Stories of Urban Ecosystems

In-depth (based on site visits with extensive interviews)

  1. Canada – British Columbia (Whistler) – Community Engagement in Planning for a Sustainable Future – A community comes together to manage uncontrolled growth and creates a groundbreaking plan for sustainable resort development.
  2. GermanyFreiburg – Improving sustainability with transportation, energy, waste management, land conservation, and a green economy.
  3. India – Bangalore – Upscale Eco-Friendly Housing – A small, upscale neighborhood shows how eco-friendly living is a viable alternative to housing india’s high-tech affluent in unsustainable subdivisions.
  4. USA – California (Oakland) – The People’s Grocery: Bringing Healthy Food to Low-Income Neighborhoods – A mobile grocery brings fresh food to a low-income “food desert.”
  5. USA – New York (New York City) – Green Guerillas: Community Gardens Revitalize Urban Neigborhoods – Community gardens transform decaying urban neighborhoods.
  6. USA – Oregon (Portland) – Sustainable City – Participatory regional planning curtails sprawl and creates strategies for a sustainable future.
  7. USA – Oregon (Portland) – Flexcar: A Model of For-Profit Carsharing – Portland-based Flexcar cashes in on alternatives to car ownership.
  8. USA – Utah (Salt Lake City) – Regional Planning through Community Participation: Learning from Envision Utah – The community turned urban growth in a healthier direction with structured, map-based workshops for thousands of citizens.

Capsule (shorter pieces which appear below)

  1. Austria – Vienna – Biowaste Collection – Curbside collection of compost takes pressure off the stressed landfill and provides fertilizer for local farms.
  2. Austria – Wienerburg – Greenbelt Project – A dumping ground becomes a pleasant green space.
  3. Belgium – Hasselt – The “Sensible Transportation” City – A Belgian city develops integrated alternatives to building more roads.
  4. Brazil – Curitiba – Planned “Eco-City” – A participatory master plan makes fast-growing Curitiba a model city.
  5. Canada – Nova Scotia – Zero-Waste 2005 Composting Project – Recycling organic waste saves landfill space and feeds the land.
  6. Germany – Freiburg-Vauban – Eco-Neighborhood – Participatory urban planning creates an eco-friendly neighborhood.
  7. India – Auroville – Planned “Eco-City” – Reforestation and other projects create an eco-friendly community, transforming a barren landscape to health and productivity.
  8. IrelandGreen Tax on Plastic Bags – A small charge for plastic bags has a big impact on consumption and improves the appearance of the countryside.
  9. Netherlands – Groningen – The “Cycle City” – A bicycle-friendly city revives the economy and improves quality of life for its residents.
  10. Philippines – Marikina City – Urban Revival – A new mayor’s master plan restores the livability and pride of an impoverished industrial city.
  11. South AfricaThlolengo EcoVillage – An African “eco-village” is a model of rural sustainability in a time of rural decline.
  12. USA – Alabama (Hale County) – The Rural Studio – Architecture students combine their studies with the design and creation of ecological housing for low-income clients.
  13. USA – California (Morgan Hill) – Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security – Women’s cooperatives create much-needed living-wage and eco-friendly jobs.
  14. USA – California (Los Angeles) – Natural Urban Park – The Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park turns an urban brownfield into a natural ecosystem that connects local residents to nature and revitalizes their community.
  15. USA – Massachusetts (Boston) – Nira Rock – An old quarry is transformed into a sanctuary for wildlife and people alike.
  16. USA – New York (New York City) – Melrose Commons – Local residents resist eviction and gentrification with alternative urban development.
  17. USA – Oregon (Portland) – The Rebuilding Center – A building materials recycling business thrives in a formerly economically depressed neighbourhood.
  18. USA – Texas (Austin) – People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER) – A low-income neighborhood starts a successful environmental/economic justice movement.
  19. USA – Texas (Austin) – Green Building and Green Choice Programs – Housing projects opt for sustainability in building materials and energy supply.
  20. USA – Texas (Austin) – Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Program – Austin incorporates natural habitats in city planning to protect it from sprawl.

Austria – Vienna – Biowaste Collection

In 1988, Vienna was incinerating 62%, and dumping the other 38%, of its household wastes. The city had two incinerators and a landfill site, and officials were expecting increases in garbage without any plans to build new incinerators or landfills in the next few decades, so a few of the more responsible members of the city government began looking for alternatives. The city began to separate collection of paper, glass, metal, plastics, and finally “biowaste” (kitchen waste). Studies at a local institute had shown that composting had potential to save the city money, and the municipal parliament granted funds for the initial investment. The goal was to have a system that was cheap and user-friendly. It was understood that the system would not work without public support and commitment, so information leaflets about the collection service and backyard garden composting were printed in 11 languages and widely distributed, and an information service and phone line were set up to answer questions. The challenge was making high quality compost with low heavy metal content that could be used in gardens and organic farms.

The composting plant went into operation in 1992, and the city set up collection sites called Biotonnes which were distributed in the streets so that each one would serve 65 inhabitants, and one Biotonne would theoretically be found within a distance of 35-40 meters from each residence. The contents were collected weekly on average.

At the same time, some city agricultural estates began to move towards organic farming, which meant the composting system would be well-timed to replace the commercial fertilizers and pesticides the farms had been using. These farms set up some do-it-yourself projects where citizens could join in organic farming with experts. The results:

  1. The annual diversion from the landfills is 90,000 tons, generating a savings of US$10,000,000 a year; this is more than 10% of Vienna’s total waste collected.
  2. Farm estates have converted 230 hectares to organic farming, using 2,500 tons of compost. Some of the vegetables grown there are sold in local markets.
  3. Some of the compost is given to residents for their gardens.
  4. Using the compost has caused the number of earthworms to increase, and has helped reduce the amount of disease and pests in crops.
  5. The program has been presented at international congresses, which has attracted interest from politicians and technicians especially from Central/Eastern Europe.
  6. The system is self-sufficient, i.e., costs are covered by city taxes for waste collection.

Benefits or services restored: Waste management, savings, fueled interest in organic farming, composting, and the environment, set the standard for the rest of Austria whose own municipalities are in varying stages of improving waste management, its close proximity to rapidly developing Eastern Europe (where there has been some interest) provides an alternate model to the Western throwaway society.

For more information visit Best Practices.

