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Sustainability and the Christchurch rebuild – let's not miss the boat on this one

The Christchurch rebuild has the very real potential to place a substantial economic burden on the whole country, but it could just as easily create lasting economic and social benefits that all New Zealanders can enjoy.

The rebuild is a unique opportunity to create a model for a modern and sustainable city while building knowledge and skills that can be used to transform almost any city in the world. This is a chance for sustainability to move from an idea into a tangible and marketable reality, but will that opportunity be taken or will it pass us by?

In the months immediately after the February 22 quake, 82 percent of the respondents in a recent survey I conducted of sustainability-oriented business people in Christchurch believed that sustainability and green technologies had gained prominence and become widely discussed. However time ground on and aspiration turned to acquiescence as weariness and financial constraints took the place of dreams. By August 2012 only 35 percent felt that interest in sustainability had continued to grow. christchurch rebuild sustainability

As one person remarked: “People are weary and wanting to get things rebuilt quickly.” This drop in community interest in sustainability was reflected by only 36 percent of the respondents, who thought that sustainability would have a reasonable or better influence on the decisions shaping the rebuild. In other words, sustainability is slipping off the agenda. There is a feeling that “without sustainability the city is doomed to fail socially, economically and biologically” and that “this is the golden opportunity for Christchurch and New Zealand”.christchurch rebuild sustainability

The falling fortune of sustainability is happening while environmental, social and economic disasters resulting  from decades of unsustainable growth and consumption, from the devastating drought in America’s Midwest to flooding in Southland, are filling our media. Increasing numbers of the world’s foremost business and political leaders are publicly declaring their unequivocal commitment to sustainability, and sustainable business practices are being proven again and again to improve almost every aspect of business and personal life – so why isn’t sustainability the only game in town?

The answer that many of the respondents identified was a lack of leadership with “no vision presented so far” which means “the rebuild will be driven by business interests that are driven by the bottom line”. When the respondents were asked how well the wider business community understood what sustainability is, only 21 percent felt that that they had a moderate or better understanding. Slightly more (27 percent) believed that they had a moderate or better understanding of the benefits with only 19 percent having anything more than a basic understanding of how to operate a business sustainably. A common sentiment was that “there is not enough information, understanding or skills around”. christchurch rebuild sustainability

This is not surprising because although sustainability is talked about a lot, too little effort has gone into explaining and describing it in terms that the real world can relate to. When sustainability is discussed, it is often in terms of the dire consequences facing us all, or using scientific jargon and statistics.

While there is some discussion about the upsides of sustainability is, to a jaded and cynical audience this can all seem too good to be true. There is a real need to describe sustainability in ways that not only make it easy to understand, but so that people can see it for what it is – a smarter and better way to live, work and play.

There are people with the passion, skills and resources to achieve that, but something else the survey revealed is that over 70 percent of these people are not involved in active sustainability oriented networks. That means the people who have the answers are frequently isolated, which means limited access to support, encouragement, skills and resources. Christchurch and New Zealand need leadership and vision from the sustainability community because that will turn the rebuild from an expensive compromise into an aspirational demonstration of what can be done.

David Thompson can be contacted by email, or you can follow his blog here

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