A pathway to One Planet cities 
David Thorpe and Jane Davidson

Our UK based correspondent David Thorpe has written what’s quickly gaining acclaim as a stunning book that offers a holistic solution to the sustainability crisis on our hands... not that we’re biased of course. Here’s our resident book reviewer Willow Aliento’s take.

Recently, the Welsh government officially declared a Climate Emergency. Now local councils in Wales are looking to take the next steps towards taking coherent, lasting and holistic action to dealing with the unsustainable trajectory of contemporary life.

One of the new resources councils in the Swansea region will potentially use a framework developed by The Fifth Estate contributor and sustainability educator, David Thorpe.

He has worked with experts from around the globe to develop a pathway and toolkit for a shift at the local government level towards “One Planet” communities. The methodology, case studies and resources have been compiled into a new book, ‘One Planet’ Cities – Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits.

A post-graduate certificate course, One Planet Governance, has also been developed, and will be offered for students world-wide by University of Wales Trinity St David from September 2019.

There is also a campaign in partnership with the Global Footprint Network for councils to adopt the approach and get started, with successful launch events held in Wales last month, and more to come.

Speaking with The Fifth Estate from his base in Wales, Thorpe says the pathway is already getting buy-in from local councillors and community change-makers.

One of the architects of the unique and ground-breaking Wellbeing Act passed by the Welsh government, former Welsh environment, sustainability and housing minister Jane Davidson, introduced Thorpe at the premiere launch of the book and campaign.

Thorpe says the initial campaign gatherings also attracted members of the steering groups for the Swansea regional city deal.

Next month, a conference will be held that is expected to bring together business leaders, community leaders and the Welsh first minister, Mark Wakeford.

Thorpe says the book and the supporting initiatives aim to provide solutions for when and how to take action once a city or region has declared a climate emergency.

The tools and solutions are a sound fit with the Welsh Wellbeing Act.

Thorpe explains the Act requires any spending decision to consider the need of future generations.

The two tools the book and framework do this also.

The first involves ecological footprinting, both for carbon emissions and biocapacity factors. The impacts on the environment not just immediately, but into the future of material flows are included.

The second tool is a “Net Present Value Plus” calculator, which allows users to compare the triple bottom line impacts of competing proposals for their social, environmental and financial values and ascertain the best return on investment. 

Again, it is about not just looking at today, but looking at how decisions will influence the future.

Thorpe says that while some say that only abandoning capitalism will save the planet, the One Planet City framework aims to change the impact of capitalism by changing how money is spent.

Procurement is the key. 

The book tackles procurement comprehensively across all the fundamental elements of a city or neighbourhood including housing, transport, energy, technology, public space, food, water, industries, finance and governance.

The theory is thoroughly mixed with case studies and examples drawn from around the globe, including developing nations in Africa, South America and Asia.

If the goal was to inspire through positive storytelling, Thorpe has well and truly succeeded. On the topic of affordable and sustainable housing for all – a major crisis in Australia – examples from South America, Africa, the USA and Europe show pathways to re-thinking the solutions through innovative land tenure arrangements, planning and financial models.

The ACT government’s Land Tax initiative is also used as an example of how to step past what Thorpe describes as a ”monopoly” situation in home ownership.

Ways to work with existing communities of informal housing are another enlightening suite of examples, where governments have chosen to formalise arrangements with squatter communities and work collaboratively to build on the strong community networks in these areas to achieve viable neighbourhoods.

Thorpe also leverages his deep expertise in researching and writing about sustainable construction to cover topics including low-carbon design, materials and energy systems for buildings in great technical depth.

It’s a holistic approach, where each element of the urban environment and its supporting systems including governance is critically examined for opportunities and challenges, and illuminated with best-practice exemplars – whether the topic is managing water, feeding the people, manufacturing consumer goods or providing for urban mobility.

These are new ways of working, Thorpe says.

Just like the Welsh Wellbeing Act requires thinking beyond the silos and making integrated decisions.

He doesn’t pretend the task ahead of us is easy.

“Unless the systems change, we won’t get to where we need to be [as a global society],” he says. 

“It’s a bit like trying to make an oil tanker change course… But the framework is a way to do it.”

  • Read more about the campaign, the course and the One Planet Cities book here 
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