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Austria – Wienerburg – Greenbelt Project

West Wienerburg, which is now a suburb of Vienna, had a history of brickworks. When the raw materials ran out, the area became a dump for waste and building debris. In 1978, the city of Vienna hosted a competition for ideas to create, among other things, a landscape plan for Wienerburg. The plan included various requirements for design appropriate to the natural conditions. The size was 60.2 hectares with several wooded areas interconnected to create a corridor. There are sports facilities, areas for recreation and picnics, woods, ponds, meadows, bicycle and walking paths. The park was designed to make optimum use of rainwater and so no artificial irrigation was required in creating the green space. This provides a model for future greenbelt creation which doesn’t deplete groundwater.

Residents and users participated in planning and creating the project along with the municipality, and therefore have a sense of involvement in the project. This means vandalism and pollution have been minimal. Local children and youth were involved with tree and greenery planting. One benefit is that local people are using cars less in favor of walking and bicycling.

Services or benefits include: Pollution reduction, aesthetic, open space conservation/recreation

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Belgium – Hasselt – The “Sensible Transportation” City

  • Author: Sandra Brauner
  • Posted: May 2005

Hasselt is the educational and commercial heart of the Limburg province in the eastern region of Flanders, Belgium. When in 1996 Hasselt’s 68,000 residents and 200,000 commuters were faced with high numbers of traffic crash victims and intense traffic congestion, the city council of Hasselt decided to act. Rather than trying to build new roads, which not only would have been too expensive but would have also exacerbated traffic jams, high death rate, and environmental pollution, they implemented the following measures:

  • Converted Hasselt’s main highway into a bikeway and walkway
  • Restricted trucks and buses in the city center
  • Made the inner city ring road of Hasselt one-way for all vehicles except for buses, which are allowed to drive on the contra-flow bus lane
  • Made its buses free, paid for by city taxes

All told, these regulations were a great success. Car use in the city was reduced, thus lowering the death rate, reducing both environmental pollution and traffic jams, and increasing the quality of life for residents and commuters. The transformation of the inner city ring road of Hasselt into a “Green Boulevard” that is two-way for buses, but one-way for other drivers has further reduced pollution, and has made public transport more visible. Due to higher visibility, free transit, increase in frequencies and number of lines (in 1996, there were only 3 bus routes with about 18,000 service hours/year, now there are 11 routes with more than 95,000 service hours/year), the use of public transport has risen dramatically, with ridership increasing tenfold. In addition, half of the respondents in a survey affirmed that, since the buses are free, they have been coming to the city center to shop more often, thus making positive contributions to Hasselt’s economy.

The transit system in Hasselt cost taxpayers approximately $1.9 million in 2006, amounting to 1% of their municipal budget and making up about 26% of the total operating cost of the transit system. The Flemish national government covered the rest (approximately $5.4 million) under a long-term agreement. For comparison, according to Dave Olsen, a bicycle and public transit consultant, researcher, and advocate based in Vancouver, Canada, 1% of the City of Vancouver’s municipal budget for 2007 was about $8.5 million.

Finally, seeing that bikes are the most sustainable form of transport, Hasselt policy makers implemented a system in which one can borrow a bicycle, tandem, scooter or wheelchair bike free of charge.

Clearly, Hasselt sets a great example of sensible and sustainable transportation for other cities around the globe.

For more information visit:

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Brazil – Curitiba – Planned “Eco-City”

This city gets cited often in the media as a model for the developing world for its various initiatives on waste, design, greenery, social programs and especially transportation. It proved that, with anticipatory planning, a city could undergo rapid growth while retaining quality of life and pre-empt some of the major problems characteristic of other exploding urban centers in the South.

In the 1950s, the population of Curitiba was 150,000; today it is a major city of nearly 1.6 million. In the 1960s, a group of young architects saw that the city was on the verge of exponential growth. They wanted to see something other than the kind of development that was happening in other Latin American cities. This development was fueled by the beginnings of the lending spree that later led to the debt crisis of the 1980s. It favored costly infrastructure such as highways, skyscrapers, shopping malls, and other splashy projects. Luckily, the people at the top were open to some of their ideas on human needs and the environment, and when this group of designers approached the mayor with their case, he sponsored a contest for a Master Plan of the city. The best entries were circulated, opened up to public debate, and the results were turned back to the architects, who developed and implemented a final plan.

Among other things, this master plan was to provide economic support for urban development by creating industrial zones, and encourage local self-sufficiency by providing all city districts with adequate education, health care, recreation and park areas. To do this, traffic management had to be integrated with land-use planning, as they were inherently inseparable by design. Flexibility in regulation was allowed for various future scenarios.

The design layout’s centerpiece was its transportation system. As efficient as a subway system at a fraction of the cost, it was organized in five major arteries radiating outward from the city center, where various kinds of buses (express, local) traveled in exclusive bus lanes, crisscrossed by concentric routes radiating from the center like a spider web. Some of the express buses are triple compartment and carry 300 passengers. Each bus stop is a tube-shaped station where people pay to enter at one end and exit at another, eliminating on-board payment systems (increasing efficiency and reducing idling time), protecting people from weather, and providing access for disabled. The system is a subsidy-free collaboration between the public and private sector, in an attempt to make use of the advantages of both. With this system in place, densification of development happened naturally along the bus routes. People spend about 10% of their income on transport, and the per capita gasoline use is low compared to other cities in Brazil.

In 1971, the then-military government of Brazil appointed one of the visionary architects, Jaime Lerner, mayor of Curitiba. His various accomplishments include:

  1. Providing 1.5 million tree seedlings to neighborhood people to plant and care for.
  2. Solving the city’s flood problems by diverting water from the lowlands into lakes in the 17 new parks, and teenagers were hired to keep the parks and bike paths clean.
  3. Creating a pedestrian zone in the city center. At first, the plan met with opposition by shopkeepers, but they agreed to a 30-day trial which was so successful that shopkeepers outside the district asked to be included. One of these streets, Rua das Flores, is lined with gardens that are tended by street kids.
  4. Arranging with shops or institutions to adopt a few orphaned or abandoned kids (a major problem in all of Brazil’s urban centers) to give them a daily meal or small wage in exchange for simple maintenance gardening or office jobs.

Waste is separated into two categories: organic and inorganic. In the squatter settlements outside the collection service routes, people can bring bags of trash to neighborhood centers and exchange them for bus tickets or food items grown on farms in outlying areas. Waste goes to a plant (itself made of recycled materials) that employs new immigrants, disabled or other disadvantaged people to separate cans, bottles, plastics, and recoverable materials, some of which are sold to various industries. For example, styrofoam is shredded and used to stuff quilts for poor residents. The program is the same price as a landfill but keeps the city cleaner, provides more jobs, supports farmers, and is environmentally responsible, because two-thirds of its garbage is recycled, one of the highest rates in the world. The city attracts attention from architects, urban planners and environmentalists from around the world and has won various awards including the UNESCO prize for urban development.

