by Andrew MacKenzie, Lecturer Landscape Architecture, School of Design and Architecture, University of Canberra.
Presented at the Manning Clark House Forum, Making Canberra Sustainable, Canberra, 17-18 October 2005
Andrew MacKenzie [Dip App. Sci. B.Land Arch (Hons) M. Pub Pol (Environmental Law)] is is a lecturer in landscape architecture, and landscape and urban planning at the University of Canberra. He has an honours degree in Landscape Architecture from UC, and recently completed a Masters in public policy specialising in environmental law at ANU. Andrew ran his own practice in Sydney and the Blue Mountains as a landscape designer for ten years before coming to Canberra to further his study and take up a position with the University in 2003. His current research interests include how planning policy manifests itself in the physical landscape form, with a particular focus on suburban Canberra.
The making Canberra sustainable debate is one had by many cities across Australia, and asks us to revisit a number of difficult planning and policy issues with regularity. This paper takes a slightly different approach to this debate and looks outside of Canberra in order to understand how it can be sustainable. This can be done on two levels; first is to draw from a global understanding of the sustainability debate, and the second is to ask how does our lifestyle contribute to key physical determinants of global sustainability such as land degradation, fresh water use, and global warming. Because of the ill-defined nature of sustainability, such discussions should include a definition to position itself within the wider debate. It should acknowledge that sustainability is a global concept and as such, investigate how the community in question impacts on all spatial scales from local to global, and to what extent that communities activities ‘cost’ the place in which we live. Secondly, this paper will look at how the ACT government assesses its own performance in terms of its commitment to sustainability. This paper argues that the government’s current method of defining sustainability is designed to rank its own performance based on a range of indicators that favour a watered down approach, which does not address how we live in Canberra, and how that lifestyle has an unsustainable drain on the physical system. It argues that we need to distinguish between local social, economic, and environmental issues, and sustainability. By doing this, the public may be able to make decisions about how we may contribute to a more sustainable existence.
It seems that in the myriad of definitions and debates about sustainability in Canberra, there is at least one point of agreement, and that is, the way we live is not sustainable, and that change is necessary. The challenge that remains is to arrive at a consensus as to how we might encourage this change, and what return will we receive from our investment in doing things differently. Politically this is risky, because without certainty business is less likely to invest in new technology, residents will not commit to doing without, if there is no discernable ‘reward’, and as a result government will find it increasingly difficult to divert from the existing ‘business as usual’ trajectory.
This paper will argue that the current government’s definition and implementation of sustainability in fact perpetuates this uncertainty in order to reduce its risk of having to commit to what amounts to an acknowledgement that the way we live in Canberra places a demand on the physical system that is unsustainable. Consequently the government’s emphasis on a healthy economy (Towards a sustainable environment A Discussion paper p3) rather than a healthy ecosystem ignores the possibility that "without physical sustainability, society cannot embrace social and financial sustainability". (Foran 2005) Finally, this paper will contend that Canberra’s commitment to sustainability needs to be distinguished from other discrete local environmental, social and economic issues, such as private car use, housing affordability and literacy rates. If we fail to do this then we are not able to make choices about the way we live so that we as a community can truly embrace sustainability.
Sustainability is an unashamedly anthropocentric concept. (Lee 2000, Hopwood et al 2005) Our dependence on ecosystems for our organisation and functioning of society is well documented. How we value and live in the natural system is central to most debates about sustainability. However sustainability is ‘used to justify and legitimate a myriad of policies and practices ranging from communal agrarian utopianism, to large-scale capital-intensive market development’. (Hopwood 2005). Proponents of a radical ecology theory of sustainability, are often criticised for adopting a dogmatic normative approach that argues any sort of growth in resource use is not sustainable, and it is the responsibility of government to reduce resource use at all cost. On the other hand free marketeers argue that government constraints on development actually perpetuates unsustainable resource use and only the market can effectively apportion resource value. Additionally the marketeers assert that the market failure is not in fact a failure but ‘an inappropriate benchmark by which to evaluate institutional performance’ (Pennington 1999).
