Cross-posted, with permission, from PPS, the Project for Public Spaces

Placemaking as a New Environmentalism

By Ethan Kent, Vice President of PPS    (Originally posted at PPS.)

What kind of places do we want to create? What kind of communities do we want to live in? What kind of world do we hope to see in the future?

These questions are at the heart of environmentalism today, but are seldom posed. Environmentalism can perhaps best accomplish its goals for humans to impact less by leading the conversation on how we can impact more.

Crisis drives people to action but often does not lead us to address underlying challenges and opportunities. Through the years environmentalists have effectively drawn attention to many problems, galvanized action to remedy them and limited the overall damage. But today the movement can seize an opportunity to launch a discussion about the world we want and how we can empower people to make it happen.

Creating places where people thrive is the only way to create a world that will ultimately accomodate us.

Project for Public Spaces is rooted in the founding of the environmental movement and our work has been shaped by calls to action on issues like resource overconsumption, ecological breakdown and climate change. We continue to consider environmentalists as key allies and remain as concerned as ever about what’s happening to our natural ecosystems, but we also see that the core of humans’ dysfunctional relationship with the environment lies in our communities.

Ecological Transformation Starts Outside Your Door

Since 1975, PPS has been invited into thousands of communities in more than 40 countries around the world, where we continually find that communities’ ability to care about and address these larger crises are undermined by the failures of their immediate environments.

It is in fact these immediate environments that humans most directly interact with and experience, and it is this place level or community scale that Environmentalism has largely ignored. We can perhaps best ramp people onto a broader environmental agenda through engaging them in and challenging them to take responsibility for and shape these public realms beyond their homes. This is a process we call Placemaking, which is dedicated to encouraging and empowering people to take ownership over and contribute to the world beyond their private property and work together to improve them. Placemaking is the common sense process through which the human places we most value are created and sustained.

How we connect to and interact with the world outside our home lays the foundation for our Environmentalism.

Only by helping people connect to, care for and shape the world beyond their front doors will we be able to instill people with a capacity to redress the larger environmental crises. Incorporating Placemaking as an essential element of Environmentalism will lead to a reinvention of citizenship and the discovery of new tools and strategies to change the world.

Reinventing Environmentalism With Placemaking

Environmental action today tends to work in silos around seemingly abstract issues with incremental goals, perpetuating a very passive role for citizens.  For instance, the narrow goal of consuming less carbon is limiting the outcomes that Environmentalism and carbon can bring about. As the building block of life, carbon’s potential for creativity is perhaps its biggest reason for conserving it. It is when we use carbon for goals that do not create life that we are putting it to waste. Having less impact is noble, but aspiring to have a big impact, to create the world we want starting in the place where we live, work and play, is a transformative agenda that inaugurates the next phase of the environmental movement.

Place Capital entails the shared value of the public realm, including the natural and built environment.

Environmentalism is still largely focused on limiting pollution and changing consumption patterns, which are important goals but ultimately don’t go far enough in offering a compelling vision for fundamental change. Rather than concentrating our energies on narrowly consumerist and technological issues, we can co-create sweeping solutions by instilling public demand for far-reaching change and showing how we can collaboratively envision the world we want. Greener technology and products will advance at a quicker pace if there’s a broad movement to create better communities and a stronger planet.

How to Put the New Environmentalism into Practice

A new environmental agenda that draws on the strengths of Placemaking will continue to ask the familiar questions about any new project or action:

  • Is it sustainable?
  • Will it minimize harmful impacts on ecoystems?
  • Does it use the best ecological practices?
  • Does it celebrate “nature”?
  • Is it the best technology we can create?

But we will also be asking new questions:

  • Is it enhancing life, both natural and human?
  • Will it maximize the potential for creativity and broad social changes?
  • Does it reflect love and care for our surroundings (environmental, community, social, cultural, historical, and economic)?
  • Does it support the broader ecological and social systems of which we are a part?
  • Is it the best we can do to nurture nature, communities and people?

Let’s REALLY Do The Math Part 3: California + Math = Size Matters

In Part 1: Counting What Counts, I claimed that the entrenchedness that prevents us from starting from what we want, rather than from what (we think) we’re trapped in, is “fractal.” It is.

If you agree the US 2020 carbon target shows the need for a cumulative carbon budget that’s accountable to the amount of carbon dioxide we want in the atmosphere, you’ll savor the added twist of the California target we’re going to look at in this post.

The Do the Math campaign compares the global carbon budget with the fossil carbon pools (reserves of fossil fuels) already on the books around the world. The point of the comparison is that we have a lot more fossil carbon than we can burn, given our commitment to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system.

Let’s have a look at what happens when we don’t use a cumulative carbon budget and instead try to compare the size of a newly “added” fossil carbon pool to the size of estimated emissions reductions. It’s an interesting and clear example of the perils of the entrenched carbon emissions vantage point, that of “emissions reduction targets.”

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Let’s REALLY Do The Math Part 2: What is the US Carbon Budget and Why?

The Obama Administration has established “17% below 2005 levels by 2020” as the standard by which US carbon mitigation efforts are to be evaluated. Representatives Waxman and Markey and Senator Whitehouse wrote a letter to Barack Obama a couple of weeks ago, urging the president to:

Lay out specific steps federal agencies will take to ensure that the U.S. emissions of heat-trapping gases are reduced by at least 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, the goal you set for the nation during the 2009 United Nations Climate Conference.

Frankly, it’s a fairly random, not to mention unambitious, standard. Historical accounts of where this — and the Obama 2008 campaign’s similar target —  “came from” are available, but I’ve yet to see a logical explanation, a justification, an account of the reasoning behind this target. (If you have the reasoning, please share in the comments.)

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Let’s REALLY Do The Math Part 1: Counting what really counts

Once upon a time — a couple of years ago, more or less — Becky and I were talking about the Escher-esque illogic of “healthcare.” We talked about perverse incentives in healthcare, how the goal is not health, but management of ill health. We needed a large sheet of construction paper to map out these two “worlds,” one in which a sick patient lies on a gurney at the center, another in which a healthy, happy person turns cartwheels at the center.

Man vill bara hjula!

When we think about “cutting healthcare costs,” our starting point is more efficient coordination among hospitals, physicians, and insurance companies (and maybe patients..), reigning in pharmaceutical companies, eliminating unnecessary tests and procedures, and, maybe, programs according to which “care providers” talk about smoking, diet, and exercise with their “patients” (conversations for which care providers are not particularly well-trained and for which they have no tools).

Our thinking about healthcare starts from disease, not health. What if we planned healthcare as if we were planning for the health of the people we love?

We don’t count up from what really counts. Instead we kind of try to subtract away from the bad, the stuff we wish we didn’t have to count at all. There’s all kinds of disincentives here, all kinds of reasons for getting the math wrong.

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