For more information visit In Context.

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Canada – Nova Scotia – Zero-Waste 2005 Composting Project

This was an ambitious plan for the small town (population 600) of Annapolis Royal to achieve zero waste by the year 2005. It was chosen to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of nearby Port Royal, which is Canada’s oldest European settlement, and was modeled after the low-waste lifestyles of the French settlers who arrived there.

In 1996 an environmental coalition called the Annapolis County Environment Protection Association (ACEPA) was formed to oppose the siting of a large landfill in an environmentally sensitive area. The plan for the project began in 1997, where members researched various alternatives to realize the goal, contacted experts and read technical literature. Their challenge was to break away from the provincially-mandated regional waste management, where despite high fees to participate, a small town like Annapolis Royal would have virtually no input in decisions affecting them.

Curbside collection of recyclables had been in place in Annapolis Royal since 1991, and after the province of Nova Scotia banned organic material from its landfills, many regional recycling/composting programs began, but they involved hauling organic waste, sometimes great distances, to central facilities.

Since the town had a small population (and small tax base), it wanted to find a solution that did not rely on fossil fuels to transport wastes long distances to a central facility, and was cheap and easy to use, particularly for the large population of elderly residents. They realized that the curbside collection and centralized composting was costly, so they found there was potential to save on tax dollars which would make up for any of its initial investments.

ACEPA formed a committee to handle the project, which had a lot of support with the public and elected city officials from the beginning. The whole project was created municipally, the information meetings were open to the public, and it still enjoys a high level of support and participation from the community.

Some 30% of Annapolis Royalis waste stream is organic. Three low-tech systems were put in place:

  1. “Green Cones” for individual backyard composting; these were cheap aerobic digesters which would handle meat, bones, dairy and other kitchen waste not composted.
  2. Neighborhood composters for use on streets or near multiple-unit dwellings.
  3. “Earth Tubs” which processed commercial volume up to 200 lbs/day, for businesses that produced higher levels of organic waste (supermarkets, restaurants).

The town exceeded its goal of diverting 50% of its waste from the landfill by 2000, with 53% being diverted. Before the start of the program 40% of its residents were composting to some degree; by 1999, 82% were composting. The waste from neighborhood composters and Earth Tubs are sold to farmers, gardeners and soil blenders. Around Nova Scotia, other municipalities are studying and copying the program, or adopting similar programs after learning of Annapolis Royal.

This case is interesting because the purpose of the project was to have a waste reduction program and purchasing choices that would allow residents and businesses to be “waste-free” by 2005 with a minimum of personal effort. This is a good illustration of redesigning a local system of purchasing, distribution and waste management that makes it “cheap and easy” for ordinary citizens to protect the environment rather than the other way around, and proves that if these conditions are put in place, people participate willingly and enthusiastically.

The whole of Nova Scotia’s waste-disposal program could be seen as a larger tipping point. When a large landfill was fast approaching capacity, and scheduled to close in 1996, with opposition to building a new one, a few strong leaders in the provincial government and municipalities began thinking of other solutions to the waste problem, since the story of aging outdated waste facilities was all over the province. This was the initial decision to ban not only organic waste but bottles, cans, cardboard, and other recyclable materials from landfills. After initial opposition from municipalities and citizens the situation has evolved to the point that Nova Scotia met the Canadian government goal to divert 50% of its waste from landfills, where no other province has come close. Now a burgeoning recycling industry has evolved, with tires and other “waste” being converted into car mats and other products, which has created at least 600 new jobs.

Services/benefits: Social relations, waste management, saving money, sense of pride, cultural heritage values.

For more information visit the Genuine Progress Index for Atlantic Canada.

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Germany – Freiburg-Vauban – Eco-Neighborhood

Vauban is a residential district of Freiburg, where a participatory approach shaped its planning, and was based on a vision where ecological, social, economic and cultural needs would be integrated.

Since the 1930s, Vauban had been a French army barrack. After the peace treaty in 1991, Freiburg city bought this 42-hectare area from the German government, and decided to make it a new residential area for 5,000 people to meet housing shortages in Freiburg. The plan was to provide good quality housing for young families, and to counteract suburbanization by recycling this site rather than eating into virgin land (it is thought that there is no need in Germany to do this anymore as there are enough disused industrial or military sites in its inner cities). The plan also included dense design, low-energy standards for housing, preservation of existing old trees and integrating them into the new designs and large amount of green spaces, public transportation and access (trams), and further infrastructure such as schools.

From the beginning, the approach was participatory, and followed the principle of “planning that learns,” which allowed for flexibility. More than 50 workshops were held, which included citizens, architects, a local non-governmental organization, engineers, financial experts and managers of co-building projects. Funding was provided through various institutes, the city of Freiburg, the state government, and the German government in the form of tax breaks for co-building builders. Technical resources were readily available as Freiburg has been committed to environmental sustainability since the 1970s. (Co-building, which has provided homes for 1,200 people, means a collection of housing units built together where members have input in the process and are designed for social interaction, i.e., with common spaces, meeting rooms, public gardens or kitchens, etc.) It was also made available to people of varying incomes.

A car-free initiative was also launched, and owners of cars must park them in multi-story lots outside the periphery of the district. Some 40% do not own cars, and other alternatives such as car-sharing also exist. The housing met all low-energy standards, many of which use solar installations and a new design of vacuum toilets for use in a biogas plant. A co-generation plant uses wood chips and natural gas. With this extended participation, people became more active in the community in general and started their own initiatives including a magazine, festivals, and other community events. The valuable points about this case is that the ownership of the land by the city (and the variety of financial resources, tax breaks and technical resources, as well as the strong support of a non-governmental organization), allowed the city to take responsibility for the entire planning without becoming dependent on private developers. It highlights the unnecessity of clearing natural land for new development since many decaying industrial zones in Germany are available for “recycling.”

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India – Auroville – Planned “Eco-City”

Auroville began in the late 1960s as a planned community drawn on some of the ideas of spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo, who ran the Sri Aurobindo Ashram near Pondicherry, India, and a woman known as “Mother.” It has grown into an internationally diverse community of 1,700 scattered about in 100 settlements, and while the community began over 30 years ago, there are plans to design the area into an eco-city with distinct zones.

There was no causal trigger linked to this specific place. The site was chosen in the late 1960s simply because it was close to the Ashram (place of worship). But the poor economic and environmental conditions benefited from the diversity of social and environmental initiatives which began and are still going on today.

