Breaking the glass ceiling for sustainable cities

Why would Europeans, who for the most part are much further down the road towards sustainability than we are in the United States, ask a TreePeople representative from Los Angeles for advice?

That was the question in the back of my mind when I accepted the invitation to speak at Bioneers Global in the Netherlands, and Rework the World in Sweden last month.

European nations, unlike the United States, signed on to the Kyoto Protocol in l997 to meet goals to reduce greenhouse gasses. Many European countries have made huge progress. Germany has passed laws to double its use of renewable energy, to 30%, by 2020, for example, and the Netherlands is the world leader in adapting to climate change and sea level rise.

Despite these worthy efforts, the Europeans have run into the same glass ceiling that has pushed us at TreePeople to move towards an ecosystem-based approach to sustainability. Ecosystems are the ultimate example of the efficiency of being connected. When government sets lofty sustainability goals, it's usually blocked from reaching higher-level breakthroughs because in government, as in business, philanthropy and frequently even medicine, everyone is operating in their own little silos; the systems are disconnected. Finding frustration and barriers, Europeans are hungry for a better way.

How can we really do this? That's the question the Europeans are asking, especially with regard to cities. Without the ability to manage urban areas with whole system solutions, they can't reach their goal. The parts are competing and conflicting. Resources, cash, human energy and time are wasted, and the big wins remain elusive.

The key was provided by Bioneers Global keynote speaker, and world expert on the subject of biomimicry, Janine Benyus. The Duchess of Biomimicry, I kiddingly call her. Five years ago she founded an institute to help engineers learn the lessons of nature. Since then she has since been named a "hero of the environment," by Time magazine, among her many other honors. (Here's a posted video of one of her excellent TED talks.)

As Janine said in her keynote, biomimicry to date has focused on individual technologies. How to, for instance, create color with structure, as does the peacock with its feather, instead of with dyes, which often turn out to be toxic to life. This effort has been very successful, but has reached an apparent fork in the road.

In Janine's words, "Today we suffer not from a lack of innovation, but from a lack of integration."

Janine talked about the need to expand the concept of biomimicry to a systems level. And she talked about how the best thing for cities to mimic is a forest. She built that concept up to a rhetorical crescendo, and then revealed that a big engineering firm named HOK has been hired to produce systems-levels solutions involving community forestry at several cities in China.

This is exciting news, because we need more models of how this can be done.

As I've said for two decades, the city is a system. It's not just buildings, roads, parking lots, people and infrastructure decorated by trees and plants. Every city was built on top of a natural ecosystem without knowledge of what it was replacing. To become sustainable - to mitigate and adapt to climate change - every city has the challenge to repair the systems that existed before it was developed. Most fail miserably at this, and pollution and waste is the result. But the city can be adapted and retrofitted, and it's proving much cheaper to do this than to attempt to sustain the unsustainable.

Judging by the enthusiastic feedback I received at Bioneers Global, the world is hungry for the system-level solutions that TreePeople has helped to pioneer with our partners in Los Angeles, from the Hall House to the Sun Valley Watershed. We have had initial success in mobilizing nature and community to begin protecting and healing LA, and that has given hope to others around the world.