EcoCity 2011 - Networked Urban Sustainability: Breaking the Integration Barrier

September hit with the usually flurry of activity, which means that I'm only now putting up this version of one of the two talks that I gave at the 2011 EcoCity World Summit. The Summit was hosted in Montreal this year, and was a huge success all around.  This presentation is something I put together for a general audience. It's jargon free, and aims to get across a few key points that have emerged in my research over the past four years.

It all centers around one question: "How  can we go from small scale changes in  urban processes, to large scale sustainability shifts that take place across a city as a whole." Or, to say it another way, it is about how an English/French Dictionary, Bowling, and Duke Ellington can help citiesr espond to the enormous challenges posed by climate change. The full text is below, or you can listen to a Slidecast with slides and audio on the embedded player below.

Networked Urban Sustainability: Breaking the Integration Barrier

Good afternoon everyone.  My name is Alex Aylett, I'm the Research Director at Sustainable Cities International and I'm also in the last stages of a PhD at the University of British Columbia.  Sustainable Cities International is an NGO that works with cities on four continents to support integrated longterm sustainability planning.  Our head office is in Vancouver, but we also have staff here in Montreal (myself included), and project level staff in Durban (South Africa), Dakar (Senegal), and Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania) were we are currently running a variety of CIDA funded urban sustainability projects. 

We also run the Sustainable Cities International network, whose members you see on the screen here [slide 2]. The network  uses regional and international events, training, and one on one exchanges between cities to advance urban sustainability planning and projects.

Drawing on my work with our cities, particularly Vancouver (BC), Portland (OR) and Durban (SA), I want to look at a question that's easy to ask but difficult to answer:  how can you take climate change and sustainability planning from being the responsibility of a  “sustainability coordinator” or small “environment branch” and make it the business of the whole municipality.  How – in other words – can we go from small scale changes conducted from the margins, to large scale shifts taking place throughout a city as a whole. 

There are a variety of ways that you can go about this, and formal processes of institutional reform (creating new departments, modifying performance management criteria, or running integrated climate planning processes, for example) all play an important part. But for today I want to focus on three more subtle aspects of institutional change.

"The You Are Here Moment"
It might be worth spending 60 seconds to say why I am asking this question at all. It's about potential, performance, and problems.  I call this the “you are here” moment [slide 3 & 4].  Cities as we all know have huge environmental impacts and with that comes the potential to make positive changes with equally huge impacts take this quote from former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for example [slide 5] “Urban areas are responsible for over 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, so the battle to prevent catastrophic climate change will be won or lost in cities” (London Mayor Ken Livingstone, 2007).

The problem is that they aren't living up to this potential [slide 6]. A resent survey conducted by the ICMA (the International City/County Management Association) in the United States shows that out of 2,176 municipalities polled, only 18% have any form of climate or sustainability plan.  Only between 1% and 3% of them have set targets for reducing community greenhouse gas emissions. 

Overall a majority of municipalities are simply unconcerned with environmental issues. Even among the ranks of the supposedly committed (cities that have signed on to the US Mayor Climate Pact, or joined ICLEI's CCP program for example) performance is poor.

But that's not our biggest problem [slide 7].  Our biggest problem is that while temperature's continue to rise and the impacts of climate change become increasingly clear, we are using more energy then ever before, burning more coal than ever before, and releasing more GHGs then ever before. And more worryingly, we are increasing our consumption of energy and production of emissions at rates that have never been higher. 

This is despite the biggest global recession since the great depression and concerted efforts by a variety of international organizations to curb emissions. Looking at these trends, the International Energy Association's chief economist recently described the prospects of keeping temperature increases within a safe range below 2°C as “a nice Utopia.”
"Getting From Point A to Point B"
That is point A. [slide 8] We need to be on a path to point B (reducing global emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050).  If cities are going to be a significant part of that journey we need to stop celebrating marginal successes, like high efficiency streetlights, and start talking about integrated systemic change. We need to stop focusing on technical solutions, and start looking at the institutional dynamics within municipal governments that determine whether good ideas ever make it into practice.

