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Conceptualizing the One Planet City
Holly Pearson, 9 Sep 08

Back in April at the EcoCity World Summit in San Francisco I met Jennie Moore, a fellow alumna from the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. As I chatted with Jennie during a lunchtime break at the conference, she told me that after earning her Master’s degree in city planning at UBC several years back, she returned to pursue a PhD. She’s currently working on her doctoral research, investigating the concept of a “one planet city.”

I was intrigued by Jennie’s work, which applies Ecological Footprint analysis at the city level and attempts to translate the results into tangible solutions for cities. Developed back in the early 90s by University of British Columbia professor Bill Rees (with whom I had the privilege to study as a graduate student) and PhD candidate Mathis Wackernagel, the Ecological Footprint model has become immensely influential in the global sustainability discussion. It’s essentially a “measure of how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes.” (Global Footprint Network website). It’s been widely used all over the world and applied to every level of human social organization, from the individual to the entire planet.

In its own right the Ecological Footprint is incredibly important and useful as a methodology for measuring human impact on the planet’s ecosystem. But beyond calculating human ecological impact, the Footprint’s real value is in the solutions that can be inferred from these calculations. Ecological Footprint analysis has given rise to numerous methodologies and theories about how to reduce our individual and collective footprints. This is the point where Jennie Moore’s research picks up.

Going a step beyond quantifying our consumption of resources and production of wastes in terms of hectares of land, beyond documenting the current unsustainability of our individual lifestyles, our cities, states and nations, Jennie is looking to articulate the notion of a “one planet city” – a city that would function within nature’s capacity.

Like Bill Rees, Jennie starts with the premise that the city, currently conceived as an isolated unit of human population, is inherently unsustainable. She says:

Cities are basically concentrated hubs of trade and consumption. From a thermodynamics and complex systems theory standpoint, cities are dissipative structures – they consume materials and energy and produce waste. They’re dependent on surrounding ecosystems; they can’t function within their own geographical boundaries. However, cities are also hubs of organizational capacity. So my research asks at what scale, at what point does a city exceed its share of global ecological carrying capacity and how could that impact be reduced?

Her investigation into the notion of a one planet city is informed in part by “One Planet Living Communities” such as BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development), an eco-village in the UK. But unlike these new, “clean slate” communities that are constructed to be models of ecological sustainability, Jennie Moore’s one planet city concept deals with the more challenging fabric of existing cities – specifically those in the developed world, i.e. North America, Europe, Japan, etc. North American cities, for example, generally have ecological footprints so high that if everyone were to live like the average citizen of these cities, 4 or 5 planets would be required to sustain their levels of consumption and waste production.

So how, asks Jennie, can we transform cities to be sustainable? Her research addresses two major questions:

First, what can be done to restructure the physical form of cities? What strategies are available to reduce the footprint of a city, and how close can a city get to ecological sustainability or “one planet living”? The obvious solutions are to promote compact and mixed use urban development, district energy, local food production, and the like. But the potential for change through strategies like these is limited, given the fixed and usually unsustainable form of existing urban areas.

So the second question relates to the social and cultural aspects of cities’ ecological impact – how do we, as city dwellers, become fair and equitable stewards of the planet in our patterns of consumption and production? When we’ve pushed physical city restructuring as far as it can go, what opportunities exist for changes in social behavior?

Jennie calls this latter dimension of urban sustainability “social caring capacity” (not carrying capacity, but CARING capacity) – a term that was coined by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees as part of the development of the Ecological Footprint and refers to a measure of social capital. In striving to reduce the ecological footprint of cities, what’s our potential to exercise responsible stewardship, and how can these kinds of changes be brought about? Jennie believes that making cities sustainable will require this kind of integrated approach: physical restructuring together with cultural and behavioral change.

She explains, “Some people are stuck on the physical design piece of the sustainable city, because this means that we as a society don’t have to change. This kind of behavioral change is still seen as socially and culturally unacceptable.” That’s why she sees the social dimension as the key that will ultimately unlock the door to sustainability, and thinks that it will increase in prominence as we transition toward more sustainable cities.

One of Jennie’s goals is to contribute to insights about what kinds of policies are needed in order to achieve one planet cities. Some cities, most notably Vancouver, BC, are actively interested in applying one-planet principles to their long-range planning. As a practicing urban planner I’ll be interested to see Jennie’s doctoral research evolve and will look forward to seeing what policy pathways are illuminated by her results.

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Author's correction: The term "social caring capacity" was actually coined by Sharon Manson Singer and other researchers from the UBC Task Group for Planning Healthy and Sustainable Communities, not Wackernagel and Rees as previously stated in the article. Apologies for this error. --HRP

Posted by: Holly Pearson on 11 Sep 08



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