Our City, Our Future

Thriving, harmonious, efficient, safe, resilient & green: words that we dream of when planning our cities of the future. Across Asia, governments, communities and businesses are moving to realise the dreams of people with many eco-city projects under development. This gives us an insight into Asian models for sustainable development.

Cities are currently responsible for more than 70 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and opportunistically also represent a key force in reducing emissions and resource consumption. Sustainable development requires bold action, while also strengthening the local economy and creating a better place to live.

Courtesy of WiNG via Wikipedia

Courtesy of WiNG via Wikipedia

In identifying a unique Asian model of sustainable development, the Tianjin Eco-city a Sino-Singapore flagship project is a good case study to explore. Not yet fully constructed and recovering from the deadly August industrial explosion, the vision of Tianjin was defined to be “A thriving city which is socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient – a model for sustainable development”. This vision is brought together by the concepts of the Three Harmonies and the Three Abilities.

The Three Harmonies involves creating an eco-city where:

  1. People living in harmony with other people;
  2. People living in harmony with economic activities;
  3. People living in harmony with the environment.

Three Abilities requires an eco-city to be:

  1. Practicable – the technologies adopted in the Eco-city must be affordable and commercially viable;
  2. Replicable – the principles and models of the Eco-city could be applied to other cities in China and even in other countries;
  3. Scalable – the principles and models could be adapted for another project or development of a different scale.
Courtesy of Blick vom Fernsehturm Richtung via de.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of Blick vom Fernsehturm Richtung via de.wikipedia.org

Another case for achieving sustainable development from government was shown in the city of Sanya in China. Along China’s southern cost of tropical beaches and tourism resorts, Sanya took an ambitious plan to do a stock measurement of the value of its ecosystem services in 2005. After 15 years of immense economic development, the city leaders decided on a new green growth plan which would incorporate natural capital accounting alongside their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

A famous quote by US President Robert Kennedy says that the standard measure of our economies GDP “…measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”. Natural capital accounting is a prominent step in sustainable development, and it involves measuring a range of ecosystem services in a city or town that we would not usually measure in our GDP.

Natural capital is the land, air, water, living organisms, and ecosystem goods and services that we rely on for survival and wellbeing. Our cities, businesses and communities receive some immense economic benefits from ecosystem services, such as New York City’s water supply. Manhattan, in New York, gets its primary source of drinking water from an update source, which was threatened by urban sprawl. The city decided to spend $1.5 billion to preserve 80,000 acres of natural landscapes to avoid paying $8 billion for a water filtration plant costing more than $300 million per year to run. Forests for example, play a role in stabilising sediment and excess nutrients from waterways. A forest wetland can filter water at approximately one-seventh of the cost with basic maintenance per thousand gallons than conventional wastewater treatment systems.

By considering these vital services from nature, Sanyo was able to make some important decisions on how they plan infrastructure and industry growth to ensure community wellbeing and sustainable development. This led to the creation of the below map where red zones represent areas decreasing in natural value, orange slightly declining and green zones increasing. Sanya valued their natural capital at approximately $40 billion (USD), 5.6 times their local GDP in 2013.

Since it’s first ecosystem measurement in 2005, Sanya has been growing its economy and the value of their natural capital stocks and their provided services (eco-tourism from coral reefs). Since tracking the change in natural capital, Sanya has been able to demonstrate the growth in its economy shown as GDP in red, natural resources shown in blue and ecosystem services shown in green from 2005 to 2013. Sanyo is able to holistically develop its quality of life in real terms beyond income measures.

Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon describes in his work the five ‘tectonic stresses’ which are bearing down on civilization: climate change; energy scarcity; environmental degradation; and intense conflict from urbanised megacities; and the extreme economic imbalance throughout the world. The enormity of these issues I know overwhelms many people still today and we struggle with how to begin to set our cities on the path to sustainable development.

Pushing beyond these enormous challenges of the world, my eternal optimism re-imagines sustainable development as going back to the basics and recultivating new approaches for empowering communities towards sustainable development. It is essential that we connect and communicate stories with people to inspire them to act and motivate change–stories about local communities and initiatives, which are green and bold. Communication is the key and the catalyst for broad social change.

I identify with this sustainability movement that is focussed on creativity, family, community, fun and reflection. Through innovative and decisive initiatives, vision and a sense of community, we can realise much success with sustainable development.

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By Grant Duthie
Grant is from Australia who has lived and worked in Asia studying the cultural drivers, new social perspectives and trends in Asia-Pacific urban communities. Through his experience in social living environments, Grant writes on regional urban themes on his blog Urban Billion https://urbanbillion.wordpress.com/.

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