This debate is an evolving and dynamic process, and the definition of sustainability remains equally fluid. However, key components of the early definitions remain. Brundtland argued that development should meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (WCED 1987) This definition remains a guide to sustainability objectives for most planning authorities in Australia. However different authorities have interpreted it differently, which has produced increasingly diverse outcomes.
Brundtland recognised the failure of post war economies to reduce poverty and control environmental degradation, and she called for a different form of growth. She called for a ‘change in the quality of growth, meeting essential needs, and merging environment and economics in decision making’. (WCED 1987 p49). The Bruntland report also highlighted the need for local action to secure global sustainable development. Given this call to act, many local authorities have committed considerable attention to what urban sustainability might include and how it might be implemented. (Bulkeley et al 2005) Proponents of sustainability have also highlighted the need to for local authorities to address their environmental performance both within the boundaries of their cities, but also the transfer of environmental costs to other people, other ecosystems, and into the future. (Bulkeley et al 2005, Satterthwaite 1997).
Cities as places for sustainability.
Cities are the ideal arenas to address global sustainability for four reasons. (Bulkeley et al 2005), and these represent the four key areas that local government should concern itself with in the pursuit of sustainability. Firstly, cities are sites of high-energy consumption, and production of waste. The influence of local authorities varies, however key services provided to the public have a direct influence on their consumption habits. These include the provision of transport services, utilities, building requirements and waste management. Secondly, local authorities interpret global rhetoric into local practice through commitments to sustainability objectives outlined in local agenda 21. However, ‘measuring local government commitment to LA21 and other local sustainability initiatives can be very difficult. This is due to the complexity involved in assessing how environmental, social and economic decisions contribute to sustainability’. (DEH 2005) Thirdly, local authorities can facilitate action by other levels of government through lobbying federal and other state authorities, and by developing small-scale projects which illuminate the costs and benefits of reducing energy use and controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the local authorities have a history of implementing strategies for improved social economic and environmental outcomes, and as a result are the most effective level of government to incorporate measures, influence consumption habits of the public, provide leadership, and learn from other local agencies.
( Bulkeley et al 2005).
The ACT’s definition of sustainability has evolved from the original Bruntland definition, which is consistent with most bureaucratic interpretations of the concept. (Newman 2005) The main principle of ACT government’s definition of sustainability is the need to leave enough for future generations so that they can enjoy what we enjoy today. This notion of intergenerational equity does not preclude environmental protection over social equity or economic prosperity, but the persistence of the latter two depends on the existence of an environment suitable for the production of basic essentials of food and fresh water. (Foran 2005) So if the way we live now continues to remove the opportunities for future generations to exploit the natural resources in an increasingly unstable environment, then social and economic sustainability will also be an imagined concept. Addressing global sustainability at a local level requires a commitment to both informing the public about the external environmental cost of how we live in Canberra, and representing the interests of the ACT in facilitating change at a federal level so that the risk of going it alone does not unduly impact on our standard of living during a period of necessary structural change.
Defining sustainability by assessment.
The concept of sustainability has moved beyond a strict definition, which merely requires economic development to consider social and environmental issues. (Newman 2005) This has been driven largely by the increasing concern that the notion of sustainability is measured first by traditional market indicators of profitability and productivity, and then limited by regulation and market dynamics. On the other hand policies to improve sustainability have been driven by the evaluation of the environmental impact of individual projects. This polarisation effectively creates a two-way trade off between maximising economic return and compensating for environmental loss. As a result, little analysis is done on the real long and short-term economic value of projects, and social assessment has ‘been stripped from the bureaucracy.’(Newman 2005)
Consequently, the need to integrate all aspects of economic, social, and environmental concerns has created a highly complex assessment process. This complexity has given rise to a comprehensive debate about the criteria of assessment of sustainability. As a result, sustainability has become defined by the principles, criteria and indicators that each agency generates as a means of assessing an otherwise vague concept. Generating a definition by proxy is not with out merit, as all other attempts to produce a legal test for sustainability have not succeeded. (Bates 2002) This is not to say that such a method is ideal. In fact the critical flaw that still remains is the diluted nature of sustainability policy. That is, the more inclusive the test, the more diluted the idea of sustainability becomes, and the more each jurisdiction’s definition is determined by what appears to be favourable to test.
