Delegating to Nature: Saskia Sassen on Urban Sustainability

Saskia Sassen gave an interesting talk yesterday at the World Bank's Urban Research Symposium in Marseilles. Her ideas about "delegating back to nature" and seeing the city as a complex ecological system ressonate well with the ideas that Jeb Bruggman was working with at the ICLEI World Congress a few weeks ago. I've posted a slightly edited three part video of her talk below.

I've been tossing ideas around here about what a city might look like if we got really ambitious about sustainability. Sassen's presentation is a good contribution to that conversation. I'll save my thoughts for later (I am still in the symposium). But I'd love to hear what other people think about her ideas.

Sassen @ URS 1: Intro from openalex on Vimeo.

Click "read more" for parts 2 &3..

Sassen @ URS 2: Delegating to Nature from openalex on Vimeo.

Sassen @ URS 3: Conclusion from openalex on Vimeo.


“Bailing out the Planet” Dr. David Pearson @ ICLEI WC 2009

[This continues highlights from last weeks ICLEI World Congress, for further coverage see here.]
Dr. David Pearson, Prof. of Earth Science at Laurentian University and Chair of the Ontario expert panel of climate change adaptation, gave a succinct and disturbing overview of the most up to date science on climate change. He's a sharp, concise speaker, low on jargon and high on information. I'd say it's essential listening for just about anyone (MP3 posted here, slides here.) . His conclusion:

"Without the imposition of regulations, we won't be here talking like this in 50 years. What we will be talking about is how to deal with hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, how to develop the kinds of immigration policy that will accomodate the types of international adaptation that will be necessary."

More highlights from the talk after the jump:

*The response to the economic collapse is a good dry run for the type of effort that we are going to need to respond to climate change over the next 10 to 15 years.

*Need to bend the track of emissions using existing technology to stabilize by a 2020 peak. Beyond 2050 we need new innovation.

*The Need for Regulation. If we are going to meet the extent of the change that we are talking about it will not happen voluntarily. There needs to policy and regulation that imposing these regulations. We know from experience that regulation works – even if people don't like it. See the impact sulfur emission regulations had on the INCO ltd. Operations in Sudburry, Canada for example.

Leading edge cities need to work with national governments and encourage them to impose the types of changes that you are undertaking voluntarily.

*Climate change is part of all the problems that we are facing, not a distinct unit.

*The Limits Local adaptation is now necessary and inevitable to allow people to continue to live in the communities that they live in now. But by 2080 all the scenarios predict changes in temperature that are beyond what we can adapt to.

*We hit the limits of adaptation in the 2040s or 2060s, depending on what we do in the next 10 years or so.

*We are inevitably facing a rise of about half a meter that will displace 3 or 4 million people from the nile Delta. That is going to happen somehwere in the 2050s and will result in a dramatic loss of crop lands, fish protean from disturned lagoon fisheries, and flooding of coastal cities. How will immigration policy respond to this global need for people to relocate? What do people do when they can no longer live where they are used to living?
Sea level rise is accelerating.

*Most of sea level rise that we will face in the next half century has nothing to do with melting of ice, it has to do with the expanding of water. 1Km of water at 20c expands by 20cm once you warm it to 21c. Sea level with continue to rise slowly over centuries as the mixing column deepens. There is not much unertainty about the expansion properties of water, it is the rates of mixing that we don't know know about. Deeper mixing of warm water could result in deep ocean methane releases.

*IPCC and EU goals do not take into account the jumps that will be produced by natural abrupt co2 releases from abrupt releases of gas from melting permafrost or sea bed methane deposits (calthrates).

Editorial Cartoonist
Roy Blumenthal was cartooning the highlights of the ICLEI conference. You can see his reaction to Pearson's talk on his flickr page. Read more...

