Over the Hump: Getting the Green City Movement to a Tipping Point

This blog by Steve Nicholas is part of a series I convened and edited for Global Communities called Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

By Steve Nicholas, Vice President. Institute for Sustainable Communities

biking across bridgeSteve NicholasGuide to Greening Cities

When I became director of the City of Seattle’s newly formed Office of Sustainability and Environment in 2000, there were just a handful of such positions in the US – all in places you’d expect: Portland, Oregon; Berkeley, California; Burlington, Vermont; and the like. Today, well over 1,000 communities have sustainability directors and programs in place, including many “unusual suspect” cities where the political waters are far less warm and inviting: Houston, Texas; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Dubuque, Iowa; and many others.

As my co-authors and I showcase in The Guide to Greening Cities, a fast-growing array of urban leaders are realizing that they hold a key, if not the key, to meeting the urgent global challenges of climate disruption and unsustainable human development. With more than 50 percent of the world’s population already living in urban areas – a slice that’s projected to grow to about 70 percent (some 6.4 billion people) by 2050 – it’s clear that cities no longer can gobble up three-quarters of the global energy supply, the vast majority of it derived from climate-disrupting fossil fuels. They must transform themselves – from being a big part of the problems to becoming laboratories and leaders ofsolutions.

The good news is that many cities – here in the U.S. and abroad – are rising to that challenge, reinventing everything from how they design, construct and manage buildings to the way they manage energy and water supplies and think about regional food systems. This “green city movement” is growing fast and inspiring lots of hope along the way; but it is far from the tipping point. Only a small percentage of the 30,000 municipalities in the US have people and/or plans truly dedicated to sustainability. And there is lots of variability in the quality of the efforts even among the early adopters. Relatively few have sufficiently robust and systematic approaches – a “triple bottom line” scope integrated across economic development, environmental protection and social welfare goals; effective multi-stakeholder engagement; and a sustainability-oriented performance management system driving the development and continuous improvement of the city’s policies and practices.

What is holding this movement back? What might accelerate its progress toward that much-needed tipping point? At the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) we believe that one of the best ways to help urban leaders is to provide them with efficient, affordable access to good information, expertise, and – most importantly – each other. A tremendous amount of experimentation and innovation is going on across the country. But these reinventions don’t spread widely, in large part because the innovators are hunkered down, focused on achieving and sustaining their own successes and managing their own complex suite of fiscal and political challenges. It’s not that they are stingy; on the contrary, most early adopter-types love to share their stories and help their counterparts learn and copy from them. But they have neither the mandate nor the resources to do it.

Peer learning and network development are among the fastest and most effective ways to build capacity for urban solutions. When well-designed and executed, they provide practitioners with efficient access to the information (success stories and lessons learned) and the people (their peers in other cities who are toiling away in similar trenches) who can help them the most. ISC leads or supports a number of peer-learning and networking efforts in the US and Asia. For example, in the US we lead the National Sustainable Communities Learning Network, serving about 200 communities across the country that are receiving grants through the federal government’s ground-breaking Partnership for Sustainable Communities to better integrate actions and investments related to land use, housing, transportation, economic development and social justice. And we support the Western Adaptation Alliance (a learning community of 13 cities and counties in the Intermountain West focused on climate adaptation and resilience) and the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact (a collaboration of four counties in this climate-vulnerable part of the country representing one-third of the state’s population and economy).

We’re learning a lot from these experiences – sometimes the hard way – about the fine art of peer-learning and network-building. Among those lessons learned are these:

  • Create value from the start, and sustain it throughout, in particular by letting the network’s customers (members) drive the development and governance of the network (including decisions about which products and services to prioritize);
  • Start small and simple, and take it from there. The bigger the network, the harder it will be to get it off the ground. Start with a relatively small group that already enjoys a high degree of commonality and camaraderie. And focus first on “the little things” first (trust-building and efficient information sharing) before taking on heavier lifts (such as joint policy statements or purchasing agreements).
  • Provide sustained “backbone support” with a servant-leader orientation. While the best networks tend to be those that are the most deeply “owned and operated” by their members, none can rely solely on that. There must be a person(s) and/or organization(s) playing the critical hub-of-the-wheel role.

“If you build it, they will come,” is a famous line from the 1989 American movie “Field of Dreams.” But when it comes to peer networks, it just doesn’t apply. How the network is designed, initiated and facilitated very much determines its success (or lack thereof). Without engaged participation and ownership by its members, the network is unlikely to either net or work.