This is also the case for Canberra, where policy documents concerned with sustainability cover a staggering array of performance indicators from police responsiveness to crimes, infant mortality rates, natural gas consumption, crisis accommodation, and recycled waste. (Towards a sustainable environment A Discussion paper p21) This bundling of policy issues under the one umbrella fails to provide evidence on the success or other wise of maintaining a commitment to sustainability. Another consequence of such reporting is that government portrays sustainability as primarily it own responsibility and as such, sustainability policy seeks to self regulate its own operations rather than change the behaviour of the ratepayer. This ‘bundling’ strategy also means that government can claim core functions that predate the sustainability debate can be benchmarked against national averages, and interpreted as successful sustainable development. Consequently no clear commitment can be asked of the community to consider how their daily patterns of consumption impact on the environment they plan to leave for future generations.
An argument for a physical systems approach to sustainability.
The neo-liberal market economy demands that physical transactions underpin growth; these transactions are not restricted by physical limiters such as distance, terrain, or frequency, but by price (which is governed by volume, market information and regulatory control). So the increasing demand for goods and services required to achieve economic sustainability is in direct conflict with the idea of physical sustainability, which demands that the use of resources meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This conflict of interest means that the primacy of economic growth (which is dependant on increased resource use by an increasing population) precludes any real commitment to physical sustainability. So by using physical systems to measure sustainability, we are asked to change the way we organise our economy to ensure intergenerational equity thorough a sustainable use of the physical system.
This is of course a fanciful concept in this current political environment as it requires changing of the tax and welfare system at state and federal levels, and a political will to see consumers pay both the direct and indirect cost of consumption. Only broad public support for a restructuring of the economy (which will ask people to pay more and consume less) will provide the appropriate political climate conducive to this change. The question is, what will be the catalyst for such a shift in public opinion?
Measuring sustainability by how we live.
To measure sustainability by how we live is to assess the ‘energy cost’ of our patterns of activity, and the consumption of goods and services to support that activity. One of the main tools for measuring the energy cost is the ecological footprint. The United Nations environment program describes the ecological footprint as ‘an estimate of human pressure on global ecosystems, expressed in ‘area units’. Each unit corresponds to the number of hectares of biologically-productive land required to produce the food and wood people consume, the infrastructure people use, and to absorb the CO2 produced from burning fossil fuels; thus the footprint takes into account the total impact people have on the environment.’ (www.unep.org). The ACT government describes the ecological footprint quite differently, as ‘a communication tool that promotes discussion on environmental issues and assists in making choices.’(Towards a sustainable environment A Discussion paper p21).
Each city is able to calculate the total and per capita energy cost of its operation, and consumption of goods and services. The Australian population is highly urbanised, so footprints of cities are measured, and this provides decision makers with information about the environmental cost of a majority of citizens, which allows sustainability policy to have the maximum effect on the national footprint. By apportioning a finite measure to an individual’s environmental impact, decision makers are then obliged to determine a sustainable footprint and form policy to achieve that goal. This however does pre-empt a tough political reality, the general consensus is that all cities need to achieve reductions in the footprint size, and so government needs to ask individuals to consume less and pay more for those goods. Without overwhelming public support for such a collective sacrifice, no public official will entertain such political suicide.
