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It's time to face up to yesterday's shocks and grow our future

It's time to face up to yesterday's shocks and grow our future
What if we mapped our key city, Auckland, into its own bioregions? Or Christchurch, or even Hamilton? What if we identified the social capital and ecological resources available and mapped them over existing infrastructure?

What if we mapped our key city, Auckland, into its own bioregions? Or Christchurch, or even Hamilton? What if we identified the social capital and ecological resources available and mapped them over existing infrastructure? Jasmax sustainability manager Jerome Partington discusses lessons learned while attending Living Future 2011 in Canada earlier this year — the conference for deep green professionals.

Are you ready to hear that your future shocks actually happened yesterday? The International Energy Agency recently acknowledged that peak oil happened in 2006. And on his recent visit to New Zealand, climate scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, Dr James Hansen, informed New Zealand that the climate change impacts we are experiencing today are the result of CO2 emissions from the 1970s. In fact since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, New Zealand’s CO2 emissions have increased by over 25 percent.

In terms of a sustainable future, the New Zealand vision is hardly pulling the crowds. If I’m looking for leadership, investment and performance, the Cascadia region is an excellent place to start. Cascadia is a large bioregion of temperate rain forest extending north to south from the tip of southern Alaska down into Northern California, including Vancouver, Seattle and Oregon.

I’ve just returned from Vancouver where I attended Living Future 2011, the conference for deep green professionals, and I picked up a few lessons on how, in New Zealand, we could be doing better when it comes to creating a more sustainable society.

First lesson: in the US, green buildings have already peaked. Their performance only registers on the bottom half of the scale range—say from -100 through to zero or neutral. Doing less or no harm to society and the environment. But the conference organiser, the Cascadia Green Building Council, has something more enticing on offer: living buildings and living cities. These measure performance on a scale that starts at zero and through to 100+, where 100 is creating life-supporting environments.

Living buildings give back more than they take. When picking a design metaphor for these buildings, a flower is often used. Like a flower, when rooted in place, these buildings harvest all energy and water, adapt to climate and site, operate pollution-free and are comprised of integrated systems. And of course, they are good for people and look good too.

Vancouver has several living buildings nearing completion and some 15 more registered in the region as well as globally.

But even more critical than the individual building is the challenge of adapting and evolving our existing cities into living cities. The conference theme was ‘Our Children’s Cities’. If we design our cities for the needs of children—to be safe, non-toxic, energy-, water- and resource-positive—then they will be fit for future use by everyone, not just children.

Conference keynote speaker and eco-entrepreneur Majora Carter exemplified this philosophy perfectly when she described how she had empowered her ghetto community in a South Bronx neighbourhood by greening roofs and opening access to the riverside, and in the process creating green-collar jobs and local food supplies. This entrepreneurship created a living neighbourhood, which is the primary building block for a living city—small enough to innovate quickly and big enough to have a meaningful impact. Neighbourhoods are the most critical intervention points to identify and develop sustainable city strategies.

What if we mapped our key city, Auckland, into its own bioregions? Or Christchurch, or even Hamilton? What if we identified the social capital and ecological resources available and mapped them over existing infrastructure? We would see a linear wasteful system overlaid onto an underused and depleted urban ecology. Currently waste material flows to landfill, pollution flows into the sea, energy and carbon flow to the atmosphere and our dollars flow offshore to pay for oil and loans.

Imagine closing that linear system. Instead we could create local resource loops aligned with the ecological flows of the bioregion. In the bioregion, waste immediately becomes food for nutrients and energy, land and building surfaces would support biodiversity and be farmed for eco-services, local food and local energy right into the heart of the CBD. Water landscapes would treat wastes and be an aesthetic delight to the urban form.

Perhaps we need to start envisioning New Zealand cities as growing sustainably in healthy bioregions with resilient green economies. It’s time to face up to yesterdays shocks and grow our future. We can start to picture urban citizens intelligently harvesting the benefits of our incredible ecology, climate and bountiful solar energy.

Jerome Partington is sustainability manager at Jasmax. He is a UK trained architect with a background in science and a passion for the built environment and nature. He is an advisor to The Natural Step NZ, a not-for-profit for accelerating the global shift to a sustainable and restorative future