Urban Revolution: Jeb Brugmann @ ICLEI WC 2009

Jeb Brugmann, ICLEI founder, author and consultant, was one of the highlights of last week's ICLEI World Congress (see earlier entries). I've been waiting for organizers to post a video of his talk – but it seems like that will be a long time coming. So, here's a summary of his vision for what cities could become. While I don't agree with all of his answers, I do think he is asking the right questions. Questions that could lead us in the direction of truly radical urban sustainability. [Saskia Sassen, has also been working with similar ideas. Summary and video here.]

Beyond Neutrality

Cities and their residents are voracious consumers of natural resources. They churn through more energy, materials and commodities than ever before and the pace is only accelerating. Just the concrete needed to build and expand our cities accounts for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

By and large, efforts to “green” cities have focused on making them less bad. Going “carbon neutral” is the highest we've set the bar. But real, radical sustainability comes when we ask a different question:

How can we move from the consumptive cities that we have now, to cities that are productive, both in terms of energy, materials, and environmental functions? What would a city look like that was a net positive contributor to its local ecology? There was a bit of a discussion around that in an earlier post on what I called the “Living City Challenge.” Brugmann called it the challenge of creating not extractive cities, but productive urban biomes.

The Urban Biome & Technology
He has a vision of cities that function like ecosystems: beneficial loops of self-regulating systems that support each other to create a livable habitat for all. He points to large scale urban agriculture, and closing the construction loop by sourcing primary materials (concrete, metals, etc.) from urban waste streams as examples of the ecological urbanism that could make that possible.

But how do we get there? Brugmann, along with many others these days, is laying a lot of money on technology. “We can put chips in just about everything,” he enthused at one point. Integrating the most advanced technologies into our urban processes will build intelligent systems able to self-organize and provide real-time feedback to help consumers make smart choices. Together all this could help create a new culture of consumption, one where we are more aware of the impacts of our actions.

Ok, sure.

No doubt IT will have a big part to play. But we've heard this techno-utopian vision before. Whenever I come across it, I'm always wary of it being another excuse for putting of getting to work: “We are going to do something big... But first, we've got to build this amazing computer system!” Do we really have to wait for the singularity before we improve our cities?

Ecological Urbanism
The real meat of Brugmann's presentation came from his argument that, in fact, we can already start creating intelligently built and managed cities. The key isn't technology – it's people. Urban spaces need to be built in collaboration with the people who are going to use them. And cities need to be governed in a way that takes into account the reasons that people move to them, and the way they use and shape urban space and infrastructure to meet their needs. Whether officials like it or not, cities, to a certain extent, have a life of their own. To build sustainability, we need to engage directly with all the fractal parts that make up that life.

Expanding cities, he pointed out, attract the most innovative and entrepreneurial members of rural communities. The dense, multi-use, and socially networked nature of urban life then allows them to form associations among themselves and scale up local economic and political activity to the national and international level. Cities are a nexus for innovation that magnify the efforts of everyone within them.

Slums are where he draws his inspiration. He sees them as the embodiment of the process through which struggles between multiple different priorities can be built into a coalition that can push forward a common urban strategy. This process of urbanism is, for Brugmann, the key to success and sustainability. Drawing on ICLEI's database of case studies, he argued that successful outcomes are invariably based on inclusive broad-based efforts that can create one direction from many people pushing (Bruno Latour's work has a similar discussion of how “coalitions of interests”are built).

The Challenge of Participatory Sustainability
Although I don't think he fully acknowledged it in his presentation, Brugmann's celebration of coalition building and participatory urbanism is really more of a challenge than a method.

It is not so much that this is a good way to do things. It may well be the only way to do things, particularly in most developing world cities where resources are already stretched thin. The challenge of creating environmentally and socially positive urban biomes is easy to imagine in cases like Masdar. There, all the centrally planned infrastructure can be put in place first, and then be populated by a self-selected groups of eco-citizens.

