Sustainability 2.0: A Living City Challenge

Sustainability has been a feel-good project for most of its public life. But as our worst case climate change scenarios keep getting worse, the eco-limelight is taking on a darker shade of green. has posted on the need for cities to get serious about their climate commitments. It's time, they argue, to let go of the “sustainability light” of high profile press releases and iconic sustainability projects like tree planting. We need to address the problems at hand, not some Disneyfied remake.

I think we are going to hear this call to action repeated more and more often. So what would things look like if we did take that extra step, past greenwash to a deeper commitment to urban sustainability?

Buildings, for example, account for 38% of carbon emissions in the US, and a similar proportion in Canada. The LEED building certification system has been key in getting eco-intelligent design onto North American streets, and inspired similar systems around the world. But what's next? Accessing the old stock. The majority of high performance buildings so far have been new builds; Portland's plans for city wide energy retrofits show one way that we could step up our game.

Citiwire critiques some of the specifics on the LEED checklist. But in my own work, people are pointing checklists themselves might be insufficient. Give people a checklist and inevitably they focus on the criteria -- not the underlying goal that they are trying to achieve. Result? The focus becomes certification, not sustainability. Proposing an alternative, Cascadia's Living Building Challenge turns the process on its head. Put a truly ambitious goal front and centre and provide a path that guides individual developers as they figure out how to meet it.

The Living Building Challenge:

“Imagine a building informed by its eco-region’s characteristics and that:
  • generates all of its own energy with renewable resources
  • captures and treats all of its water
  • operates efficiently and for maximum beauty”

Now that would be a truly sustainable building!

Similar ambitious moves can happen in all sectors of our cities. LEED style checklists provide essential guidance. But the Living Building Challenge is a great model for one key reason: It recognizes that people respond well to challenges if you inspire them to do something really remarkable.

So far, we've tried to sell sustainability by telling people it will help them get what they already want: cost savings, security from volatility, quality of life, and economic development. That's a cop out though, and a fatally dull one. Trying to convince people that they just need to marginally change their approach to the same old targets is only going to get us so far. Synergies between climate change policies and development goals may open a door, but we need to step through it and inspire people to take more ambitious action.

A Living City Challenge

As Citiwire concludes: “We know what works.

So why isn't it happening? The article focuses on a few key administrative barriers and a call for more rigour in municipal efforts. But rigour takes commitment and that takes a real belief that there is something worth working toward. Ultimately its not regulations that make things happen, its people. To make change at that level we need a strong vision of what we are aiming for, something that will seduce and inspire people into reconsidering some of their fundamental assumptions.

We need a Living City Challenge.

Imagine Cities that could:
  • play a beneficially role in their local ecosystems
  • generate all their own energy from renewable resources
  • produce the majority of their own food
  • operate both efficiently and with maximum livability and equity
There are plenty of technical guides out there already. The idea here is to come up with a few ambitious goals (4 or 5 at the very most) that can guide creativity and innovation toward something fundamentally more sustainable than the tweaking we have seen so far. What would you include?

[image modified from LBC]


9 Responses to "Sustainability 2.0: A Living City Challenge"

Alex Aylett said... 17 March 2009 at 02:35

There is a comment on the original Citiwire post that shows how easy it is for us to do what we already know.

David Crossley of Houston Tomorrow says
"The stimulus money that’s coming to Texas is going to be the most damaging thing that has happened to Houston in a long time. The State has decided to spend $181 million of it to begin building the Grand Parkway, a third loop around the region. ...
Nearly all of it will be built in uninhabitated areas, so there is no transportation component. It is purely, as TxDOT said at the hearings, “an opportunity to open up areas for development.” "

Prof W. Rees (via e-mail) said... 17 March 2009 at 16:20

UBC's Prof.W Rees wrote to recommend considering some of the ideas from his recent article in Scientific American's Earth 3.0:

"The least vulnerable and most resilient urban system might be a city-centered eco-region in which a densely built-up core is surrounded by as many of its essential supportive ecosystems as possible. Such an eco-regional city-state would produce much of its own food, fibre and water and recycle its own wastes. Less reliant on imports, its population would be better insulated from climate vagaries, resource shortages and distant conflicts. And because residents would be directly dependent on local ecosystems they would have a powerful incentive (currently absent) to manage their land and water resources sustainably in the face of global change."

