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Bioregional Solutions for Living on One Planet
Alex Steffen, 10 Apr 06

Bright green urbanism is thriving in London. Worldchangers there are thinking long term and incorporating boldly sustainable designs into housing, institutions and urban plans, as witnessed by cutting-edge ideas like London's congestion pricing and the BedZED development. The list of London's sustainability innovations is large and diverse, from zero-footprint homes and sustainable mosques to giant windfarms in the Thames estuary, plans for a green Olympics and "big green" buildings like the Gherkin. None of this makes London a perfect city, by any means, but London does point the way to a variety of strategies we could all use to brightly green our hometowns. London rocks.

One of the reasons London is such an epicenter is the group BioRegional. Indeed, if I were asked to name the single coolest environmental group on the planet, BioRegional would have to be a contender.

It's their recent work -- like the BedZED development, the ZedStandards for neighborhood design, the new SkyZED tower and their work both greening homes and greening London's 2012 Olympics -- that I find particularly exciting. BioRegional seems to have a very clear lock on what it means to make a measurable systemic difference. However, their whole story as an organization is quite inspiring. The best telling of that story I've found so far is the book Bioregional Solutions for Living on One Planet,number eight in the Schumacher Briefings papers.

Begun by Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone in the mid-nineties, BioRegional has always aimed at finding ways of making sustainability work in the real world:

"[W]e have been keen to engage with the market on its own terms and to link ourselves back to the local environment and the earth's natural nutrient and energy cycles. We value technology and the marketplace, but recognize that these can only bring long term benefits when they are linked to natural cycles -- i.e., when we work with, rather than against, nature."

BioRegional's solutions have therefore always aimed at finding leverage points in the larger economy where sustainable solutions with real impact can find a toe-hold. Much of their early work explored ways of meeting resource needs through local economies: creating local paper cycles, promoting hemp clothing, connecting local farmers and local households, finding markets for locally-grown lavender.

A great example is their work to create a market for sustainably-produced British charcoal. As they explain in Bioregional Solutions, most of the charcoal consumed in the U.K. imported, often from South Africa. That charcoal not only spurs resource exploitation in a developing world country (where environmental problems are becoming severe), while giving relatively little economic benefit to the original producers, it also comes with a steep carbon footprint: 1.32 kilos of CO2 for every 3 kilo bag before it is even set alight in the barbecue.

"Coppicing" is a traditional forestry practice in which select trees are cut back and allowed to send out new shoots. If the trees are cut in a slow rotation, not only is the harvest of wood sustainable over long time period, but the forest it creates closely mimics the variation found in natural woods, with a dappled pattern of big old trees, young growing saplings and sunny glades:

"Coppicing creates woodlands with areas of sun and shade, offering a diversity of habitats for wildlife. In the first few years after cutting, woodland flowers such as violets and vetches flourish, stimulated by the light and warmth. These flowers in turn support a variety of insects, notably woodland butterflies. As coppices grow into thickets they become home to a second generation of species such as nightingales, turtledoves and dormice. ... So, although it may seem odd and counter-intuitive at first, harvesting wood, if done in the right way, can be positively beneficial for wildlife and increase biodiversity. Some species in the UK are now dependent on coppicing... The beautiful pearl-bordered fritillary, the U.K.'s fastest-declining butterfly species, is one example of a species that has become locally extinct as coppice woodlands have fallen into neglect."

So, providing an incentive for foresters to continue coppicing is clearly a good idea. But how do you create a market for products made from coppiced wood? For the best wood, supplying furniture-makers and builders might be an option, but what of the remaining wood? After looking at all the possibilities, turning the wood into charcoal stood out as a potentially smart idea: not only would is bring much-needed income to small, local foresters, it would also drop the transportation carbon footprint of a 3 kg bag of charcoal to 0.13 kg per bag, while supporting British biodiversity.

You'll have to read the book to get the whole story of how BioRegional pulled it off, but the short version is that they figured out that a series of regional kilns, working with local farmers, could produce enough (comparatively) sustainable charcoal to be marketable, and they then convinced national retailers B & Q to carry the local charcoal in stores across the UK. Success.

But what of those poor South African charcoal burners? Isn't BioRegional screwing them over? Well, BioRegional did the research and found the answer is yes and no, but mostly no. First of all, most imported charcoal in the UK comes with no fair trade certifications, and the working conditions on (and the ecological impacts of) developing world charcoal operations turn out to be something most of us wouldn't want to be supporting.

Second, the money which actually reaches local producers can be a pittance -- on average less than ten pence for a nearly three pound retail price (and extractive industries based on short-term practices aren't much of a tool for development).

Finally, as the BioRegional folks point out, "we simply have no option but to address sustainability." We can't continue acting as if the climate and environmental costs of bad business practices are of no concern. If nothing else, it is the global poor who are most endangered by climate change.

Indeed, BioRegional developed a clever measurement to assess how effective a trade-off between development and climate chaos a particular enterprise is: The Foreign Exchange Earnings per Transport ton of CO2 (FEET) index. Not surprisingly, producing craft items (like good wine) and intellectual property (for instance software) is by far a better deal for a developing nation (both in terms of cash and climate) than clearcutting its forests and turning them into charcoal.