Canberra is an urban system, and like other cities in Australia, is the location of consumption activities for the majority of the states population. This means that cities are hot spots of energy consumption, where the production, manufacturing, and distribution of goods and services demanded by the cities residents are not confined to the boundaries of the urban extremities. In fact the majority of this activity and energy expended to undertake these activities occurs outside the city limits. ‘Most planning policies target direct effect, while ignoring larger ‘indirect’ effects of the full production chain.’(Foran 2005). So current means of apportioning the cost of consumption are largely left to market forces, and as such few of the consequences of consumption and operation of households are built into the price paid by the end user. Additionally the individual contribution to the ecological footprint of Canberra varies greatly according to you level of consumption (which is linked to your level of income). The difference in direct energy costs (electricity and gas for heating, and cooking, and petrol for your car) between the lowest and highest income brackets is quite small. However there is a 30-fold increase in indirect energy cost (direct energy plus embodied energy, and full cost of production, distribution sale and disposal of goods) between the same income groups. While the energy intensity of personal consumption reduces by 50% for each dollar spent, the efficiency gain makes little difference overall energy required. (Foran 2005). These findings reinforce the notion that the full cost of production is not passed on to the consumer, and current government fiscal policy encourages increasing personal wealth and consumption of goods and services, which is directly at odds with the argument for a sustainable physical system.
Planners are not primarily concerned with the indirect cost of consumption and as such are likely to feel as though these issues are beyond their control. Equally much of the hard work that has been done to improve environmental outcomes in Canberra has had little effect on the ecological footprint. However, by using the knowledge revealed by indicators such as the ecological footprint, planners can engage in a dialogue as to how to match the aspirations of citizens with the reality of genuine sustainability objectives.
Newman’s approach to assessing sustainability by integrating indicators with stories can elaborate on the ways of achieving the desired goals. Both indicators (descriptive) and stories (discursive) are comprehensive tools providing quantitative data about the current performance of communities, and an agreed desired level of performance. Where indicators provide numerate descriptions of systems in questions, stories interpret the public debate about how to achieve these goals. Foran argues that these tools are most useful when all information about indirect costs and long term consequences are brought into the equation, and that only by looking at a whole of economy approach can you ‘influence important killer indicators of sustainability such as per capita ecological footprints.’ (Foran 2005)
Conclusion: Sustainability is about how we live.
As a landscape architect I am interested in the physical space in which we live, in particular the physical and visual qualities of the landscape that support our existence. Naturally my interest has been in the land we see. The area bounded by water catchments, property and territory boundaries. This ‘mistake’ has led me to arguing for a range of ‘magic potion’ solutions to current policies so that I might claim status as a proponent of sustainability. Reduce Greenfield development, mandate water tanks, re-use grey water, reduce lawns in back yards, make public transport free, charge for plastic bags. While all of these issues are important local issues, they are not the key drivers of energy consumption Canberra, and as a result have little impact on Canberra’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, reduction in available fresh water and reduction in global biodiversity. So there appears to be two ways to approach the sustainability debate in Canberra. Firstly, remove the banner of sustainability from discreet local issues so that they reflect their face value to the community rather than polishing them with a gleam of sustainability rhetoric. It is valuable to acknowledge the importance of local police numbers for reducing crime, and the quality of education to support a higher literacy rate in the community, but I would argue these are core functions of government, and not additional strategies to achieve sustainability. This would extend across all environmental, economic, and social spheres of governance. This would also require a level of public debate, which would be borne out as the government progressively redefines sustainability in the objects and purposes of various relevant legislative instruments.
Secondly, engage in a genuine sustainability debate by reallocating resources to agencies vested with the task of fostering sustainability in the ACT. Groups such as SERG should act as agents of change to lobby federal government, and engage in a public discussion to change tax and investment laws that will promote a economy that better fits the aspirations of the public’s desire for sustainability.
This is by no means a conclusive solution to the sustainability debate, but asks us to consider the direction we are taking this issue in Canberra. I believe we need to acknowledge the government’s commitment promoting sustainability, but also ask decision makers to show leadership by promoting Canberra as a model sustainable city and set clear objective as to how we may achieve this. Organisations such as SERG should be promoting a different way of living in Canberra. Government should distinguish between local social economic and environmental issues, and sustainability. By doing this the public will be able to better match their aspirations for a sustainable society and the way we live now.
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