The area, which some 200 years ago was densely forested, was by 1968 a barren dust bowl which had been cleared over the years, by farmers, by loggers who exported the wood, and by developers to make the cities of Pondicherry and Kalapet. When early settlers to Auroville arrived, the soil was poor, devoid of trees and other vegetation, and monsoon rains and winds swept tons of topsoil into the Bay of Bengal every year. Local villagers were very poor; many were walking over 2 km daily to find water and their diet was mainly gruel made by millet grown in infertile fields. Some sold their land to Auroville, some began working on the early projects.

Supported by domestic and international foundations, reforestation and trial-and-error water management (through the use of “bunds” – -raised earthen banks to stop runoff of water) began.

Since then over a million trees have been planted with species for various uses: ornamental, timber, fencing, fruit/fodder, nuts.

As trees grew, microclimates formed, attracting animals and birds which have further disseminated seeds and enriched the environment. The Indian government supported some replanting efforts and commissioned a study, in order that results from the project could be shared outside the community. Now “greenworkers” from Auroville are working on other reforestation schemes in India (with Tibetan refugees in Karnataka, tribal areas in Tamil Nadu and a large project in Palani Hills).

Much of the reforestation is in a green belt surrounding the future city area – -this is intended to be a buffer zone to protect it from intrusion of suburbs from Pondicherry.

Other projects include:

  1. Organic farming, using nitrogen-fixing hedges grown around fields which grow grains, pulses, millets; there are also fruit and nuts, and some wetland cultivation (rice). This, like the forestry, is collectively managed by an international team, including workers from neighboring villages.
  2. With farming, forestry, and waste management there is a diversity of technique and technology, including solar or wind-fed electric well pumps, desludging of septic tanks (which is processed in pits with co-composting and used in forestry), use of biogas cookers.
  3. Composting of waste (used in farms).
  4. Water management techniques such as bunds and check dams (seen on website).
  5. Various flourishing handicraft industries such as incense making, needlework, leatherwork.
  6. Medicinal herb forest and institute with training and workshops.
  7. Educational programs for children in neighboring villages.
  8. Development, health and social programs aimed at women, children, and the elderly.
  9. The emphasis is on use of local materials (i.e., bamboo).
  10. Information technology development and training.
  11. Seed banks, seed exchange programs.

Services/benefits provided: food/fiber, fresh water, fuel, genetic resources, natural medicines, climate regulation, water regulation, waste treatment, erosion control, water purification, cultural diversity, poverty alleviation, spiritual and religious values, social relations, sense of place, ecotourism, local industry and economy, social welfare, enrichment of quality of life, education.

For more information visit Auroville.

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Ireland – Green Tax on Plastic Bags

Before March 2002, Ireland’s 3.9 million people were using 1.2 billion plastic bags per year. These bags were generally non-recyclable, took 20 to 1,000 years to break down in the environment, were littering the countryside and clogging storm drains, as well as adding to the burden on the country’s landfill sites. Worldwide some 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles are killed by suffocating on plastic bags. Ireland’s mostly rural population’s waste disposal system is poor, making it an ideal place for this kind of initiative.

The idea of the “plastax” or tax on plastic bags was first floated in 1999 and finally in March 2002 the Environment Minister launched the program, one of the first of its kind in the world. For every bag used at the checkout counter of the supermarket a 9p (about 15 cents) surcharge was added. The revenue raised from this would be put into a fund for environmental projects such as recycling of refrigerators and other large appliances.

But the Environment Minstry’s goal was less about raising money than changing consumer behavior. Before imposing the surcharge, the government launched a TV advertising and billboard campaign to promote and explain the program to consumers. The program has been greatly successful. While there was some initial minority opposition to the program, generally it has recieved popular support from large supermarket chains and consumers, who have quickly adjusted lifestyles by bringing reusable bags to the supermarket.

The results have been immediate. Within the first three months of the program use of bags went down 90%, and raised $3.45 million for the Irish State coffers. There has been a noticeable improvement in the environment as a result. The program has also attracted attention of the UK and US, especially the former which is considering adopting a similar program.

For more information visit Clean North.

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Netherlands – Groningen – The “Cycle City”

The Netherlands is well-known for its high percentage of bike users, and Groningen has led the way in this initiative. Groningen is the nation’s sixth-largest city with a population of 170,000. With 57% of its inhabitants travelling on two wheels, it has the highest rates of bike usage in the West. In the mid-seventies, prompted by worsening traffic jams in the city center, as well as the oil crisis, city planners decided to dig up a six-lane motorway in the center of the city. It was replaced by greenery, pedestrian areas, cycleways, and bus lanes. Several other regulations were imposed, such as:

  1. Banning parking in the central market square.
  2. Access priority was given to public transportation.
  3. Through traffic in the city center was discouraged and all downtown through lanes were blocked.
  4. Traffic circulation was also changed so that one-way streets made it easy to get out of downtown but hard to enter.
  5. Parking garages were built within walking distance from the city center.

The aim of this was to force cars to take longer detours at the same time as providing improved infrastructure for bicycles. So in addition to the regulatory measures, infrastructure was also developed to allow people to absorb the new policies into their lifestyles. In other words, making it “cheap and easy” to adopt an environment-friendly lifestyle. New city center buildings must provide cycle garages, there are thousands of parking spaces or street racks for bicycles, and under city hall a bomb shelter was recycled into a bike park.

Initially, there was revolt over the regulations by store owners, who feared the economy would suffer. But in fact the opposite has happened. After these changes were underway, outmigration (to larger urban centers) slowed down and reversed, rents are now the highest in the Netherlands, and businesses who are not included in car-free zones want the program expanded, and are requesting bans on cars where their stores are located. Gerrit Van Werven, who helped to develop the policy, says, “This is not an environmental program. This is an economic program. We are boosting jobs and business. In this city it has been proved that planning for the bicycle is cheaper than planning for the car.”

Another important spinoff has come in the dynamic of traffic. Such a large number of cyclists has slowed down traffic and changed the attitudes of car drivers who have less power in reduced numbers. This has improved road safety. The program costs about US$40 million per year, but a study suggests that each car which the policy keeps off the road saves US$350 million in “invisible” costs such as pollution, parking, health, infrastructure, and quality of life. Groningen has set an example for the rest of the country, where, by the end of the 1980s, all Dutch cities with over 50,000 residents had some form of pedestrian areas off-limits to cars.

For more information visit the Global Ideas Bank.

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Philippines – Marikina City – Urban Revival

Since 1787, “Mariquina,” as it was known before the entry of the US, located in metropolitan Manila, is a 2,150-hectare area bordered by mountain ranges and a river. Known for its large shoe industry, this otherwise faceless town had been a dirty city with haphazard shantytowns lining a blackened, polluted river, with no proper garbage disposal, and whose apathetic population was jaded by years of neglect by authorities.