Now I'm a geographer, and the work that I do goes back to a long line of institutional analysis that has also had an important influence in Sociology and Political Sciences.  But – much to your relief I'm sure at 5:30 in the afternoon – I'm not going to talk about theory.  At least no directly.

"An Unlikely Trio"
Instead I want talk to you about [slide 9] what an English/French Dictionary, Bowling, and Duke Ellington have to do with putting cities in a position to help respond to, what is – if we are honest about it – the single biggest collective challenge the human race has ever faced.

I'm using each of these as  images as a symbol for a few of the larger concept that's emerged from my research over the past four years.

Let's start with this English/French dictionary [slide 10]. I think the first thing that needs to be said is that urban sustainability policies and the small teams that are usually responsible for them are doomed unless people in other departments truly see the value of working with them. The process of getting that support is a process of translation [slide 11]. 

Sustainability teams need first and foremost to work at translating environmental issues into the language, priorities, and culture of the major capital departments that shape our cities.  The term “translation” is used in actor-network analysis to describe the process through which multiple different players come to back the same project, even through they may have very different objectives.  

So right away I should point out that the metaphor of a dictionary isn't quite right – because it is not so much about changing the words that you use to describe the same thing ... rather it is about recognizing that climate and sustainability policy will mean very different things for different departments. It's not about getting other departments to understand your vision of why climate policy is important, it's about facilitating a  process whereby they come to reach their own understanding and be motivated to pursue it for their own reasons.

Take the example of Portland's Green Streets  program [slide 12].  Over the past few years, the city has integrated thousands of street level rain gardens, like the one you see pictured here, into sidewalks throughout the city. These rain gardens – or bio swails – catch and remediate rainwater that would otherwise have gone into the city's storm sewers and provide a growing medium for a variety of plants, shrubs and trees. From a climate and sustainability point of view these have one very important benefit, they cool city streets, reduce the urban heat island effect, and therefore decrease the need for energy guzzling air conditioners.

But the program didn't succeed because the bureau responsible for storm sewers became concerned with summer heatwaves, it succeeded because to them this is, first and foremost a cost effective alternative to increasing the capacity of storm water sewers. Other departments within the municipality also support it, but again for very different reasons, for some it is a tool to revitalize streets in neglected neighbourhoods, for others it is a way to increase urban green space and protect biodiversity, for other's is about reducing heat-stress among vulnerable populations, for some it is simply about enhancing the city's green public image.  

All of these players have very different objectives, but they can align their interests behind the same project through a process of translation that has made it relevant to their core concerns.

What makes this process of translation doubly important is that:
  1. It means the that departments are doing the work themselves, rather than a small “sustainability team” getting stuck with an impossible workload, and
  2. if it is successful, it can naturally lead to large scale implementation. It is only at a large scale that green projects will also deliver results for the core mandates of other departments. 
In Portland, for example they are intentionally building a $1.4 billion dollar expansion of the storm water system under capacity, because they have committed to using green infrastructure at a large scale to handle their storm water needs as the city grows.

"Engaging the Middle"
Which brings us to bowling. [slide 13] I'm not a serious bowler.  I'm not really a bowler at all the be honest.  But the few times I've been out, my technique has been pretty simple:  you just try to hammer the ball  down the lane straight into the first pin hoping that it will plow through everything in its path. Not surprisingly, real bowlers have a different technique.  They use what's called a “hook shot” -  illustrated on the diagram you see here – to ark the ball along the lane so it hits, not the lead pin, but just behind it. Statistically, aiming just behind the top of the pyramid increases the likelihood of a strike.

Now you flip this pictured around and a pyramid of bowling pins looks like a simplified organigram for any hierarchical organization. My ham-handed bowling technique of aiming for the top pin is also the general approach to trying to mainstream climate change: you aim to win over department heads and then assume that they will be able to cascade attention to climate change and sustainability throughout their organization.

But this overlooks the fact that senior management often have little time for new ideas: they are already overburdened with the need to juggle decisions about daily service provision issues and the pressures of being directly responsible to elected officials. More often then not, they simply don't have the bandwidth for new ideas. Just below them though, in the band of middle management, you've got something different.  

