Concepts of sustainable settlements are doomed to failure unless international problems are solved. But at the same time, global efforts require strong local leadership
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 will they falter? These visions for local self-determination are fragile if they are not connected to resolving trans-national governance problems ranging from reform of the international banking system through to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Vice versa, global efforts to move beyond gross domestic product 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 United Nations' high-level panel on global 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 reign in the credit ratings agencies, as a first step towards sorting out the financial ecosystem, then firms like Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor's will still have the power to make nations go bust. When they downgrade the credit worthiness of countries like France and Italy 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 $5tn clean-tech marketplace, or the huge costs of extreme weather. Like in the United Kingdom, 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 Amsterdam to Paris, it is local government which is responsible for flood defence, retraining the local workforce in green skills, and spatial planning that supports low carbon 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: for example Växjö's fossil fuel free strategy or a biosphere reserve in Brighton to counter water scarcity. Thus any fractured approach to de-carbonising 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.Philip Monaghan is the founder and chief executive officer of Infrangilis. His book How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies is published this month by Routledge