm and play the long game.' Dr Debra Roberts 7. We're stuck in a state of 'Procedural fetishism'. More from Dr Debra Roberts

8. When it comes to addressing climate change, we are all developing countries.

9. 'Ecosocialism' - I'm still trying to get a good grasp this term!

10. And finally, 'The place you stick out the most is the place you should stay because that's where you can contribute something new.' With thanks again to Dr Debra Roberts

To follow is something I jotted down between sessions, a combination of all I was hearing and what made sense to me as approach for real engagement...

Co-mmunity involvement and leadership is vital in planning and pathways, needs to be a stakeholder with a seat at the table. Co-llaboration has got to be a driving principle for all actions and needs to be genuine (needs to be 'open mind' approach to community activity) Co-development and a willingness to experiment ideas that deliver to outcomes other than growth (well being!) Co-benefits based on an understanding (from the above points) about what the community values are and what they value.

If you would like to talk in detail about anything discussed in this blog, please don't hesitate to contact me at

Great reads:

To learn more about the planetary boundaries and new economic models, check out Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.

This one is a few years old and highly regarded, Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson.

Also a few years old about equality, The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

For a great read the transformation of the streets of New York check out Streetfight, a handbook for urban revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan.

Websites and more reference: (originators of the Eco City Summit series) (set of standards for cities to strive towards) (Andy's website has loads of great links) (a sustainable residential development in Vic, Aust) (rethinking the way American cities are built)

Environmental Performance Review of New Zealand Urban Greening, World Health Organisation

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