This situation began to change when incoming mayor Marides Fernando came in with a vision to revamp the city in the model of Singapore, which has been praised for its efficient services, clean air and water, and civic responsibility. Fernando believed in the “Broken Window Pane” theory, which describes how citizens will become alienated from dilapidated surroundings, losing their motivation to maintain them (and the corollary that a new sense of cooperation will develop if there is a concentrated effort to rehabilitate them).

A Marikina City Development Authority (MCDA) was created to come up with a master plan which ranged from services to infrastructure to environment and legislation. The initiatives include:

  1. A riverside development plan, with a river cleanup program, public education about protecting the river, and the creation of pathways, parks and other public places. This made the riverside safer and cleaner, which encouraged people to spend leisure time there. There was also an economic development strategy with the creation of a commercial area near the river, with bars, restaurants, and stores. Cultural and historic heritage were also promoted with the preservation of a historic shrine, and a shoe museum. Ample space has been provided for parks, playgrounds, and promenades.
  2. A settlement office was set up to provide adequate shelter for shanty dwellers. Those living in slums by the river were relocated to a model resettlement area. The city’s ultimate goal is to have a squatter-free city. One way to do this was under the Community Mortgage Program, which helps residents to own the lots that they occupy.
  3. Strict zoning regulations were enforced, which complemented the relocation of shanty dwellers. The zoning also was aimed at illegal vendors who were seen as obstructions on pedestrian areas. At the same time, a public market was set up, and its safety standards are being regularly tested.
  4. A waste management program was set up, with a materials recovery facility, garbage collection services, and enforceable anti-littering laws.
  5. Education program and supplies fee coverage for eligible elementary and high school students.
  6. A program to encourage payment of taxes by offering discounts on government services for those who fully pay their taxes. The MCDA’s master plan, modeled on Singapore, may seem somewhat top-down and draconian, and the effects of its policies on relocated shanty dwellers and “illegal street vendors” bears more investigation. Nevertheless, its vision stressed that proper services and enhanced quality of life was possible as long as citizens cooperated and acted responsibly as well. The city has won multiple awards, and is attracting attention from other municipalities interested in taking similar approaches in other cities, which has contributed to a strong sense of pride of Marikina natives.

For more information visit the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

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South Africa – Thlolengo EcoVillage

This is a good example of an eco-village in Africa, and a model of rural sustainability in a time of worldwide rural depopulation.

Thlolengo was started in 1991 by permaculturist Paul Cohen. Located some two hours northwest of Johannesburg, this village of 50 integrates traditional African design, modern technology, some of Cohen’s ideas developed from his study of system dynamics and ecological design sciences, and lessons from other parts of the world.

The context is post-apartheid rural South Africa, where various forces (the legacy of apartheid, increasing consolidation of farms, industrialization, lack of land tenure, eroded family structures because of husbands migrating to cities) have left rural farmers disconnected from the land, and increasingly dependent on urban centers for employment and survival. It has three components:

  1. An onsite residential training/research facility, with gardens for botanical research (and over 100 species of medicinal plants), food production, water harvesting and sanitation and energy efficient buildings, as well as a seed library for the surrounding region.
  2. A residential village, designed with permaculture principles with respect to housing layout, and farming, with the surrounding lands managed for erosion control with strategic trees and gardens.
  3. A primary/secondary school which offers basic education for 120 kids in the surrounding area.

Village life is modeled after the South African “lelapa” or homestead, which is the family house with the surrounding support system for natural waste treatment and food security. Houses, built with local materials, can be made more cheaply if the owner supplies labor (“sweat equity”). The cost of these houses are only half the price of the government-subsidized housing, and of much higher quality. Houses are designed for passive solar heating, which can heat water for cooking and bathing.

Services or benefits include: Rural regeneration/ soil services, sense of place, replicability, education systems (traditional and formal)

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USA – Alabama (Hale County) – The Rural Studio

Founded in 1993 by the late Samuel Mockbee, Auburn University’s Rural Studio is a pioneering experiment which combines practical architectural education and badly-needed social services to low-income residents of Hale County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama. Mockbee’s vision was that architecture could be a strong force in combating the squalor and inhumanity of poverty, pointing to the often institutional facelessness of housing and other facilities for the poor.

In 1993, Mockbee left a lucrative private practice and began the Rural Studio. His later projects with his firm had done some projects for charity, and he realized that good design should not be a privilege for the rich. Founding the Rural Studio, he began inspiring students to create simultaneously radical and functional designs for low-income clients. He promoted the innovative use of cost-effective materials, much of which was salvaged and recycled, for example carpet scraps, car parts, old tires, waste cardboard bales, colored bottles, old license plates, concrete or rubble. His vision was a fusion of modern and traditional Southern elements with a strong sense of rootedness to place. He believed that architecture could be oriented towards the community and motivate architects to transform the social environment. This was contrary to the prevailing trend in architecture towards the flashy, grandiose, big-name projects in urban centers.

The first Rural Studio project was completed in 1994, for the Bryant family, a couple in their seventies raising three grandchildren in a dilapidated shack. Their modest needs were for indoor plumbing, a septic system, and comfortable places to sleep. The “Bryant House” was a compact home constructed of hay bales (which were good for insulation) covered in stucco, with a covered porch running the length of the house used for entertaining. The hay bale construction kept the costs down to $16,500. Since then, Rural Studio students have been designing not only low-income homes but a variety of unique structures including churches, chapels, playgrounds, community centers, playgrounds and outdoor pavilions, all of which followed the same resourceful methods of scavenging and recycling materials. It has won grants and awards, and after Mockbee’s death in 2001 he was awarded a posthumous prize for his accomplishments, and the Rural Studio still continues to thrive.

The Rural Studio has also been credited for influencing the education of architecture in the country; for example, in 1992 there were about 8-10 design-and-build programs, but today there are 30-40. Normally projects take place over one year and involve three sets of usually fifteen students working over each semester, so the project progresses like a relay race. The first group establishes contact with the clients and begins the design with the clients’ needs in mind, which is then passed on to the second set of students who choose materials and work out increasingly finer details as the project then gets passed onto the third group of students. Students are not allowed to remove anything created or designed by the previous groups. This gives students hands-on experience in designing and building something real and functional, exposes them to the realities of poverty and related social and environmental issues, as well as giving them an opportunity to provide a valuable community service. The emphasis on local and salvaged materials promotes environmental sustainability in architecture and encourages students to think beyond the discipline’s definition of what building materials are appropriate.