But to roll those principles out on any relevant scale, fitting them into the existing dynamics that drive and sustain urbanization is going to be our ticket to ride. It's by engaging with the processes and motivations that already drive individuals and communities that municipalities can make up for scarce resources and steer themselves to greener pastures.

The hard part is going to come from the struggles to align sustainability with short term individual and community self-interest. That is my main critique of the talk. The urban biome is a seductive idea, and engaging with the already existing dynamics of contemporary cities may be the only way for us to get there. But it was never clear how Brugmann expected the principles of the urban biome to align with the coalition of other interests that already steer our cities – often in quite different directions.

[Jeb Brugmann's new book Welcome to the Urban Revolution was published in May.]


Climate Networking @

There is a new facebook-esque social networking site specifically for people active on climate change. (WCC) is a free site, set up by the City of Copenhagen as part of preparations for this December's UN climate negotiations. It's got most of the features that you'd expect: space for your personal profile, theme groups, the ability to upload files and video content, and – of course – that tacit competition to be the one with the most “friends.”

So far there are 266 users, which isn't bad for a site that is a little over a week old. Early adopters include UNEP and Greenpeace, as well as the environmental mayor of Copenhagen and a woman who likes to cut carbon by dancing to keep warm. One of the advantages of the site may be that it isn't aiming for Facebook's mammoth numbers. There are more than 500 groups addressing climate change on Facebook, but the content is pretty uneven. The narrower audience aimed for by WCC could make it a good spot for more focused and productive collaborations. The WCC team also curates a “speakers corner” to showcase the best of the user submitted multi-media content. (At the moment the main feature is an interview with Shai Agassi.)

There are some other pluses as well. You don't have to be signed up to access content, and each group gets a user-friendly url (i.e. “” instead of Facebook's lengthy alphanumerical gibberish). All in all, that makes it possible to use the site as a venue for communicating to the general public. In a pinch, groups could use it as a substitute for a standalone website.

It's a well designed site, and could end up being a handy way to build community both before and after December's negotiations.

(You can find my profile on WCC here.)
[originally posted at]


Urban Energy Innovation in the Global South

[This post originally appeared (with more photos) over at For more from the 2009 ICLEI World Congress see here.]

It's been a while since most cities took an active role in managing their own energy supply. Centralized national or regional generation and supply grids effectively displaced the days when cities ran their own independent systems. But with the interest in local renewables a shift is in the works. Cities are becoming increasingly comfortable integrating energy policies into their mandates and encouraging local level generation. The many facets of this shift have been a key theme at the ICLEI World Congress, running in Edmonton (Alberta) until the end of the week.

Through programs like the Cities for Climate Protection (CCP), and the Local Renewables Network, ICLEI has helped foster renewable power projects in many cities that have already been celebrated for their energy accomplishments. German solar cities like Freiburg, or Vaxjo Sweden (acclaimed the greenest city in Europe) are all attending the Congress here in Edmonton. But a draft report released at the conference by REN21, the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and ICLEI makes it clear that those cities are not alone. The “Global Status Report on Local Renewable Energy Policies” points to 160 other cities who have put in place local renewable energy policies and programs. Among the most interesting are cities outside of the areas normally celebrated in the media for leadership on these issue. In India, for example, a small group of cities have been pushing for the adoption of local renewables, and their work has paved the way for a national Solar Cities Project announced earlier this year.

One of those leaders is Nagpur, India. A city of 2.4 million, Nagpur has put in place a municipal ordinance requiring solar hot water heaters on all large new residential buildings. In a different take on using property taxes to create incentives, the municipality has created a 10 percent tax rebate for homeowners who comply. Nagpur is also aiming for a 20 percent reduction in conventional energy consumption by municipal buildings and services by 2012.