(See the full article in the current issue of Scientific American's Earth 3.0 magazine, 19 (1): 18)

Nic Rivers said... 18 March 2009 at 11:50

Alex - Although I'm not at all a city or planning expert, I do definitely agree that there are enormous opportunities to pursue sustainability objectives at a local level. However, I question a couple of the principles you propose related to self-sufficiency: that a city should be able to generate the majority of its own food and energy. I think I understand the rationale: self-sufficient cities would be less vulnerable to volatile external events, and self sufficiency would help reduce transport costs and waste. However, the opposite of self-sufficiency, extensive trade, clearly also generates some positive outcomes, like increased efficiency, variety, quality, and reduced cost. Its not clear to me which principles you chose to come up with your list of criteria for a sustainable city, and I think that its these underlying principles that people are fundamentally challenging to find agreement on.

Alex Aylett said... 18 March 2009 at 16:00

Nic - thanks for posting.
I agree that autarky wouldn't be top of my list for the ideal sustainable cities. But I'm skeptical of arguments about efficiency and trade. Economic efficiency does not necessarily translate into energy or resource efficiencies.

It is possible for cities to produce much of what they consume. Building on that isn't about cutting off contact with the rest of the world. It just means recognizing the connections that exist locally and making the most of them. If cities don't properly steward their surrounding ecosystems, develop latent renewable energy potential, or abandon waste as a concept, no one else is going to do it for them. I think Bill's closing point about proximity leading to better management is also an important one.

I have to ask though; aren't you worried that systems of international trade are in for a rough time? We are looking at a high probability of serious disruptions to agricultural production, water and fuel shortages and now discussions of carbon-based import tariffs. In that context, having something else to fall back on seems like a good idea. That said, I see the value in preserving regional, national and international links.

So, how should we include that type of interconnectedness in a vision for an urban ideal?

Andrew P said... 18 March 2009 at 16:16

One of the problems in comparing the efficiencies of trade vs. local production is that many of the costs of global trade (energy usage, pollution) are externalized, making trade seem cheaper than it actually is. For instance, the embodied energy that goes into a strawberry from California includes all of the fossil fuel that it takes to transport it to Canada. While that shipping is reflected in the price of the strawberry, the environmental costs of the shipping (pollution) are not. If it were, California strawberries would be more expensive, and those grown in Canada would be more competitive.

However, variety (if not quality) will always be better with trade (i.e. availability of tropical fruits, or the ability to buy strawberries in January).

The other advantages of local food production is the ability to have some control over labour standards, and the fact that more of the purchase price would presumably go to the grower.

Zvi Leve said... 19 March 2009 at 14:12

We need a new political/economic model which shifts the incentives onto the long-term. One surprisingly simple way to shift politicians' decision-making horizon into the longer term is to have longer terms of office (say six years) and not to permit reelection to consecutive terms. This encourages the desire to "leave a legacy" as opposed to only worrying about short-term interests.

Sustainability also needs to incorporate the concepts of 'resilience' and 'redundancy'. In this era of hyper-efficiency and extreme specialization, we are able to do certain things very well, but at the price of being extremely vulnerable to external shocks of any kind.

Our entire society has become one great pyramid scheme! Take out the base (resource and energy consumption) and try to imagine what will happen.

Margaret said... 23 March 2009 at 15:05

Cities are a co-operative venture between millions of people. They are also require highly developed systems to keep them functioning. If the electricity goes for a few hours, or water is cut off for a day, or sewerage systems stop working for a week cities fall apart and people start to die. In this context what is a sustainable city? It is one that has strong governance and effective implementation. It is one where leaders understand the fundamental impact that effective and effecient systems have on people's quality of life and cost of living. It is also one where citizens recognise the cooperative nature of living in a city. Which means that they contribute to the city through taxes, through active participation (not only in terms of voting but also in terms of participation in neighbourhood and city initiatives) and through caring about their city and its future.

Tom Dishlevoy said... 1 February 2011 at 21:22

Out team just this afternoon completed our submission for the Living City Challenge design competition. We re-visioned the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island and the exercise was exhilarating. Working through the 20 imperatives of the Living Building Challenge program liberated us from the drag that comes with working in the real world beauracratic reality of ploitical pace of change. The outcome - a vision that might just resonate with a community that is growing tired and frustrated by a death from a thousand cuts as developments erode our borders and our cores stagnate, while our coffers get lower and lower putting services out to everywhere. It will be interesting what becomes of these visions.

Alex Aylett said... 1 February 2011 at 23:47

Hi Tom,
thanks for posting a bit on your project. I'd love to read more -- are there any materials online?


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.

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