For more information visit the Architectural Record.

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USA – California (Morgan Hill) – Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security

The cleaning industry is notoriously toxic, with products containing ammonia, chlorine, and other dangerous chemicals that cause rashes, nausea, dizziness, and respiratory problems – -or worse, with regular prolonged exposure, putting many cleaners at risk. Many new female immigrants to the US find underpaid jobs in the cleaning industry, with large hotel chains and offices or under-the-table cleaning houses. Before co-forming the cooperative “Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning,” Mexican migrant Mayda Iglesias used to clean houses on her own, earning $40-50 for 6-7 hours of work, where she developed asthma and headaches. She didn’t link this to the products she was using, assuming these were normal reactions to dust and dirt.

While taking English classes at a neighborhood church-sponsored program, she and her partners learned about WAGES (Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security), a project aimed at helping low-income women form cooperative businesses. WAGES had begun in 1995, and some early trainees chose the cleaning industry as this was the field in which they felt most comfortable and experienced. The “eco-friendly” approach was chosen for reasons both economic and social: not only to find a competitive edge in a market niche, but also to promote workplace and community health and safety. Now all the cooperatives WAGES sponsors are eco-friendly cleaning companies. The training program gives skills in communication, business, decision-sharing with co-owners, and technical skills.

In the case of Mayda Iglesias’ cooperative, four are co-owners and employees of “Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning.” Each works 20-25 hours/week and earns $12 per hour, cleaning houses for some 50 customers. All products are natural, home-based solutions such as vinegar for cleaning windows, baking soda for scouring, and liquid vegetable-based soaps for general cleaning. Materials like rags are recycled from old clothing such as T-shirts. The cleaning requires some extra effort and planning (for example baking soda must be sprinkled first on ovens and left to wait while other parts of the house are cleaned), but since she stopped using these products, Iglesias’s asthma and headaches disappeared. The sustainable practices also extend to its promotional literature (printed with soy-based ink on recycled paper) and its office equipment and practices. While 4-5 other cleaning businesses operate in Morgan Hill, none use environment-friendly methods, and cooperative members believe that three-quarters of their customers choose them because of their practices. The enterprise has won local awards for environmental responsibility.

Another WAGES-inspired cleaning cooperative in Redwood City, California, “Emma’s Eco-Clean,” began two years before EcoCare and began initially with five owner-members, but has today grown to fourteen. Each new member receives training not only in environmentally safe cleaning but also air and water pollution as well as energy use, and the cooperative has managed to get full medical and dental insurance for its members. Products are chosen carefully and are biodegradable, scantily packaged, and non-toxic. Initially clients used to leave the house while the house was being cleaned (to avoid the chemicals) but now they stay when the cleaner comes. “Emma’s” has also won several awards, and has gotten a license to sell products which satisfy their eco-safe screening process. They have exhibited at San Francisco’s “Greenfest,” a trade show for sustainable business and organizations, and through this have promoted their practices and offered advice for similar cooperatives in other states.

The high level of trainees’ performance through the WAGES program has challenged assumptions that low-income women can’t grasp financial issues. With estimates by WAGES that its cooperatives have prevented the release of nearly 4,000 pounds of toxic materials into the environment, programs like this one have shown that eco-friendly cleaning businesses have the potential to transform an exploitative and toxic industry.

For more information visit WAGES.

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USA – California (Los Angeles) – Natural Urban Park

South Central, a run-down industrial zone of Los Angeles, is best remembered for the riots of 1994 that exploded following the verdict acquitting policemen caught beating up African American Rodney King on videotape. In the early 1990s, some 30% of its mainly African American, Hispanic and Asian residents lived below the poverty line, and 35% had experienced unemployment lasting more than a year.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), which had been buying land in the Mountains and creating interlinking parkland, through a meeting with a local city council member, acquired a tract of land belonging to the LA Department of Water, which it planned to transform into a park.

The Compton-Slaison intersection, a boundary for four different neighborhood gangs, was an 8.5-acre derelict brownfield, full of pipes and other relics from the Department of Water, closed off by chain link and razor wire fences. The landscape architects who agreed to support the project with the SMMC had plenty of challenges ahead of them (not least of which were skeptics who doubted the merits of bringing nature to the poor when they had so many more urgent needs, and who were moreover assumed to have little interest in nature).

Initial efforts to bring the community into the plans through town meetings and door-to-door surveys brought limited success, until a table was set up at a supermarket across the street from the park, which attracted input and interest from hundreds of residents.

The plan was a collaboration of various agencies, community members, designers, contractors, the SMMC, and community groups such as ArtShare which organizes kids’ workshops on public art.

During initial meetings intended to discuss the park’s design, safety issues continued to dominate, and so designers realized this issue had to be addressed first before going further into the design plans. They finally decided to fence off the park with gates on four sides and employ a full-time park ranger. Resolving these concerns helped to build support for the project and gain needed trust for the design teams. When the community discussed priorities for the park, initial plans to build ball courts were scrapped in favor of facilities for nature education because they were decided to be of higher priority.

The collaboration continued throughout the project, with community members, those involved with nature education and SMMC rangers, for example, present during design meetings, as all of these issues needed to be addressed at the design phase. The plan included a library, visitors exhibit, facilities for nature study, an amphitheater, a stream and fountain powered by a windmill. Hills were created to create a refuge atmosphere from the surrounding neighborhood, and to create microclimates to support native species. The challenge of finding dirt to make these hills (the existing soil couldn’t be used due to pollution) was solved by luck when rainstorms caused landslides near Malibu and left soil removal teams with excess, which was transported to the park. ArtShare LA brought in 140 students and community members to paint tiles and design mosaic benches for the amphitheater, and the two ArtShare artists who built the wrought-iron fence included images of native animals and plants in the fence’s design..

Some materials were recycled, for example, the existing concrete was crushed to make a parking area, and trees and a cactus garden were donated. A grove of pecan and walnut trees and avocado trees was also created.

Some 50 residents were hired for temporary construction of the project, and permanent park maintenance staff were also hired, as well as educators for the wildlife and gardening programs. There are various activities such as a homework club, a Saturday science series, gardening and crafts clubs and events in the amphitheater. There are also programs which take South Central kids to other neighborhood parks and vice versa (bringing kids from Beverly Hills who have been taught to fear South Central). Camping trips, junior ranger and other programs have begun. Once a week, a free bus takes people from the park to other SMMC parks in the mountains. The park acts as a “portal” to the outdoors; Augustus F. Hawkins Park, while small, offers initial exposure to natural spaces which will open doors to learn about and explore bigger, wilder areas in their state and in the world.