While the initiatives may sound familiar, the reasons for carrying them out are very different from what we've seen in cities in the global north. Reducing emissions doesn't have quite the same political caché in India as it does in Europe or North America. Both politically and practically speaking, concerns over energy security and the stability of the energy supply are the key issues. “Even today, still, in a city like Mumbai you have blackouts at least 2 or 3 hours a day,” explained Emani Kumar, executive director of ICLEI's operations in South Asia. “If you can tell people and politicians there that you have a way for them to address this problem – they are interested.”

The interest is more than local. The recently announced national Solar Cities Project builds on the work done by Nagpur, and other Indian cities that are part of ICLEI's Local Renewables Network. In the first phase of the project 60 cities (Nagpur among them) have committed to meeting 10 percent of their energy consumption through energy efficiency measures and renewables over the next 5 years. The national program provides cities with major financing to enable them to plan and implement a local energy strategy.

I spoke with Kumar about the initial hurdles of the Local Renewables Program in India and his hopes for the future of the Solar Cities Program.

AA: What were your early challenges with the Local Renewables Program?

EK: Our main challenge was that Solar [projects] already had a bad name in parts of India. We had earlier state sponsored programs to promote them. But after the installations were done, nobody maintained them. So that has given officials and the public the impression that they don't work. You try to tell people about solar and they would tell you “no we've done that already and we are not interested.” [ed note: a problem also felt in South Africa]

We've been using demonstration projects to work with residents and politicians to change that perception. To give them chance to see that if you maintain them properly they work very well.

AA: What is it that wins them over?

EK: Carbon emissions may not be a priority. But energy efficiency is a priority, saving money is a priority, energy security is a priority.

We have been working with architects, builders and public works departments as well. They are the ones who are going to be spending the millions and millions on big projects. There it was a bit of a chicken and egg situation: the architects would say “no, no, no, we can't put [solar or renewables] in. The builders won't accept it because it will cost more.” And the builders would say “no, no, no, it's the architects who are coming up with their plans up there. What can we do?”

So we got in there to try to break that cycle. If you ask me, so far we have been successful maybe 30 percent or 40 percent of the time. It is going to take some time. But peoples' priorities and conceptions are changing in the right direction.

AA: Are these programs just about creating a few exceptions to the way that cities use energy? What is the hope that these projects will be able to create a bigger shift?

EK: It's true, there are 500 cities in India. If we were just talking about two or three cities getting involved then I would say we'd just be creating exceptions to the rule. But the 60 cities we are talking about here are all cities of between .5 to 1.5 million people. There are 200 cities like that in India, and if we do 60 in the next five years, automatically the others will want to follow.

Initially the Solar Cities program is only taking two cities per state. Already there are some states where five or six cities are asking “why, why can't we participate?” So I think a change is coming.

Top photo: Solar water heating systems installed at housing complex in Pune, Maharashtra, India, courtesy of Emani Kumar] Read more...

Radical Sustainability: ICLEI World Congress 2009

[All this week I will be blogging from the ICLEI World Congress, currently running in Edmonton, Canada. Posts will be appearing both here and over at For posts from the Congress (including MP3 and video) see here.]

What we are doing is not sufficient. Even if what the most advanced cities in ICLEI are doing were to suddenly become the norm, we would still not have reached a sustainable way of doing things. We need to look for more radical solutions.

That's not exactly the welcome that you'd expect from the Secretary General of the world's most influential municipal sustainability organization. But, at the ICLEI World Congress running in Edmonton until the end of the week, Conrad Otto-Zimmermann has set the stage for a no-bullshit conference.

When it comes to municipal sustainability, ICLEI means business. In some ways, it is the business.

ICLEI is the organization behind Local Agenda 21, probably the largest single sustainability campaign the world over. It has made its reputation by taking complex problems like climate change, biodiversity protection, encouraging local renewable energy, or sustainable procurement, and transforming them into understandable, approachable problems (see their programs here).

Their approach is to supply the tools and methods that allow cities to address issues that might otherwise seem insurmountable. Founded in 1990, their membership has more than doubled since 2006 to include over than 1000 local governments. They also carry out a crucial role in organizing the presence of local governments and international climate change negotiations run by the United Nations.

