What "City?" : Inventories & Targets

Although city-dwellers have an intuitive idea of what "The City" is, when it comes to climate change policy things are not so simple. Even at the level of greenhouse gas inventories "municipal" can mean different things. In the case of corporate municipal strategies (like Calgary's) "the city" stops at the limits of what is under the direct control of the municipal government and its departments (municipal buildings, fleet, infrastructure, waste management etc). In other cases, the case of community inventories and targets (as in Portland), "the city" is what most of us would intutitively think guess; it includes both government emissions as well as those of citizens, businesses and industry. Obviously, it is easier to set targets at a corporate level, but any real impact will only come with community wide reductions. Calgary's corporate emissions, for example, make up about 3% of total municipal greenhouse gases.

But even community wide targets can leave a lot out. Airports and Ports, both sources of significant emissions, are almost always left out of both emissions inventories and reduction targets. And then there are all the ressources that cities consume. Goods from hightech products, to food, to concrete and steel have a heavy footprint; but the emissions associated with them rarely if ever make it into municipal climate change policies. They are an undeniable part of the actual city -- the cities we live in -- but not of the way our environmental policies approache the city.

So what do we do? Knowledge is, to a certain extent, valuable for its own sake. Internalizing more of these emissions into our inventories would provide an increasingly accurate picture of the urban impact on the environment. Even if, for a variety of reasons, it might not be possible to set reductions targets for all these sectors. But there is something at play here that goes beyond bean-counting. Cities have a key position in regional, national and global economies. Through economic development planning they have the opportunity to contribute something significant to a broader shift in the path that we are on. Engaging at that level would allow us to move from making marginal gains in an otherwise inefficient system, to a redefinition of both our cities and our economies in terms which could fundamentally re-adjust the balance between our society and nature.

Imagined in the short term that seems sensational. But isolated action by individual cities over a four or five year political term won't get us there. So, on one hand then this is an argument for the importance of linked municipal efforts to do long-term development planning that places environmental sustainability and human well-being on par with economic growth. More generally though, and perhapse more realistically, this is an argument to be aware and critical of the limits of the climate change policies we put in place. Because they don't just deal with GHG emissions -- they define what the city is, where is starts and where is stops -- not just in terms of boundaries on a map, but also in terms of its broader relationships. Compared with the cities we know and live in, the cities defined by our policies will often appear shrunken. Like the one wool sock that accidentally made it into the dryer. The difference between those two is a space where we haven't gone yet, and it is also a reminder for us to ask "why not?" Read more...

Urban Agriculture vs. Food Riots

On the playing field of urban sustainability, urban agriculture is usually cast as one of the mascots. It keeps peoples' spirits up, it helps them get personally involved in the game, but in the end it won't have a big influence on the outcome. It's a pastime: rewarding, concrete, but not - at least for the moment - something that is leading us to any substantial change in the way we keep our cities going. There have been some interesting ideas of high-rise, high-density farming, but so far they have yet to find any serious takers. We are still unused to thinking about cities as producers of their own resources, and until recently we have had little to push us to change our minds.

The BBC's Stephanie Holmes published an article this week making the link between food-price riots and the increasing urbanization of poverty. Although the piece doesn't make any reference to urban agriculture, it's key points do put a different spin on what for most Northerners is a weekend diversion. Riffing on information from a variety of international organizations Holmes argues that the urban poor (unlike their rural counterparts) are more likely to mobilize politically because they are both more concentrated and more dependant on the market to provide what they need to survive. They are, to a great extent, trapped in a cash economy with no alternative ways of meeting their basic needs. With nothing else to fall back on, protest becomes a matter of survival.

How is this linked to you community garden? In this new context creating spaces within a city where residents can produce their own food takes on a new tint: it's way to keep the peace. It provides residents, in particular the most vulnerable, with a way of meeting their needs independent of fluctuations in international food prices. I have spent some time working in the city of Durban (eThekwini) in South Africa, a city where a significant amount of the city's fresh produce within municipal boundaries. Some of it is grown for sale, and some for personal use. No high-rise towers, no weekend gardeners, just people making good use of the land around them. (image: corn growing by the side of the road outside an informal settlement) Clearly this is different from the production of staples like flour and rice, but it does create a buffer to absorb part of the shock when global food prices shift.

Urban agriculture as riot prevention? Putting it that way might attract some attention. Underneath it though, it points to a good reason to start re-imagining what cities are and how they function. It is also a good reason for cities to look critically at what resources they currently have. I am not sure, for example, what the official policy on urban agriculture is in Durban. I think it is worth asking whether cities in Haiti, where serious rioting took place, could have benefited from having something similar in place. Not all cities have grown in the same way, and for some high rise high-tech solutions way be the only way to weave food production into the urban fabric. Others, like Durban, may still have substantial amounts of cultivable land and the question is whether or not they will be preserved as the city grows.


UPDATE: Gwen Dyer ran an interesting article on the food crisis in Vancouver's Georgia Straight last week. In it she points out that the current price hikes are infact due to market over-reactions to small shortfalls, not absolute shortages of food. All the more reason to appreciate the ability of local and urban agriculture to create spaces that are either less integrated into the global market or, in some cases, which function completely outside of the market system. Read more...


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.