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A bad marriage

Eco cities’, urban ‘place-making’, and the ‘Big Society’ – what do these things have in common? The answer is they are all concepts of sustainable settlements (low carbon, more equal and prosperous living) that are most likely doomed to failure. Why might they falter? These visions for local self-determination are fragile if they are not connected to resolving transnational governance problems ranging from reform of the international banking system through to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Vice versa, global efforts to move beyond GDP as the primary measure of development or to adapt to climate change can be undermined by weak local leadership.

Seminal thinking over the past four decades from Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (in the 1970’s) to A Future Worth Choosing by the UN’s High-Level Panel Global on Sustainability (released in January 2012) have gone some way to highlighting the point, without quite being able to square this circle. The bottom line is that we live in a complex and connected world. Opting-out of the system at the household or national level is simply not a viable option.

Take for instance, the proliferation of credit unions or other alternative forms of responsible lending that aim to help regenerate poor neighbourhoods. These communities are not insulated from the failings of global market mechanisms. If we do not rein in the credit ratings agencies, as a first step towards sorting out the financial ecosystem, then firms like Moody’s, Fitch and S&P will still have the power to make nations go bust. When they downgrade the credit worthiness of countries like Italy and the USA the cost of borrowing goes up. This slows the pace of recovery from the recession, but more than this it hurts the poor the most.

Another illustration is the rise of national strategies on the green economy, be it for reasons of energy security, competing in the $5 trillion cleantech marketplace, or the huge costs of extreme weather. Like is the case in the UK, these policy roadmaps can often focus on what central government will do and what is expected of business, without making much (if any) reference to the vital role of city majors and other municipal leaders in the great transition.

After all, from Manchester to Toyama, it is local government which is responsible for flood defence, retraining the local workforce in green skills, and spatial planning that supports fossil free public transport and district heating. Indeed these urban centres increasingly innovate in these fields to the extent that their thinking is way ahead of government strategy (e.g. the UK’s first Green Skills Training Centre in Blaneau Gwent or California setting the nation’s highest renewable energy target or ecosystem services in Quito to counter water scarcity). Thus any fractured approach to decarbonising a country’s economy is simply bad news for everyone – worse still, a lack of collaboration wastes finite resources during a time of austerity.

In summary, we cannot have a strong nation if we do not have resilient local places. And if we want local places that are resilient we need to sort out some big international problems too. Identifying the key leverage points and then making the smartest interventions requires an understanding of this complex system.

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