Steve Nicholas is the Vice President for US Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, former director of the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment and co-author of “The Guide to Greening Cities.”

Empowering the Urban Poor: A DIY Approach to Future-Proofing Cities

America has a great legacy of institutions that foster the “do it yourself” ethic from an early age, from the Boy Scouts to Popular Mechanics. In international development, this “DIY” attitude is more important than ever – and it begins with empowering the most vulnerable members of society.

Currently, one billion people around the world live in urban slums, and according to the United Nations, that number is expected to increase to two billion by 2030. These are the same people who find themselves at the front lines of climatic shocks – from droughts to intensified storms – with little protection.

It’s unfair, to be sure. According to the U.N., the 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change contribute the least to total global greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of pitying the people who are hurt most, we should empower them to make change. Because while reversing urbanization or climate change may be impossible, increasing the resilience of cities’ physical, social, and economic fabric is not.

Through my work in India for CHF International, I saw firsthand how the urban poor lean into challenges together, and invest in bettering their own communities as a cohesive unit. In 2007, supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation, we used this community-centric approach in one of India’s largest cities to make lasting improvements to the resilience of their most vulnerable slum populations:

Near Mumbai, the city of Pune is the eighth largest metropolis in India with a population of about five million people – and 1 million of them live in slums. By 2025, the population of the Pune-Mumbai “mega region” is expected to hit nearly 50 million people.

Situated at the confluence of three rivers, Pune has experienced many floods over the last several decades, including an historic major dam failure in 1961. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of these floods. And slum dwellers in the region face additional challenges: 44 percent of them have sheet roofs containing asbestos, and thousands of them have no access to sanitation facilities. Like so many slum communities around the world, the poorest of the poor in Pune are living in hazard-prone areas, without rights to their land, with little savings, and without identity.

We wanted that to change. And it did.

When the central government of India made funding available to major cities in the country, including Pune, to undertake slum-upgrading projects, we helped empower slum dwellers to create better housing solutions. We did this in close partnership with city governments and locally based NGOs.

For example, instead of evicting, demolishing and rebuilding housing more quickly in the city outskirts, we helped residents develop housing on the same sites where residents had established their lives and livelihoods. We also worked with a collective of slum-based women’s savings groups chosen to administer a city contract to rebuild 700 houses across these slums. Working directly with a team of architects, the slum residents developed housing designs and neighborhood amenities like open spaces.

The project left more than just new houses. It left a legacy of community dialogue, debate, engagement, and empowerment.

We also helped Pune implement a program that supports both local governments and their urban poor in exploring the conditions of their communities in order to take action – a skill that will be increasingly needed in the face of climate change.

We engaged 5,000 volunteer slum dwellers to survey the socio-economic conditions of their peers across the city. Entering this information into a Geographic Information System (GIS) that we developed with the local government, we then gave back the data to community volunteers and taught them how to organize neighborhood action plans supported by their findings.

In two years, having mobilized their own resources and those of the local government, 130 slum communities in Pune implemented projects that they wanted, and on their terms. The improvements included a solid waste management program, better water connections, sanitation access, and the development of renewable energy sources.

The urbanization-fueled challenges faced by vulnerable communities in Pune are similar to those in many other mega-cities around the world. As global citizens, we are faced with a choice: to plan for the poor in future-proofing these cities, or to plan with them.

In fostering the DIY spirit that Americans know so well, I choose the latter. The urban poor are incredibly resourceful, with their own resources, networks, and demonstrated capacity to save and invest in the betterment of their cities. We just need to give them the chance.

What's the Big Idea? Aspen Ideas Festival 2012

I had the privilege of attending the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival in June, an annual event hosted by the Aspen Institute, now in its eighth year. This weeklong event brings together world renown thinkers and leaders – from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates – and a diverse, intellectually curious set of individuals to debate, question, listen and learn about what we can do to make our world a better place. Here are the top 10 ideas that I took away from the event:

