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The Place-Based City

The sixth Resilient City model is the Place-Based City. (Read about the first city model, the Renewable Energy City; the second city model, the Carbon Neutral City; the third city model, the Distributed City; and the fourth city model, the Photosynhetic City; and the fifth city model, the Eco-Efficient City.)

Cities and regions will understand sustainability more generally as a way to build local economy and build onto a unique and special sense of place and as a way to nurture a high quality of life and a strong commitment to community. The more place-oriented and locally self sufficient a city’s economy the more it will reduce its ecological footprint and the more it will ensure its valuable ecological features are enhanced.

Local economic development has many advantages for the triple bottom line, including the ability for people to travel less as their work is local. Finding ways to help facilitate local enterprises becomes a major achievement in moving towards a reduced ecological footprint in the city or town. Michael Shuman has pioneered how to help small towns in the US to grow their own jobs. Ernesto Sirolli has developed an approach to creating local enterprises that builds on the passions and resources of the local community and supports local businesses in their early vulnerable steps. The inaugural Enterprise Facilitation project to create local jobs was pioneered in the small rural town of Esperance Western Australia in 1985 but has since spread across three continents.  Chair of the Esperance Project, Barrie Stearne, states: “We are proud to say almost 800 businesses – or 60 per cent of the entrepreneurs we met are still running successful, sustainable operations and have contributed more than $190 million in revenue to the local economy”, Mr. Stearne said.  “We have averaged almost 40 new business start ups a year consistently in the last 20 years, which is quite a track record given Esperance has a population of just 13,500 people.” What Sirolli and Shuman have both found time and time again is that place really matters. When people belong and have an identity in their town or city they want to put down their roots and create local enterprise. Most city officials want local economic development as their first priority. The best approach to this is to emphasize local place identity as shown by Robert Putnam when he found social capital to be the best way to predict wealth in a community. Thus when communities relate strongly to the local environment, the city’s heritage and its unique culture, such places develop a strong social capital of networks and trust that forms the basis of a good economy. Cairo, has a strong sense of place due to its ancient monuments and culture based around the Nile. It has been a continuing source of economic growth and is the basis of its attraction to people from across Egypt. This approach to economic development which emphasizes place-based social capital has many supporters but very few relate this to the sustainability agenda in cities.  For example, energy expenditures—by municipalities, companies and individuals—represent a significant economic drain, as they often leave the community and region.  Producing power from solar, wind or biomass in the locality or region is very much an economic development strategy—generating local jobs and economic revenue for lands and landscapes (farmland) that might otherwise be economically marginal, and re-circulating dollars with an important economic multiplier effect. Energy efficiency can also be an economic development strategy. Research on renewable energy, and the creation of related products has developed into a strong part of the economy in Freiberg, Germany. All the efforts at localizing energy, food, materials and economic development, remain dependent on the strength of local community.  BedZed shows the critical importance of thinking beyond the design of the buildings themselves and seeing urban development through a more holistic community-oriented design lens.  However impressive the passive solar design and smaller energy demands of this project are (300 mm insulation, an innovative ventilation and heat recovery system, for instance) much of the sustainability gain will come from how residents actually live in these places.  Here, residents are being challenged to re-think their consumption and mobility decisions—there is a car-sharing club on site, for example, a food buying club, and the emergence of a community of residents helping each other to think about and creatively reduce their ecological impacts and footprints.  This is actually a hallmark of European green projects and an important lesson seen in other projects. Jan Scheurer examined a range of European urban ecology innovations. One of his key conclusions was that when the innovations came from a close and committed community then the innovations actually stuck and were ingrained in lifestyles, giving the next generation a real opportunity to gain from them. However, many architect designed innovations that were imposed on residents without their being involved or educated in their value and use, tended to fall into neglect or were actively removed. Sense of place in a city requires that we pay attention to people and community development in the process of change – a major part of the urban planning agenda for many decades. This localized approach will be critical to integrating the green and brown agendas. It creates the necessary innovation as people dialogue through the options to reduce their ecological footprint which in turn creates a social capital that is the basis for on-going community life and economic development. Tim Beatley’s books have been setting out this agenda for a decade. City dwellers already increasingly want to know where their food is grown, where wine comes from, where the materials that make up their furniture comes from. This can increasingly move towards every element of our built environment. Thus as well as a slow food movement for local foods, a slow fibre and slow materials movement for local fabric and building purposes can also help create sense of place and bring the green and brown agendas together. City economies in the past had their own currencies and Jane Jacobs argues that national currencies often fail to express the true value of a city and its bioregion. Transforming urban economies towards a more of a bioregional focus has been assisted in some places by adopting complementary currencies, providing an alternative to national currencies, and establishing local financial institutions. Korten  points out that a common currency not only facilitates change but also creates a community with a reciprocal interest in productive exchange among its members in the bioregion. In this way a community affirms its identity and creates a natural preference for its own products. Over a thousand communities around the world have issued their own local currencies to encourage local commerce. Most developed cities have created similar development bonuses that are part of the non-monetary economy of the city. For example in Vancouver the city requires that 5% of the value of a development be directed into what they call social infrastructure. This is worked out by the developer and council in discussion with the local community who may want more landscaped streetscapes, more pedestrianised areas or a community meeting space, even an art-house cinema. Social housing is worked out on the basis of receiving a density bonus for more development rights. The more that Vancouver exercises these complementary currency requests the more that the development process works to create better public spaces to go with the private spaces that the market is for. Thus sustainability can be made to mean something at a very local level through the planning system. All cities have the opportunity through their planning systems to create their own currencies which work in a parallel way with normal money. These ‘sustainability credits’ are not owned by the developer or by the city but they are real – they are in fact owned by the community as it is their values that are being expressed in the development bonuses granted. Thus cities can create community banks of sustainability credit through their planning system. Most cities in the third world don’t have much to invest in their public spaces and hence the whole city economy suffers. Curitiba showed how it could break that mould. Through the planning system cities can create their own sustainability currencies for what they most need as determined by their local citizens – they just need to define them as ‘development rights’. These new Sustainable Development Rights could be related to biodiversity credits, greenhouse reduction credits, salinity reduction credits, affordable housing credits or anything else that a community would see they can create a ‘market’ for in their city and its bioregion. Experiments in these new forms of city currency need to be undertaken by innovative city councils wanting to develop their economies around sustainability. What do you think? Leave us a comment. —– Peter NewmanPeter Newman is Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. He is the co-author of Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, Green Urbanism Down Under, and Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change.