Saturday, August 17, 2013

Creating conserver cities

Conserver cities would be healthier, fairer, more vibrant and convivial places to live. Creating conserver cities means: efficiency replacing waste; renewability replacing resource squandering; living within biophysical limits replacing pollution; implementing socio-economic goals geared to wellbeing for all not more and more money for a few and for a limited period; this generation and those to come, the world over, getting their dues; empowering local communities within urban areas; operating a cyclic economy.

Conserver cities would be sustainable because in broad social, economic and biophysical terms they would be dynamically stable, secure and able to persist over time. They would give on a par with taking instead of being parasitic (the average UK city footprint is three times the sustainable level).

They would ensure a decent future for generations to come ie not ballooning profits for the already super-rich today but an ongoing availability and decent supply of resources, fairly shared. Conserver cities would be One Planet Cities (see the details of how this year Brighton and Hove became the world’s first independently accredited One Planet City).

What would contribute most to creating conserver cities? What are the top priorities? Many changes are needed at many social, economic and biophysical levels but here is my outline of a dozen key priorities.

Getting around

1. the retention and improvement of locally available facilities, services, and jobs and the availability and use of local resources. This strengthens communities and their resilience and reduces the intensity of travel needs, making local economies the priority

  1. far better, cheaper, more extensive public transport; much better cycling and pedestrian provision. Well occupied buses, trains and trams are highly clean and efficient per person, though non-motorised walking and cycling is even more clean and efficient as well being healthier.

Environmental quality and quantity

  1. protecting, enhancing and if possible increasing open, green, natural spaces; biodiversity enhancing developments. Green spaces are important to active, healthy human lives and perform a wide range of biophysical and socio-economic functions, from food growing to rainwater management to city climate moderation LINK. Biodiversity is basic and should be valued for reasons of: ethics; aesthetics; ecology; education; recreation; economics; and the resilience that comes from diversity in systems. I want biodiversity conserved because it exists, because I like it - and because we all depend on it. 
  2. adopting and achieving high land, air, water and environmental quality standards. UK air pollution for instance is a major public health risk, causing the premature deaths of 30,000 people in 2008.


  1. education for sustainable living. This means schools, colleges, universities and others delivering education working to carry out environmental education: in and through the environment as a resource; about the environment by imparting knowledge; for the environment by encouraging students to formulate caring values, attitudes and practical actions in their environment; and by developing the skills needed to study the environment in students. It’s not just about the formal education system though because to achieve conserver cities we need on-going social learning. By social learning I mean encompassing but not same as participation, learning which addresses wider forces and institutions, complementing community activities with political and economic insights and action on macro, meso and micro levels - a paradigm for engaging in institutional and social dilemmas such as sustainable development vs. market forces.

Waste and energy

  1. innovative low carbon and low waste systems and designs; local energy saving and the micro-generation of energy. This is about: doing the same or doing more using less, cutting waste of energy and materials; being thrifty; getting more output squeezed from every input of energy, material, effort, money, time...It’s also about being enterprising, entrepreneurial and making the very best use of the latest technologies in an appropriate way (taking a broad, balanced view of technology, accounting for interactions, assessing and using technologies properly).
  2. waste avoidance, reuse and recycling. Taking the thinking and actions now more commonly applied to UK solid wastes (in particular household waste) and applying them in a total sense - to liquid and gaseous wastes and throughout society.


  1. more local, ethical and organic food availability; more home and allotment grown food. Many who become aware of their personal or household ecological or carbon footprint are surprised at the high contribution that comes from food. Locally-grown, seasonal food means fewer food miles, less packaging and fresh goods and it is also food with a low environmental impact. Growing food and eating seasonal food keeps us in touch with natural cycles.

Organic food growing is low-input, making minimal use of energy intensive synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, using as much as 40% less energy, supporting higher biodiversity levels and prioritising animal welfare more.

Balanced lower meat or no meat diets are both healthier, lower environmental impact and better for animals (vegetarian diets can be 40% lower impact than even low meat diets). Growing some of your own vegetables and not wasting food can reduce environmental impacts by more than a tenth, reducing the energy and waste which goes into getting food from field to plates, including transport, refrigeration and packaging.

People and participation

  1. people taking personal responsibility to be more environmentally-friendly. Individuals and households really need to own and support moves to establish conserver cities or those moves won’t be socially sustainable. Genuine lasting solutions are much more likely if behaviour and technical changes are coherently combined. A purely technical ‘solution’ may often result in changes in other key factors which reduce, undermine or reverse any progress made. Examples: increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles means less fuel used, saving people money, which they may then spend on travelling further, consuming more fuel.; installing low energy lighting may mean people are happy to leave them on for longer; cars with many safety features may be driven faster.
  2. inclusive, informed, genuine public participation in community life. This is about: open exchange of ideas; mutual understanding; effective, timely information; promoting trust; highlighting decision-making processes; dealing with complex, possibly controversial issues; unique insights; serving each other. It ideally develops a common view, a sense of purpose – and allows communities to take control and set agendas. This is the way to learn to live better lives.

Policies and performance

  1. open, involving, accountable, ethical attitudes and policies. Getting governance right at all levels (individual, neighbourhood, community, city, region, nation…) is crucial to effective leadership and the sharing of power and responsibility. Social sustainability, and thus overall sustainability, depends upon this. LINK
  2. broad-based measures of progress - social, economic and biophysical. It’s crucial to creating conserver cities that our real wealth, source of our resources and the basis of our lives is acknowledged, that is, the natural and social world with its whole interconnected water, air, land, biodiversity and social systems. Cities need to agree broad performance measures because it’s not mere money flow, high production and consumption or narrow progress that healthily sustains us.

by Glenn Vowles