The park is widely accepted as a major success and a rarity, which is now inspiring the creation of a similar project called the Vista Hermosa Park. The park has created a new sense of safety and community; while gangs still exist they have a tacit agreement not to fight in the park. Kids’ perceptions of the government has changed as a result of its involvement in the project, and the park has kept them off the streets and in school.

Most importantly, the project challenged stereotypes of poverty, and showed that natural spaces were as much a priority to lower-income people as to anyone, and that bringing natural areas to poor areas will solve much more than just environmental problems.

For more information visit the American Society of Landscape Architects.

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USA – Massachusetts (Boston) – Nira Rock

In the Depression of the early 1930s, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed to create jobs for unemployed workers. One of the projects under this Act was the reopening of a “puddingstone” quarry in what is now the Hyde Square neighborhood of Boston. The quarry became known by the acronym of the act that re-enlivened it: Nira Rock. Though much of the quarry’s puddingstone was eventually removed, a dramatic outcropping was left behind, which is now at the heart of the 1.8-acre Nira Rock site.

Over the next decades, Nira Rock and its meadow languished as a forgotten, overgrown place. Its seclusion – with no abutting major roads – made it the perfect place for young people to get away from the watchful eyes of parents and police. Neighborhood children affectionately called it “Gilligan’s Island.” The spot was a favorite for high school drinking, as well as Sunday-night bonfires. In the late 70s and early 80s, the site took a darker turn, as much of the city was affected by the burgeoning crack epidemic. “Foreboding” is a word often used to describe the place. According to Boston’s Police Neighborhood Crime Watch Unit, this created a bit of a vicious cycle: ”If people don’t use it, it becomes more attractive to people doing bad things there.”  The rock became covered with graffiti.

In the late 1980s, a number of new residential projects were developed in the Nira Rock area. Partly in response to this, Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) conducted a community forum to discuss the potential utilization of a number of local city-held properties. In addition to the creation of a neighborhood park and community garden, this process led to the transfer of Nira Rock’s ownership from the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development to the Boston Parks Department – and its official recognition as a protected “Urban Wild.”

Through a city-funded grant, BNAN initiated the recovery of Nira Rock, including the removal of years of illegally dumped trash and debris, the installation of formal entry gates, and the planting of native shrubs, trees and perennials. In 1990, EarthWorks planted an orchard of apples, pears, cherries, plums, grapes, juneberries, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, and currants–all free and accessible to the public.

In 2000, Friends of Nira Rock was formed with the mission of preserving and enhancing Nira Rock Urban Wild as a safe, beautiful and lasting sanctuary for wildlife and people alike. Regular site cleanups were initiated. The Parks Department’s Urban Wilds Initiative embraced Nira Rock as a priority and, in 2004, COGdesign created a landscape design for the site which would make Nira Rock a more pleasant place for families. Momentum grew with the award of grants and donations from several sources – including the city as well as private and non-profit organizations – for infrastructure improvements and ambitious native plantings.

Thus the vicious cycle was reversed with what one local resident described as the “broken-window syndrome …You clean up the neighborhood. It looks like people care about it. Less crime happens.” Nira Rock was transformed from a derelict, foreboding place into a beautiful natural sanctuary for wildlife and people alike. “You can kind of be in the country, in the city,” says one local resident. Regular social events like monthly family-friendly outdoor movies (“Flicks on the Rocks”) and climbing workshops, as well as educational lectures (e.g., on invasive species) have added a new dimension to the site’s place in the community.

Today, Nira Rock is managed through a partnership between the Urban Wilds Initiative and Friends of Nira Rock, with help from many partners and supporters. For instance, on May 8, 2009 Generations, Inc. rolled boulders, removed invasive plants, weeded and mulched; on May 30, City Year brought a busload of workers to plant a blueberry patch.  But some areas are left as undisturbed and un-“managed” habitat.

For more information visit

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USA – New York (New York City) – Melrose Commons

In 1990, the New York Department of City Planning and Housing Preservation and Development (CPHPD) leaked a draft of plans to redevelop a derelict 30-block area in the South Bronx. While the plan seemed innocuous, a closer look revealed that it could not have been less suited to the lower-income, mainly Hispanic and African American people who lived there. Large parts of land were to be bulldozed to make room fore new housing which was well out of financial reach for most of the 6,000 residents. Angered by being left out of the proposal’s 9-year planning process, and feeling betrayed by local elected officials and city agencies, local residents formed “Nos Quedamos” (“We will stay”). This group united homeowners, tenants and businesses who decided the only way the residents would not be displaced was if they become an active part of the project.

When the plan was finally presented, Nos Quedamos members voiced their numerous objections over affordability, opportunities for local business, social and community services, use of open space and streets, and building materials, to name a few. In 1994, the CPHPD finally agreed to withdraw the original plan and to meet once a week with the community to develop a new one. Out of these working sessions, and while members actively sought residents’ feedback through several go-by-block surveys and workshops, several goals were developed:

  1. To respect the existing community by including them as a partner.
  2. To provide services currently unavailable, such as proper health, educational, cultural, recreation and commercial services.
  3. To support economic development which is based on the needs and skills of the community.
  4. To create a space which is livable and desirable, which included, among other things, greening of industrial areas.
  5. To create open spaces, mixed-income housing and a variety of housing options.
  6. Economic opportunities through creation of after-school centers, health clinics and recycling initiatives.

The project attracted assistance by many professionals including urban planners, architects, and lawyers, who were able to address social, environmental, housing, infrastructure and design layouts and other community issues. For example, the original plan to have a large park in the center was rejected as it was thought to attract crime, so it was relocated. Some of the buildings were to be designed as low rise housing with stores on the ground floor, which would provide enough people on the street to make them safer. Plans to extend transportation routes were included, to reduce the amount of private parking space.

Environmental concerns were also designed into the project, with the creation of a one-acre public park, smaller midblock parks and community gardens, with options for rainwater harvesting explored and design for water retention. Another area, now with disused railroad tracks, will be a tree-filled buffer zone to separate the commercial/residential areas from the manufacturing area. Materials for buildings will be chosen for environmental soundness. Construction began in 1999 and is expected to take about a decade to complete.

This case shows a few stages in the process of transformation of an urban wasteland to a viable mixed-income, self-sustaining community within the city that worked with, not against, the neighborhood’s cultural and historical identity. It set a rare example of grassroots organizing successfully resisting urban redevelopment, and has attracted the attention of city planners from LA and Chicago. It was a model of collaboration between all diverse groups who had a stake in the process, local institutes and university as well as public and private planners, architects, business, residents, and non-governmental organizations. Finally, it restored people’s sense of community and civic responsibility, and reinvigorated local democracy.