Lagging Results
But despite all that, results have be lagging. Take their Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) program. With their help, many cities have established inventories of the local carbon emissions and plans for managing them. But most have stumbled when it came to implementation, and real emissions reductions are far less than they could be. The CCP program has resulted in annual emissions reductions of 60 million tons of CO2. An accomplishment, but one that all the same needs to be seen against the 27 billion tons of CO2 we emit annually, and the fact that cities by some measure can impact somewhere between 50% to 70% of those emissions.

Megan Jamieson, director of the ICLEI Canada office, commented in one of the opening sessions that the nature of leadership has changed. 17 years ago, when the CCP started, simply being able to inventory local emissions was a very real accomplishment. Before ICLEI, it simply hadn't been done. Now though, measuring isn't enough: “for climate leaders to stay at the forefront, real results need to be shown.” I'm hoping to talk to her more later in the week about the push she has been leading to carry Canadian CCP cities through to implementation.

Looking for Radical Alternatives
But what would “radical sustainability” look like? And what role can an organization like ICLEI play in helping us to get to where we need to go. It's not just about implementing goals, it's about where the goals you set are going to take you.

ICLEI, so far, has steered clear of prescribing specific targets to their members. I can't see that changing. The organization obviously feels that it is necessary for all of us to be doing more though. Nobody who has been following the science this year would say differently.

I don't expect them to come up with one path towards a more radical approach. But the conference has lined up an strong list of presenters and over the next few days I will be covering their individual visions in more detail.

Sustainability is a field where cities often only want to celebrate their successes. It's refreshing to see such an organization like ICLEI standing up to say that they need to be doing more, and then backing that up with the will and resources to try to make it happen.


Eco2 Cities: New World Bank Program for Developing Cities

The pre-launch materials for the World Bank's new Eco2 Cities program just came in. “Eco2” is the term they are using for cities that have (stop me if you've heard this before) harnessed the synergies that exist between ecological and economic success and sustainability.

So, is this just a re-branding of two corners of the sustainable development triangle or is there more on offer here than another “10 milestone” program to a brighter future?

It's a bit early to say. The program launch is scheduled for July 1st in Marseilles – immediately following the Urban Research Symposium that the Bank is co-hosting there (more on that later this month). An Eco2 Cities book will be coming out at the same time, so I'll put off any detailed comments until then. For now, I wanted to post a preliminary sketch of the program.

Eco2 is aimed specifically at cities in developing countries. Our position on the cusp of an explosion in urbanization is, as they put it, “a once in a lifetime opportunity to plan, develop, build and manage cities that are simultaneously more ecologically and economically sustainable.” The goal of the program is to support municipalities in making the decisions that will make that possible. With that goal, the program sets out 4 key planning principles and 20 milestones that wind their way through it. I won't list them all, but I have reposted a diagram that runs through the various stages of the program (click on the image above for a detailed view).

Overall, the program's outline definitely hits the mark. It lays out a framework for building long term municipal plans that bridge the inefficient internal silos that plague municipalities, plans that are developed collaboratively with community members and businesses, and that pay attention to life-cycle costs and resource flows.

In many ways it takes the increasingly popular principles of industrial ecology and applies them to the city as a whole: one unit of input (water, energy etc.) can be used many times over, the waste produced by one process can be the input for another, and careful attention to spatial development can make it possible to actually take advantage of these complementary uses (if you are going to use someone else's waste water – it helps if you are nearby).

It looks great. But I'm skeptical. What we are looking at in Eco2 is a dramatic rewriting of the way that cities do their planning. It also challenges many of the institutional and social relationships that structure how cities run themselves. Both may be necessary - urgently so even. But it takes a lot to change how people are accustomed to doing their jobs. If you bear those challenges in mind though, it is possible for key interventions can make a real difference. Durban (South Africa), for example, has had real success with changing their GIS system in a way that helps both Planners and Engineers provide residents better access to municipal services. Change how information is gathered and displayed and you can really influence how things get done.