It is here that, in my research, I've seen some of the most innovative work going on. [slide 14]  Middle management are highly skilled, highly knowledgeable about the working of their departments, have direct influence over departmental staff and resources, but are not under the same kinds of daily decision making and political pressure as senior management. They have both the skills and the flexibility to be more creative.

I had a managing water engineer in Durban South Africa, a man by the name of Speedy Moodliar, tell me “I can design a storm sewer in my sleep, in life you need more than that you need something that excites you and gets you up in the morning.” [slide 15] So, when he got up in the morning he helped design a hydro and micro hydro-electricity generation system that is going to be built right into the city's water distribution pipes to turn excess pressure there into enough electricity for 20,000 homes.

Last year, Portland released one of the world's most ambitious Climate Action Plans.  And it was middle management who were most helpful in the processes of translation that took place to ensure that  Climate Action Plan had broad support among all the big departments.  To tap into that potential you have to use a “hook shot” that engages with both senior management, but also focuses attention on those just below them.

"Exceptions that Change the Rules"
That brings us to “The Duke”  Mr. Duke Ellington [slide 16]. Ellington led the best jazz big band in the world, bar none, from 1923 until his death in 1974. He's been called the most important American composer of the 20th century.  Now Ellington started his career in a deeply racist society which simply did not consider black people capable of creating true art. They were strictly excluded from anything even approximating high culture.

But Ellington's talent was irrepressible, he won over audiences both white and black.  And rather than being the “exception that proved the rule” as the saying goes, Ellington became the exception that changed the rule [slide 17].  After finding the spotlight himself, he and his musicians opened the door for Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis and all the other great black musicians that came after them.

In that way, Ellington is the patron saint if you will, of the last principle that I want to cover today.  Every sustainability or climate related project that a municipality pursues will run into obstacles.  The more innovative the project, the greater the number of barriers it is going to have to cross.

One response to this is to try to find ways around those rules, to create small exceptions to them that allow the project itself to go ahead, but leaving municipal regulations themselves unchanged. Your LEED certified building gets built, but the system overall hasn't learned anything.  Future projects have to negotiate the exact same barriers.  The other approach is to treat any sustainability related project as an opportunity to create an exception that changes the rules.

I'll give you one short example of what I mean: [slide 18] Vancouver, while preparing to build it's LEED Gold Olympic Village realized that many of the green building technologies and design principles that it wanted to use were held back by elements of the zoning and building codes. When I was talking with Brent Toderian, Vancouver's Planning director, he explained how instead of just making exception for the village, they were using it as a living laboratory to pilot new approaches that would quickly be integrated into business-as-usual regulations in the city.

For Vancouver this meant both small scale revisions, like removing code barriers that formerly blocked passive solar shading; or hight restrictions that unintentionally stood in the way of roof mounted solar panels, green roofs access.  It's also meant larger scale shifts, such as requiring all rezoning applications to achieve LEED Gold Standards, and any development over two acres to do a feasibility study for district energy.

What could have simply been an exception to the otherwise unsustainable ways in which the city was developing has instead become a catalytic project that helped change the rules of the game and spread the practices it represents across the city as a whole.

"Summing Up"
[slide 19] So, Translation,  Engaging the middle, and creating exceptions that change the rules.  These are all some key dynamics that link back to the larger point I want to make in this presentation that truly mainstreaming climate change planning within a municipality isn't a technical problem, it is an institutional one.Dealing with it means engaging creatively with the multiple organizational cultures of municipal departments and generating an approach to climate change that enables profound shifts in the practices of the institutions that create, maintain and shape our cities.

Working internationally has given me a unique perspective on this I think, and it is interesting to see how similar institutional barriers stand in the way of green urban policies. This short overview has – obviously – left a lot out, but I'm looking forward to going into more detail during our discussion here or by e-mail.  Thanks very much. [slide 20]

This post is also running over at Sustainable Cities Canada.


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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.

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