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Learning sustainability from the unsustainable

By Andrew Ross - posted Friday, 24 August 2012

The annual Global Liveability Survey has just been released, and Melbourne has topped the list for the second year running, with Adelaide, Sydney and Perth close behind. Many of the cities heading the list are embarking on ambitious sustainability programs, such as the vision of an eco-friendly metropolis outlined in the Sustainable Sydney 2030 project. But urban managers need to make sure these plans are genuinely inclusive, because if these new policies end up targeting only those who can afford the green dream then sustainability will be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The stakes could not be higher. The struggle to avert drastic climate change will be won or lost in cities, where 80% of the world's greenhouse gases are emitted.

Much has been written about showpiece cities - Portland, Curitiba, Freiburg, Reykjavik - whose efforts at resilience are emulated worldwide. Yet we must also look to the world's more vulnerable cities as they have other things to teach us about how to go about making green decisions. Phoenix, the poster child of Sunbelt sprawl in the U.S. and arguably the world's least sustainable city, may in fact be a better guide to the challenges facing high-growth metro regions in Australia than these other havens of eco-consciousness.

According to the Central Arizona's leading climatologist, the state is in the "bull's eye" of climate change, scheduled to warm up and dry out faster than anywhere else in the Northern hemisphere. The region has been on a severe drought watch for twelve years and counting, and its most dependable water supply is pumped 300 miles uphill from the overallocated Colorado River. Nor, for a metropolis wholly dependent on the single industry of homebuilding, is there any economic recovery in sight. Not when many city neighborhoods have seen 80% drops in property value and are close to being declared "beyond recovery."


Phoenix is a cautionary tale for Australian cities, because it exemplifies the predicament of the new wave of green city planning. Those looking for ecotopia can find shiny pockets of it in the affluent, upland enclaves of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley. Hybrid vehicles, xeriscaped yards and Leadership in energy and Environmental Design -certified custom homes with solar roofs are all popular in these districts, and voter support for open space preservation runs high. By contrast, South Phoenix, on the other side of the tracks, is the location of one of the dirtiest postal codes in the country, and is home to 40% of the city's hazardous industrial emissions, while the inner ring Phoenix suburbs that hosted the Cold War technology industries are now saddled with their poisonous legacy-some of the worst groundwater contamination in the nation.

This "green gap" between sustainable-conscious consumers and communities still struggling to breathe clean air is becoming apparent in most of the large cities in America. Van Jones calls it "eco-apartheid," and this segregation has ominous consequences for any plans to reduce the impact of climate change. All the new green gizmos are being marketed to the affluent demographic, specifically the consumer segment known as LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability), estimated at around one in five adults in OECD countries. The problem is that the carbon savings to be achieved from targeting this 20% will be undone by commercially neglecting the other 80%. If we are to avert climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels. Otherwise we will be left with the grisly lifeboat scenario, where those not already on board are left behind,

Cities already host vast inequalities. The last thing anyone needs is a new wave of green policymaking that widens the gaps. Many city administrations approach sustainability as an opportunity to save money, or to jumpstart the growth machine on the urban fringe, or, in the case of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, to accommodate predicted population growth. What we need are policymakers who are bold enough to take the needs of the most vulnerable populations as a baseline for sustainability planning. If the green city of the future is not a just one–ensuring that no one is left behind–then it will not be able to play the redeeming role that high-carbon industrialization has written for it.

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This is an edited extract from Andrew Ross's presentation to the University of Western Sydney's Governing Cities Futures conference.

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