  1. Movies are weapons of mass construction, according to Louie Psihoyos, who won an Academy Award for his documentary The Cove, which revealed the horror of the annual roundup and slaughter of dolphins in Japan. This was Psihoyos’ first ever film, and its popularity dramatically changed Japan’s fishing industry. Psihoyos and many other participants emphasized that the scientific evidence of many environmental issues is crystal clear, but our methods for fostering widespread policy and behavior change is less understood. Google’s Geospatial Technologist Ed Parson’s underscored that we are emotional beings whose hearts are more powerful than our brains, and asked, “when did a map last make you cry?” Violinist Kenji Williams, in collaboration with NASA, performed his ‘Living Atlas’ show called Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth) which takes viewers on a journey of our world and galaxy using imagery from NASA space flights in combination with live music to express the deeply moving beauty of planet Earth.
  2. The age of one-way mass media news “broadcast” is over. Matt Thompson of NPR and Amanda Michel of US Guardian explained, media is no longer an appointment you go to at 5pm or 11pm; it’s a layer over our lives throughout the day. Audiences now share content with each other through on-line social networks, blogs and micro-blogs. Citizen journalism is growing and media outlets now find themselves sitting with their audiences, sharing content with each other.
  3. Technology and democracy are creating revolutionary times. Chrystia Freeland, the sassy provocateur and editor of Thomson Reuters Digital, proposed that we are now in the era of “leaderless revolutions.” Technology has empowered populations to rise up against those monopolizing power and even overthrow their governments – think Arab Spring – but, Freeland asked, where are the revolutionaries with the tools to rebuild governments. Protestors and organizers of revolutions can now scale up and communicate across networks-of-networks before even coming onto the streets. Previously, she said, “if a hundred people went out, they ended up in prison. If a million show up, the leader goes to jail.” Poland was able to create its government from the ground up – which many attributed to its culture of apprenticeship – but what about places like Egypt and Libya?
  4. “Climate change is one big psychic problem we need to get off the table,” explainedDavid Breashears, executive director and founder of GlacierWorks. David has documented, without doubt, that the glaciers of the Himalayas have already melted significantly. Yet, 1% of scientists with skewed views are stalling what we already know we must do, explained Dennis Dimick of National Geographic: change the energy paradigm, stop cutting forests, start having 2.1 kids per family, and empower women to have an equal voice in domestic affairs. The influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries has been so significant as to constitute a new geological era, the anthropocene.
  5. Get off ancient sunshine and onto current sunshine. Every year we burn a million years of photosynthesis that created our fossil fuels. I heard bright spots and dark spots about the future of energy. The bright spots lie in developing countries like India and China that have the opportunity to invest in next generation power, unconstrained by aging energy infrastructure. The CEO of SunBorne Energy explained that his company is creating utility-scale solar plants in India. I was also encouraged to hear that technological breakthroughs are still happening in the US today, for example in the extraction of natural gas which has opened up unimaginable volumes of gas across the globe, previously not commercially viable to extract. But there is a dirty side to this gold rush: it is contaminating drinking water and methane released is 25 times more harmful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Shell’s natural gas production will outpace oil production this year, contributing to US energy independent and US trade, according to Russ Ford of Shell. But until game-changing breakthroughs in renewable energies make them more profitable that fossil fuels we will not see any shift in the unsustainable energy paradigm.
  6. Practice more “local universe problem solving.” 21st century global problems require 21st century global solutions, but we also need to influence what is within our control and rationalize our actions.David McConville, president of the Buckminster Fuller Institute emphasized that we need to re-think our role in the ecosystem to understand our impact on it and think more systematically. Our designs and systems need to enhance the regenerative processes that support life. Finally, Alexis Karolides, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, explained that we need to capitalize on the power of place to galvanize communities and institutions around issues like energy efficiency, as explained in its energy roadmap Reinventing Fire.
  7. Break the Rules: art, design and social change. Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, placed the arts on the Festival agenda at the onset by explaining, “As individuals and collectively, we need to develop our moral imagination. Art is central to entering another’s shoes, but our education system is increasingly making that impossible with cuts on the humanities…The point of entering another’s story is not simply to feel sympathy, but to foster a sense of community that prompts action…” Later, Tim Brown, CEO of the world renown design firm IDEO, gave us 9 principles to design our world by:1) Design behavior, not objects, 2) Design for information flow, 3) Faster iteration = faster evolution, 4) Launch to learn, 5) Use selective emergence, 6) Take an experimental approach, 7) Focus on simple rules, 8) Design is never done, 9) There is power in purpose.  Finally, Adam Lerner, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, highlighted that there is a lot to learn from artist who break the rules. Artistic combinations and fusions help bring newness into the world.
  8. Risk was America’s best idea. The biggest risk is the one you never take. Kai Ryssdal, the host of public radio’s Marketplace, and my favorite radio voice on air today, explained, “Political risk is a virtue. Not balance, not harmony, but rather the idea of political risk is America’s founding idea. But we’ve forgotten what political risk in a democracy means, calculated action for the common good without regard for personal gain.”
  9. What separates a product from a brand is an idea. Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo global beverage group, argued that companies who have already thought about commercializing ideas and creating markets for them could become the wind behind small ideas. That is why Brad said they are trying to turn their 300,000 employees into inventors and listen for small ideas that could be recipes for feeding the next billion. Small is the next big.
  10. Lighten up, Revive “the Joke.” Jeffry Goldberg of the Atlantic provided comic ‘shock and awe’ each time he took the stage. He explained that there is too much “self-seriousness” in our policy discussions and less weighty matters, like “the joke” could go a long way. That’s why Goldberg, on the heals of all the buzz about The Atlantic’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” introduced himself to the audience as Anne-Marie Slaughter. Laughter produces all sorts of positive cocktails such as dopamine and endorphins, all of which help our creativity, sociability, problem solving and things like blood pressure and immune systems. Take the issues serious, but not yourself.

