Building Sustainable Cities

Written by Dave
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transitionnetwork logoClimate change, acid rain, the ozone layer, over-fishing, polluted rivers… the list of environmental problems can seem daunting – and then when solutions appear, it seems there’s another problem just waiting to pop up behind it! What seems to be needed is a concerted effort to reform the foundations of our cities and towns into more sustainable entities that work in harmony with our planet: Fortunately, this is just what several grassroots environmental movements are trying to do. Between the Transition Towns, the Sustainable Neighborhoods, and Agenda 21, cities all over the world (and all over Belgium!) are taking concrete steps to become more sustainable and to cut off environmental problems before they even start.

Transition Towns

The Transition Towns movement started in the United Kingdom with the realization that something had to be done specifically on the dual issues of climate change and peak oil. Rising temperatures mean that we need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, notably by consuming less oil. At the same time, peak oil means that soon we’ll have no choice but to reduce our consumption. The planet needs us to do it, the supply of oil is about to force us to do it…

This is where Transition Towns come on the scene. Though actually, the name is something of a misnomer: the initiative is not actually limited to towns. Any size grouping of people from cities to villages to neighborhoods, islands, even a forest is eligible for a transition. By using the strength of our communities and creative thinking, Transition Towns seek to make sure that the transition to an oil-free future is as smooth and efficient as possible.

The idea is pretty clear: “If we collectively plan and act early enough there's every likelihood that we can create a way of living that's significantly more connected, more vibrant and more in touch with our environment than the oil-addicted treadmill that we find ourselves on today.”

And of course, like any good addiction-kicking plan, there are twelve steps to the transition process. In the early phases (which should take at least a year), local people organize into a steering committee to raise awareness of the problems posed by climate change and peak oil. By creating awareness, the group grows and then splits into working groups on a variety of topics who then work together to take concrete short-term action while they also develop a long-term plan for how to wean their local community off of CO2. This includes planning in the realm of food, housing, transportation, politics, and just about anything else you can think of. Transition Towns have planted organic gardens, built bike-lanes, set up local systems of exchange, even created alternate money that can only be used inside their community to make sure that people work and spend locally and don’t generate transportation pollution.

The eventual goal is the presentation of an “Energy Descent Plan” to the local government showing just how the community can become truly sustainable and ready for the future, usually over a period of fifteen to twenty years. And the best part? It works!

The Transition Town initiative has been around for years and is already making a serious impact. There are now over 200 official Transition Towns, mostly in the UK but also ranging as far afield as New Zealand and Chile and just about everywhere in between. In addition, there are over 600 towns currently considering taking the step towards officialdom, meaning they are in various stages of preparation and reflection before setting off on the twelve steps.

And yes, this even includes several areas right here in Belgium, notably Ghent, Tervuren, Louvain-la-Neuve, and, as of just this August, Brussels. Transition Towns are based on grassroots support above all else, and so any of these groups would be happy to be in contact with motivated citizens. To learn more about how you can participate, check out the map section on the Transition Towns website.

Sustainable Neighborhoods

While the Transition Towns are all built from the ground up with the eventual goal of earning government support, the Sustainable Neighborhoods initiative comes in the other direction: with the Brussels Environment Institute offering its support in terms of organizers and cash to local communities to begin working on changing their environments.

The program is similar to the Transition Towns in that it seeks to fundamentally change how our communities are organized, though with a bit less focus on energy independence. Rather, the program works to empower local citizens to work together to economize energy, but also to reduce waste, improve consumption and air quality, re-think the use of public space, revalorize the natural environment, and reinforce social cohesion. The Sustainable Neighborhoods implement projects to minimize the environmental impact and create awareness among the widest base of citizens possible.

This past year was the first time that the program was organized, working in smaller neighborhoods in the communes of Auderghem, Forest, Ixelles, St. Gilles, and Schaerbeek. Initiatives organized include things like workshops on organic gardening and waste reduction, organizing collective purchasing groups to arrange for organic produce baskets, and even plans to set up community gardens and recover rainwater – all with a nice dose of barbecues and parties to bring people living in the neighborhood closer together around the common project of saving our planet.

It’s a mark of the success of the first year of Sustainable Neighborhoods that a call for proposals has been issued for 2009 – 2010; be sure to check out the website of the Brussels ministry of the environment for more information on the next round of initiatives and to see how you can get involved! Info in Flemish or French.

Agenda 21

The last major initiative is the broadest of the lot: Agenda 21. It’s the broadest first of all in the sense of its origins: Transition Towns start from four or five concerned citizens, Sustainable Neighborhoods from the Brussels Region, and Agenda 21 from the United Nations – notably from the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The “21” refers to the 21st century, and the goal of the program is to create a comprehensive blueprint for the global, national, and local levels to pave the way for sustainable development.

Agenda 21 is also the broadest initiative in that it touches all of the 19 communes in Brussels, with particular attention to the poorer communities in several areas as well. Most of the communes have at least one local coordinator charged to working with citizens to develop potential projects – and the Brussels region ultimately offers grants of up to 50,000 Euros to help implementation. Seeing as this is a sustainable development program, the projects are expected to promote economic development, social progress, and respect for the environment – the three pillars of sustainable development, giving Agenda 21 a broader mandate than the other initiatives as well.

Projects initiated in other cities have included things like building inter-generational social housing, developing better public transportation, reorganizing how waste is handled, and even a program of cooperation with cities in developing countries facing similar challenges.

The process of development is similar to that of the Transition Towns, beginning with reflection and analysis of just what the local community’s needs are. Given that the Brussels program only began in 2008, this means that there is still time to get in on this initiative on the ground floor. This is coupled with meetings and discussions on all levels – even events like “Agenda 21 for Kids” are offered in some communities to teach children more about environmental issues. More info: www.agendairis21.be.

It’s easy to see the differences between these programs, but it is their greatest similarity which gives cause for hope: all of them are based on the work of ordinary citizens who are concerned about the environment. This means all of them have a place for your voice to be heard, and all of them could use your help – all it takes is each of us deciding individually that we want to change the world!

The Bond Beter Leefmilieu (the Flemish umbrella association for a better environment) has an excellent campaign called “klimaatwijken” for citizens to act themselves and meet the European Kyoto goal. Starting each year on 1 Novemberm households can commit themselves to cut 8% of their energy consumption in 6 months time. Participants can get advice of energy masters. For more info have a look at www.klimaatwijken.eu/be

This article was originally published in the October 2009 edition of the Sunbeams newsletter.


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