The impact of 7 billion people living on planet Earth is having a profound effect on its environment and climate. The Climate Justice movement indicates that 20% of the Earth's surface is now degraded, with serious consequences for the world’s poorest in trying to sustain a living. Such a huge and increasing global population, with its need for economic activity, sustenance and quality of life, is making unsustainable demands on the Earth’s natural resources. Reserves of timber, fish, oil, and clean water are being depleted.
In the face of such a bleak picture many people feel powerless. The negative trends are so embedded and world politics so complex and conflicted that there is a tendency to shut it all out and put our heads in the sand. Even people who are motivated to do something wonder how their small actions could make any real difference. They can. In this short essay I want to show how all our individual positive actions can make a big collective difference.
In trying to do this and build a more positive mindset, I think it is necessary to think at two different scales:
- the scale of the globe and planet;
- the scale of the City and neighbourhood.
It is critical that we find a way of relating what’s happening at the macro scale of the planet to what is happening in the place we call home. In Dublin we are beginning to develop a framework that can bridge these two scales and hopefully encourage debate and joined-up thinking, awareness of macro trends, and multiple actions at the local level. Lets start however at the global level.
The Global Scale
Scientists have recently come up with the term ‘anthropocene’, to denote the reality of a new geological age on earth from the impact of the earth’s population level. This new geological age is as significant as any previous geological age on the planet, except that we only know for certain that we can prosper in the age that is now passing. Analysis is put forward of the increasing pressure and stress on a wide range of the earth’s natural infrastructures. A strategy of stewardship is proposed where we develop capacity to stabilize, reverse trends and regenerate each of the earths critical infrastructures.
In a bid to develop a comprehensive approach to sustainability, Dublin has begun to apply a systems type thinking called the Natural Step. It was developed initially by a Swedish cancer doctor, Karl Heinrich Robert, who was concerned at cancer rates linked to environmental causes. Over a period he achieved agreement among the Swedish science community on the fundamentals of life on the planet. Four principles were developed which represented a scientific canon of what was necessary to maintain life and stability on the planet. These were:
- To stop using natural metals and minerals that the Earth cannot readily reabsorb;
- To stop using man made chemicals and materials that the earth cannot reabsorb;
- To protect the Earths clean air , soil, and water;
- To meet human needs.
A methodology was also developed under the Natural Step with 5 key levels.
- Level 1 requires a systems type thinking showing awareness of how any City Systems approach relates to external environmental ,economic, legal, political systems, i.e. a global context;
- Level 2 requires us to think some distance into the future and try and express the shape of long term success;
- Level 3 is focused on the development of a strategy motivated by the shape of success outlined in 2;
- Levels 4 and 5 focus on actions and tools.
The Natural Step [TNS], which is open source and has now been integrated into a number of policy areas in Dublin under the title Framework for Sustainable Dublin [FSD].
Dublin City Council had already begun to think about a systems type approach that would acknowledge the complexity of the city, but would also provide a framework that would help structure, manage and nurture that complexity. The six urban themes were developed to constitute a spectrum that would represent a good cross section of the key dimensions of life. The six themes are; Economic, Social, Culture, Environment, Movement, and Spatial/Urban Fabric .
The review of the City Development Plan provided a real challenge on how to interface the six themes with the Natural Step, i.e. the Framework for Sustainable Dublin? In effect they were mutually supportive and could constitute a high level framework that would move the City towards a sustainable future. It was decided therefore to bookend the six themes with the framework for Sustainable Dublin at one end and Governance at the other end. Governance is really central to sustainability and the D5P project aims to build qualities of openness, transparency, communication and to seek ways to collaborate with citizens in building the Dublin of the future.
Under the umbrella of the Creative Dublin Alliance, Sustainable Dublin is the project that is now developing the above thinking on a Dublin Regional scale. As well as increasing awareness, one of the first tasks was to initiate a baseline study which would help to indicate the ‘health’ of the city region in the context of sustainability. This report, published at the end of 2011, covers 10 major themes and 39 headline indicators. It will provide a platform to enable the first Dublin regional sustainability report which will be published in 2012.
We can see from the above that Dublin now has the bones of a sustainability framework that is scientifically based, that is geared to think about long term success based on a resilient city in harmony with the environment, and delivering sustainable livelihood and liveability to its citizens. Such a framework can also help position the city internationally, benchmarking the sustainable performance of its key sectors and motivating the city region to be an exemplar of best practice among its international peers.
The reason for the long introduction above is to provide some understanding of the bigger picture of the systems thinking that can help a city make sense of its role and responsibilities in a global context. We also saw how a guiding framework is emerging at the city/regional scale, prompting necessary steps like baselining and the need for a regional sustainability report. Stepping down from the city/regional dimension to a consideration of a set of issues that can draw out what sustainability means to citizens in their daily lives, brings us to the nub of what D5P is about, i.e. generating a rich culture of public engagement through the exploration of topics that connect strongly with sustainability.
Its not a good idea to start with a vacuum and neither do we want to be too prescriptive. Each topic will therefore have a short provocation piece, which hopefully will get people thinking. While the purpose of each topic is to create focus, the multiple connections with other areas will also have to emerge, e.g. healthy living has a connection with say cycling and food, (see Donal O'Gorman's blog entry 'Thinking about Healthy Living'). Obviously people are going to find some topics more challenging than others. The following bullets might help people get started:
- Values: what are your values in relation to the topic area?
- Qualities: what are the visible city qualities existing out there, or not, that give expression to these values?
- Shape of success: How would you express the long term shape of success for this topic area?
- Blockages: What are the key blockages preventing us from achieving that success?
The idea is that we will start with three topics:
- Healthy Living (from 27/02/12);
- Working Lives (from 02/04/12);
- Cycling (from 01/05/12).
The long list of future topics is indicated on the Future Topics page and you are invited to respond with your preferences. As the topics and months roll by we will keep each topic live to allow additional comments to be submitted. In this Blog we will also provide a summary and overview of the main content and output from each two month topic engagement.
This is the first attempt on a city regional basis to link meaningful public engagement with sustainability and to explore a range of connected topics. This process is not over-designed and therefore it is not clear what is going to emerge. What we have is a loose framework that can hopefully release the energy of citizens and produce some good outputs. What might these outputs be? They could produce inspiring stories, innovative ideas, or suggest pilot initiatives at city scale or local level. Working for a sustainable future for our city and planet may at times seem to be a step removed from the more immediate challenges of our everyday lives. Hopefully this project can help you the citizen to gain knowledge and insight into the complex area of sustainability and figure out how you can make a real difference.