Monday, October 20, 2008

Links Between a Poverty Fighting Present & a Sustainable Future

The Ecocity Concept

Drive into Ivory Park on the outskirts of Johannesburg and you are in a sub-Saharan African everyplace. Poverty extends its claws everywhere. A line of smoke lingers across its skyline - the detritus of umbhawulas, the traditional tin-drum coal fires that continue to be the dominant form of energy in most poor black areas. Respiratory illnesses are common.

Children run across pot-holed streets while taxis hoot at them. Four in 10 people live in shacks, with the rest in small brick homes. Unemployment afflicts four in 10 adults. Polluted water runs through Ivory Park. Hunger is not acute, but it is apparent. Life is hard and the environment, one would think, is a distant concern in a community where thinking about the next meal is a much more immediate concern.

In this context, was born a brave experiment in finding the nexus between sustainable development and poverty eradication. "We realised that we had to focus on local economic development and not on the environment," says EcoCity managing trustee Annie Sugrue.

Born in the early Nineties of community struggles against a waste dump, the initiative is a partnership between the City of Johannesburg and an NGO, the EcoCity Trust. Other partnerships have since developed between the original public/private partnership and various levels of government, the community and activists. "However," says Sugrue, "the most important partnership is the one between the NGO and the local government. This allows for easy mainstreaming and political support, but the NGO keeps the programme close to the people and the community."


EcoCity takes the form of several innovative projects which all interlink with the long-term goal of creating a self-sufficient and ecologically friendly community. In the short-term, all projects run on the principles of poverty alleviation and job creation.

Food security was the paramount challenge and one of the first initiatives was the establishment of six co-ops to grow and sell organic vegetables. Planning posed a second challenge and has seen the installation of environmentally sound water, transport, energy and sanitation pilot management schemes. An EcoVillage showcases better ways of building, managing water and energy and planning development. Transport needs have given rise to the successful Shova Lula bicycle co-operative, which encourages cycling as an alternative way of getting around while making a living from the increased use of cycles. And the Iteke waste recycling co-operative is a path-blazer in waste management. Much of the waste generated in Ivory Park and the surrounding suburbs of Midrand is recyclable and therefore has value. Iteke has created 40 full-time, green jobs and heightened awareness of the need to recycle. The waste recycling scheme operates through a system of buy-back centres to which residents take products for recyling. Simply through their involvement in going to the Buy-Back centre, individuals and groups have a heightened awareness of the environment and of keeping their area clean.


All the various projects form the matrix of the philosophy. The primary focus is on poverty alleviation, based on the belief that sustainable development can be best implemented if it improves the quality of life and the standard of living of local residents.

The gains have been small in material terms. No more than 100 jobs have been created, but the philosophical changes are significant. People have received skills and training which many are using to establish decent livelihoods; there is a palpable sense of "let's do it for ourselves" in Ivory Park whereas government is struggling with huge expectations in other parts of the country.

Long-term environmental successes are dependent on the economic, social and environmental security of the person, the home and community. Self-reliance, capacity-building, green transformation, equity and public participation are also key principles of the initiative through which EcoCity has been able to orient urban planning and investment towards sustainable development.

Key to its future success, says Sugrue, is the full transfer of the initiative to the community in the medium-term. A low skills level is slowly being overturned through training received in the network of co-operatives. Such skills transfer includes administration, computer training and basic financial management. And the core of residents involved with, and who have taken stakes in, various initiatives is growing. "Success is not about profits," says Sugrue, adding that it must also be tallied by the levels of commitment the community has shown. "And, ultimately, it must be measured by a decent quality of life." What EcoCity has demonstrated to community members and to politicians is that it is possible to create economic benefits while making a contribution to a more sustainable community. Since the focus is on poverty alleviation through respect for environmental principles, it is able to generate greater community support.

Trying to measure EcoCity's success in five, 10 or even 20 years would be unfair. Ultimately, the vision is so big and involves so many mindset, policy and philosophical changes in the way we think about sustainable development, that a fair assessment can only be made in 50 years - the horizon that its architects and owners have set.

Colin Grant Weighs In


Colin Grant is Founder and CEO of Visible Strategies and will contributing a regular column in Ecocities Emerging.

October 2008

So how much eco is enough for your city - and how to make it happen. Quickly.