TEDx (Video) Creating Smarter Cities with the Urban Poor

At TEDx Adams Morgan, I talked about creating smarter cities by filling the information and power gaps that have prevented slum residents and the urban poor from becoming co-creators of solutions, scaling-up interventions, and having a real voice in the retooling of their cities.

Creating Smarter Cities with the Urban Poor

In 2005, former President Bill Clinton, through the Clinton Foundation, challenged Cisco to use its expertise to make cities more sustainable.  As a result, Cisco dedicated $25 million over five years to the topic and piloted solutions in San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Seoul. Using “networks, sensors and analytics to make cities more efficient, productive and habitable” has since evolved into an emerging service line for ICT giants like Siemens, IBM, and CISCO, which is now being dubbed Smart Cities.

IBM has built a system to integrate data from 30 agencies of Rio de Janeiro under one roof called the Operations Center of the City of Rio to monitor city operations in real-time and respond quicker to emergencies. CISCO has created Smart Work Centers with the city of Amsterdam to help curb CO2 emissions and drive global collaboration.

As these ICT giants race head-long into this potential multi-billion dollar business so is the world rushing into the urban age, which is now half complete with 50 percent of the world living in cities. By 2050, the number of people living in cities is expected to nearly double to 6.3 billion. What took more than 250 years, will be repeated during the next 50 years.

There is no doubt that cities will need all the technology they can get to help manage resources, inform citizens, reduce energy consumption, improve mobility, promote transparency and even democratic principles. The complexity at hand for many city managers is unprecedented, both for the world’s mega-cities and also the rapidly growing second and third-tier cities in developing countries.

As an urban planner I have had my focus fixed on a more troubling wave cresting over burgeoning cities of the developing world, the rise of slums. One billion people live in slums today and this number is projected to grow to 2 billion by 2030.

Slums are not the inevitable result of urbanization. They are the result of failures in governing institutions, dysfunctional markets, lack of political will, and policies and practices of exclusion.

At the core of all solutions, we must stop planning for the poor and start planning with them. Otherwise we will only perpetuate the marginalization of the poor and the proliferation of slums.

With my colleagues at CHF we come up with our own “smart city” solutions focused on the 90 percent of the world’s populations not served by formal sector solutions. In the city of Pune, India, our team helped map all 477 slums in the city, home to 32.5 percent of the city (1.15 million people) by engaging residents to help conduct surveys of their neighborhoods. Then we organized this data on a web-based Geographic Information System within the local government so the city could make better planning decisions. More importantly we gave the information back to the residents and taught them how to mobilize action themselves.

In 2 years we helped 130 slum communities in Pune undertake this process, which were home to almost a quarter million people. Of these communities, almost all of them mobilized their own resources or those of the government to execute tangible projects and programs that have improved their communities.

At TEDx Adams Morgan on June 7, 2012, I will talk about building smarter cities by filling the information and power gaps that have prevented slum residents and the urban poor from becoming co-creators of solutions and having a real voice in the retooling of cities.

The First Mile Starts In The Community, Not The Last Mile

When the international development community speaks about citizen “participation”, “involvement” or even “empowerment” they usually express this as the “last mile” in development programs. At its best, this represents a fear of getting involved in what is perceived as the sticky work of “stakeholder dialogue” which muddles up clearly defined results frameworks. At its worst, it represents a form of manipulation where citizen consultation is used as a form of tokenism in order to push through a solution.

Last mile solutions plan for the poor, first mile solutions plan with the poor.  “The poor” have long demonstrated their ability to organize, learn from others, contribute resources, and implement solutions. And until the development community recognizes this and factors it into the first mile of programs, residents will continue to be marginalized and solutions crippled.