As you might be able to tell, if you're even a bit of an eco-geek, this book is packed with interesting ideas. I am far more interested in BioRegional's bright green urban future -- where they seem to be using rigorous sustainability thinking to leverage real change in the systems that will ultimately have the biggest impact -- but its small-scale sustainable past is a story worth knowing.

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This reminds me a lot of "A Roadmap Fpr Natural Capitalism" done by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Posted by: Rithy on 13 Apr 06

London has a lot of work to do to catch up with mainland European cities.

The annual Mercer Consulting Report on the cities with the best quality of life in the world has just been published and London ranks 39th. There is not one US city in the top 25 of best cities in the world.
Just wanted to mention this, as it puts a perspective on the subject. Air quality and energy reliabilty, congestion and environmental friendliness are all part of the Mercer Report.

So London has a lot of work to do to, compared to mainland European cities.

But it's nice to see that some people are working on it.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 13 Apr 06

Alex - I'm trying to create a local leverage point of my own, working on effectively connecting local buyers and sellers using geo-tagged information. The goal is to take out the shipping (and associated resource usage and emissions) that marketplaces like eBay rely on.

Anyway - have a read about it on SustainabilityZone (click here), and take a quick visit to BlockRocker itself (click here).

Your (that's Alex and all readers) thoughts would be appreciated!

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 13 Apr 06

rod, your comments about Geo tagged information is quite timely. as you described creating a Geo tagged eBay could prove quite enlightening. Not only would it make it possible for consumers to choose products that are close, it also enables sellers to charge more for nearby sellers and less for more distant ones. Another bit of information from your system would be an indication of the demand for different products in different areas. This would enable sellers to change their product profile based on measured demand metrics.

The demand metric also opens an opportunity for you. You could charge sellers if they wish to protect the marketplace and hide the true statistics from consumers or other sellers.

this would also apply to retail products as well in that if you have some technique (i.e. RF ID tag) to uniquely identify a product, you could then gather information about the product's environmental, social, and economic footprint

Lorenzo: do consider that for many people, no city is livable. A city is tolerated because there is no other option. For the future of cities, look to the past. Slums, ever present threat of violence in high-density housing, and gangs will be present in all but the most exclusive of gated communities.

the city of Boston has approximately half a million people. It is 48 square miles or roughly 2700 sq ft per person. Obviously, that number is misleading because it covers office buildings and other altars of human torture. But it does cover the square footage per person necessary for citywide infrastructure (i.e. power, mass transit, roads, bridges etc.).

Personally, I consider Boston unlivable because it's filthy, crowded, noisy. There are parts of the city I would not dare go into. there are many places I wouldn't leave my car including the MBTA (mass transit) parking lots.

I know you love London (or someone does) but I would never go back there except maybe to visit a museums for a day. I vastly preferred Oxford and even then, the suburbs were still a bit crowded for my taste.

When planning cities, never forget that economics will create slums, will create places you just don't wanna go, and will create power structures outside of the official elected governments.

this inevitable hellishness of cities is why people fled to suburbia and the future is why people will stay out the cities. energy issues may force them to abandon investments in property (with subsequent devastation of the banking industry) and it may force them to use public transportation that waste their time, but many folks will not go back to cities.

Posted by: Eric S. Johansson on 13 Apr 06

It was great to read this post, it's true that London has changed a great deal in the past 10 years thanks to the efforts of groups like bioregional. i moved here in 1990 and lived in the commuter suburbs and absolutely hated it. now i live in peckham in the inner city, cycle to work and mostly love it. the fruits of the last decade of regeneration and local sustainability projects are starting to show - local farmers' markets, recyling initiatives that actually work, mushrooming cultural festivals, new public spaces designed for people rather than cars. yes there is still a long way to go, particularly with regards to social exclusion, but we should also celebrate what has been achieved so far.

Posted by: joy on 13 Apr 06

When I started reading it, I thought this post was going to be pegged on Ken Livingstone's plan for a 1,000 home ZED in the Thames Gateway, in the news today (see,,1753376,00.html). No wonder I saw Bill Dunster at the Mayor's recent Greenpeace Business lecture. All the network pieces are coming together...

Talking of networks, where do the bright greenies in London meet? Someone here must know where the networking is happening in my home town.

Posted by: Doctor Edge on 13 Apr 06

Doctor Edge - try:

Hit "UK," obviously...

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 13 Apr 06

There are extensive international agreements that call for exchange of best practices among cities, some sponsored by the UN's own ICLEI agency.

The ICLEI-sponsored Montreal Declaration of World Mayors and Municipal Leaders on Climate Change, from December 2005 is just one, though probably the most influential. Its has clauses addressing most urban issues: 2.6 (sustainable procurement), 2.7 (disaster risk), 3.2 (triple bottom line accounting as ICLEI advises), 3.3 (uniform reporting mechanisms like ICLEI ecoBudget) 3.4 (best practice exchange e.g. ) and 4.3 (trade, credit, banking reserve and other monetary reform)

Some of these were drawn from an even more extensive agreement that a few cities also signed at the same time. A followup agreement to exchange best practices is also circulating so that other cities can copy what London does.

Posted by: Elvis Random on 30 Apr 06



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