Did anyone else notice that in the US presidential debates, when discussing energy and climate change, neither candidate told the American public that a number of communities around the world had already become net exporters of renewable energy. While I'd imagine it would be risky for John McCain to refer to anything achieved in Europe as an example to emulate for fear of alienating his base, I suspect Barack Obama is unaware of what has already happened in Övertornea, Sweden, Gussing, Austria, and Samso Island Denmark among many others. Hopefully a new era of US-Euro collaboration and shared learning is about to open up and that French Fries will soon resume their rightful place over Freedom Fries.

Last month I discussed targets and what humankind needs to achieve by when if we are to transcend the massive challenges we face. This month, I'd like to focus on the how-to (and indeed the how-it -was-done by some of the world's leading communities).

To recap, I suggested that a useful (but not exclusive!) definition of an Ecocity or sustainable community is one that can generate most of its own energy from renewable resources, can generate most of its own food (to see how easy this could be done read Solviva by Anna Edey), and which provides living options that allow people to thrive including equal access to essential quality of life services such as health and education. So how can the typical city get from where it is today to where it needs to be?

1. Set a stretch goal that will excite and motivate the community and unleash pride and entrepreneurship

This could be Al Gore's call for 100% "clean" energy by 2020 or Sweden's national goal to be free from oil by 2020 or Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute's Plan B 3.0 which calls for an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020 through the type of massive societal transformations we have managed in the past during times of war. Alternatively, a more jingoistic desire to be free from foreign oil may be more motivating, depending on the political sensitivities of the community.

2. Invite the community to a process to design the future

Citizen engagement is a key element in every community that has already made dramatic transformations towards sustainability. While early greening pioneers had to work largely from vision, imagination and hope and therefore had to have particular combinations of leadership and community dynamics, there are now so many case studies of what has already been achieved. A critical element is to show that everything that you are trying to do has already been achieved by a community somewhere in the world. "Twin" or otherwise align your community with one or more of these communities to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Be sure to involve youth in the process - they add an essential element of can do, will do, won't let adults get in the way of the future we demand. It is worth pointing out that one leading Swedish town, Övertornea, which has already achieved the Ecocity definition I suggested above had only around 10% of the population turn up for the design process to reinvent the town. Moving ahead with towards a vision created by only 10% of the population is still democratic if 90% of the population exercised their democratic right to sit on their backsides and do nothing.

3. Set up a citizen's bond to help fund change

This could provide a return based on savings between the "business as normal" addiction to fossil fuels and their ever increasing costs and the lower costs of renewable energy and energy efficiency and conservation measures. San Francisco has a $100m dollar bond like this in place (strange how small that number sounds in the era of multi hundred billion dollar bail outs).

4. Forget about the pilots, be bold, do first, finish the plan later

Municipalities are great at creating planning documents. They are generally less good at getting on with things. We desperately need bold leadership in elected officials and staff. In the 1970s, when Mayor Jamie Learner of Curitiba, Brazil decided to turn the city's main thoroughfare into a pedestrian precinct, he barricaded off a major city centre street on a Friday night and had created a pedestrian precinct by the following Monday morning.

There is no time left for another full cycle of traditional planning and all of the solutions that are needed are already out there and proven.

Samso Island in Denmark became a net exporter of renewable energy in only ten years of focused action, (once they got past the five years of discussion and argument). In 2001, Overturnea was declared the first Swedish municipality to earn "eco-municipality" status, achieving Sweden's national goal to be free from oil. Gussing in Austria is already the first community in Europe to claim a 90% reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions. It too is a net exporter of renewable energy.

Get something started and show success. New LEED platinum buildings are great but it is the existing building stock where the majority of improvements will have to be achieved so a program of existing building energy saving retrofits is an obvious place to start. Offer packages of insulation, calking, window upgrades, boiler replacement and solar hot water refits to homes and commercial buildings. Tap landfill gas and use it to generate electricity, and/or to heat greenhouses. Tap heat in the sewer system to create a district energy system as the Vancouver Olympic Village will do. Turn biogas from sewage systems into fuel for buses (ideally school buses to ignite youthful imagination as well as engines).

Everything needed for every city to make its own clean energy, organic food and to provide living experiences that allow people and nature to thrive exists somewhere today. It needs to exist everywhere tomorrow and tomorrow must happen very soon.