They key isn't just having good ideas about how things should be done – it's also knowing how to actually get them done. In my experience, paying attention to the internal dynamics and institutional culture of municipal organizations is key. If the people who keep the city running aren't interested in what you have to say, or aren't empowered to put new principles into practice, there's not much chance that your program will get off the ground. (Especially in cities already stretched to the breaking point by shortages of personnel, finances, and critical infrastructure).

Other recent WB publications have paid real attention to these institutional dynamics. I am looking forward to the full release of Eco2Cities, to see how the World Bank is going to translate these admirable principles into real action.

Toronto goes TOU: Smart Grids in Canada

It started this week. On the first of June, 10,000 Toronto Hydro clients became the first wave of participants in what will be the largest implementation of Time of Use (TOU) electricity tariffs in North America. By year's end, all of the utility's 678,000 customers will be on TOU rates. Charging more for power when it is in high demand and less during down times is intended to send the right signals to energy users. The immediate goal is to increase overall efficiency and reduce electricity use. But the shift to smart grid technology also marks the beginning of a new era in the way we think about and use electricity.

Rather than the standard 5.7 cent flat fee, Toronto Hydro customers will be paying between 4.2 and 9.1 cents per kWh. Electricity is at its most expensive between 11am and 5pm and cheapest when demand is low (on weekends, holidays, and overnight). Users also have access to detailed real-time information about how much electricity they are using (and how much they are paying) thanks to newly installed smart meters and an online interface. ( In late May, the utility also announced that it had partnered with Google. The partnership makes it the first Canadian utility, and one of only 8 worldwide, to test drive Google's new PowerMeter software.)

The hope is that people will respond to the tariffs by switching major appliance use (like dishwashers and laundry machines) to off-peak times. Beyond that, just by giving consumers a clearer picture of of how much power they are using they will reduce their consumption. Individually, we all get lower bills. Collectively, we lower the costs and emissions generated when our power utilities have to run extra generators to meets spikes in electricity use. That's the idea.

TOU Then and Now
TOU tariffs first saw the light of day during the energy shortages of the 70s and 80s. Utilities got the right to charge different rates to smooth out the peaks and valleys in demand (called load shifting), thus making the system more efficient. But the tariffs were rarely used. Since then, advances in technology have made TOU systems easier to manage. And, they have been rediscovered as part of the interest in smart grid technology that promises to be a significant component of both our responses to climate change, and the infrastructure investment that is hoped to get us out of the current recession.

The Ontario government mandated that all residential and business customers in the province must be on TOU rates by the summer of 2011. As an early adopter, Toronto will be an interesting case study of how effective the new system is in both shifting load and reducing demand. TOU metering is a response to the amazing inefficiencies of our previous system. With a system set up so that we can consume energy without thinking of it we use far more than we need to, and in ways that mean that our utilities have to keep costly (and often inefficient) generation capacity on standby to meet spikes in demand. By some estimates, the top 10% of our generation capacity only gets used 1% of the time. But keeping that 10% up and running is both pricey and polluting.

A New Energy Culture
Load shifting will accomplish a certain amount right off the bat. But the real gains will come from making all of us more aware and critical of the way we consume energy. Think of any technology and inevitably the most interesting part – the part with the most impact – isn't the details of the technology itself. It is the social changes that the technology brings about.

The Internet, for example, isn't about the dull details of http protocols, it is about the way the technology has changed our relationships with each other and the world around us. In a similar vein, smart grids and TOU metering mark the beginning of a new way of relating to energy - one that is more critical and aware. The technology itself is only going to get us so far. But I can see the impact of the technology getting us much further. And it has to. Paradoxically, increasing efficiency on its own can often increase consumption, not reduce it.


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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