The Pune Municipal Corporation in India got it right when they recognized that they could contract local NGOs to design and redevelop housing with the city’s slum residents instead of evicting, demolishing and rebuilding housing more quickly in the city outskirts.

The Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), with affiliates Mahila Milan and the National Slum Dwellers Federation, accepted a contract from the local government to plan, design, and rebuild subsidized houses as part of the Yerwada Slum Upgrade project which includes six dense Yerwada-area slums in Pune, India. Through CHF International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported this program by hiring an architecture team to go door-to-door to collect ideas about what the community wanted, using housing models and life-size replicas, community meetings and broad engagement with the residents. These designs were on view earlier this year at the United Nations headquarters in an exhibit titled, “Design with the other 90%: Cities.” The program left more than houses, it left a legacy of community dialogue, debate, engagement and empowerment, the things that make democracies work. The Pune government demonstrated how to flip the development paradigm and let the first mile start in the community by delegating power and citizen control over program resources.

4 Lightening Presentations, One Spark: Open Data For Development

Last week I presented at the Geo DC Meet Up to a crowd of more than 80 development professions and techies crowded into the second floor of a bar. With a large flat screen TV to project our slides, four of us set off on our “lightening presentations” with a 5-minute time limit. Mikel Maron, cofounder of Ground Truth, talking about using Open Street Maps to help the residents of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, map their neighborhood. Joshua Goldstein talked about mapping Dar es Salam with the World Bank’s Open Development Technology Alliance and how they got the university to host the data so no single agency could silo it or manipulate it. Christoph Koettl from Amnesty International talked about how they are using remote satellite imagery to look at eviction of squatter settlements in locations not safe to enter themselves. I talked about how CHF India mapped almost 500 slum pockets in Pune, India, using more than 1,000 volunteers, then helped their communities implement action plans based on their new community understanding.

The common thread amongst all our presentations was how “open data” can translate into more informed and empowered citizens.  Open data should be seen within the context of the Open development movement, which provides citizens with the information and tools to access, understand and influence their own development. Instead of institutions just producing large analytical volumes, surveys, and reports, domestic governments and bi-lateral aid organizations can increasingly share data and software tools, so policy makers, NGOs, community groups and individual citizens can do their own analysis, their own verification of the results, and develop their own plans for action.

As new systems are created to gather data, either traditionally or through new means with information technology, many stakeholders are now arguing that data should be made open so the latent energy of a broader group of stakeholders can legitimize findings and inform solutions.

For example, the World Bank’s Open Data Initiative has released over 7,000 indicators and they are producing free software to allow citizens, researchers, and policymakers to analyze household surveys and undertake their own poverty assessments. “OpenStreetMaps” is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world by volunteers using copyright free sources and the widespread availability of GPS tools often available in mobile phones. OpenStreetMap allows anyone to view, edit and use geographical data in a collaborative way from anywhere on the globe.

Because slums are “informal” settlements, by definition, these communities often live in the shadows of formal sector data coverage. City governments often know very little about the actual socio-economic conditions of households, their living conditions or urban service levels. This data gap is a tremendous stumbling block in efforts to plan more strategically, at scale, or monitor progress of investments. At the same time, there is also a huge information gap for residents of slums, and often for citizens in general, to understand how to gain access to urban services, the governments that administer them or to have a voice in planning decisions.

Many institutions are attempting to fill this gap, including CHF International. In 2008, CHF designed a program called ‘Utthan’ (‘to rise from the bottom,’ in Hindi) with the Pune Municipal Corporation, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Utthan collects information on the physical and socio-economic conditions of Pune’s urban slums and uses this information to empower residents and local government officials to undertake community development projects.  The Utthanprogram is distinct because data is being collected by an extensive network of approximately volunteers that reside in the slum communities. To date, these volunteers have collected detailed surveys in 360 of Pune’s 477 slums, covering 86,000 households (approximately 430,000 residents). Over a two-year period, 130 slums have participated in the micro-planning process and almost all of them have completed tangible outcomes that improve their living conditions.

One volunteer explained, “Now I know everything about my cluster. While talking to the corporator I can give quick evidence of the amenities and residents of my cluster”. “Once there was a debate on the availability of garbage bins and water taps and because of the mapping I knew exactly the status in my cluster and the corporator had to listen to me.”

CHF’s development work will always rest on people power. But intermediary institutions like CHF and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly connected with emerging tools of the information age. And with these new powers, we can help create more powerful solutions.