For more information visit the Sustainable Communities Network.

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USA – Oregon (Portland) – The Rebuilding Center

Started in 1998 by Shane Endicott and his partners in Portland, Oregon, The Rebuilding Center is a “nonprofit enterprise.” As a young man Endicott faced the dilemma of many socially-conscious people in search of livelihood: how to support a family without also supporting “the suicide economy.” He had been interested in construction and demolition, but didn’t want to simply “crunch and dump, grind up all that useful wood, metal and brick and dump it in a landfill then go and chop down more trees and mine more iron to build something else.”

With a private loan of $15,000, Endicott and his partners, along with some volunteers, set up shop in a garage in an economically depressed area of Portland. Entirely by hand, they began calling friends, contractors and developers, offering to pick up unwanted items and equipment, and set about gutting apartment buildings, demolishing wood or brick houses, removing old built-in furniture like kitchen cabinets or toilets, renewing them, and selling them at half or less of the retail cost.

The Rebuilding Center now occupies a half-block long building full of its goods where customers from around the city come to buy anything from light fixtures to movie theater seats, door frames, roofing, church pews, hot tubs, appliances, fountains, and other salvaged goods. Its new warehouse, built in 1999, was made from recycled materials. It tries to maintain a closed-loop cycle, where every scrap is saved and renewed, which has diverted thousands of tons of useful materials from landfills while reducing demand for a shrinking supply of raw materials. It recycles an estimated 3,000 tons of materials per year.

While the Center could now afford to expand and ship out more desirable refurbished furniture out of the region, it refrains from doing so as the use of fossil fuels would contradict its goal to reduce fossil fuel use and other environmental impacts and support the local economy. The work is labor-intensive, requiring a large number of staff, but without the maintenance and fuel costs of sophisticated machinery, the Center is still able to pay living wages to its employees (starting at $10/hour for the most unskilled work and increasing with regular reviews and hikes), who also receive full medical and dental benefits. While four other centers in the city opened and failed, RC survived because it was not as commercially-oriented, as it receives support from some 500 part-time volunteers and functions as something like a community center, where customers can also borrow do-it-yourself books from the center’s library.

The Center’s organization is democratically structured, with a low ratio between the lowest-and highest-paid members, the same number of votes per staff on work-related issues, and a hiring process where new people are hired by the people he or she will be working with. With 36 full-time employees, most of whom are from the neighborhood, the Center has been credited in local media for revitalizing the local economy. Financially the company has been operating at surpluses, which are either reinvested into the business or paid out to community projects, one of which, Our United Village (OUV), is a nonprofit organization started by Endicott before he teamed up on the Rebuilding Center. OUV is a mechanism to link people in the community, for example elders teaching neighbors how to make jam, or community scholarship funds paid to young people doing odd jobs like lawn mowing.

The Center received Portland’s “Best Business” award as well as other awards in recognition for its practices.

For more information visit The Rebuilding Center.

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USA – Texas (Austin) – People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER)

The work of PODER (or People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources) began with the successful removal of a 52-acre “tank farm,” or fuel storage facility which for 35 years had emitted toxic chemicals and was linked to chronic illnesses for neighborhoods in East Austin, where 88% of the population is Mexican or African American also suffering from high rates of crime and unemployment.

In 1993, after over a year of campaigning, PODER, other community groups and residents succeeded in the closure and relocation of the site, whose three pipelines were owned by major oil corporations, a notable achievement in the state of Texas.

From this success, other initiatives began, including:

  1. A survey given to assess the health problems of residents living around the tank farm was shared and used with communities of several other states.
  2. Helping neighborhoods fight excessive increases in property taxes resulting from both closure of the tank farm, and with the appearance of new high tech IT giants who have moved into the neighborhood induced by major tax abatements from the government (also garnering government funds for one of these, SEMATECH, towards research and development of clean, safe manufacture of microchips).
  3. Pressuring state officials to crack down on the oil companies who have made little effort to clean storage tank sites.
  4. The relocation (to a non-residential area) of a poorly-run recycling facility where overflow was left outside, causing rat infestation, and whose glass crusher at night prevented residents living around the site from sleeping properly.

PODER began teaming up with other neighborhood groups to look at issues of regulations, taxes, policy and design of infrastructure, which have major implications for East Austin residents, despite the fact that decisions were taken without the input of those most affected. Such issues have growing importance to PODER and other neighborhood groups and they have launched various Land Use/Rights campaigns, including:

  1. Forcing the city to “downzone” the tank farm site from “industrial” to “community/commercial” and “neighborhood/office” in order to prevent new industrial-level occupation or development in the area. These zoning categories are also integral to the concept of “smart growth” (the prevention of sprawl and unplanned haphazard development).
  2. Getting the passage of an ordinance requiring neighborhood residents to be notified and given opportunity to voice concerns any time an industrial facility wants to locate or expand in East Austin.
  3. Forcing the City Council to impose a 90-day moratorium and initiate a land-use study in East Austin.

They are also involved with various transportation issues:

  1. Conducting a transportation/safety issues campaign, and raising money for transportation improvements for East Austin residents, including bus shelters, sidewalks, bike racks, additional street lights and signs.
  2. Working at the state and national level with organizations to reform transportation, especially with the construction of a light rail transport system whose design has not yet taken into account the community, economic, and transportation needs of East Austin residents, especially youth.
  3. Programs aimed at ethnic “minority” youth for addressing educational, environmental, social and economic justice, including a youth employment program serving young people of 14 or 15 years old.
  4. Technical support and training of residents and PODER members in IT to help narrow the “digital divide.”

Working with other neighborhood groups such as El Pueblos, community members are being given the tools, information and motivation to work with local city and transportation agencies to get investments that improve safety and livability of communities.

This case highlights the concept of “environmental justice,” and how environmental issues in low-income communities are inherently bound up in historical, social and economic forces which have shaped land use, zoning regulations and demographics. It also shows how the system enables middle or upper classes to externalize the costs of their lifestyle onto the poor and politically marginalized on many levels, for example through flight into white suburbs which is draining the tax base from inner cities, or through siting of commuter freeways, industrial sites, or landfills in poor neighborhoods. As one PODER executive member pointed out, “Land-use practices and transportation design are the worst agents of these injustices.” Rather than simply battling each new issue piecemeal, PODER is pushing for changes at the deeper level of fiscal regulation, zoning policy and transportation design.

For more information visit PODER-Texas.

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USA – Texas (Austin) – Green Building and Green Choice Programs

Both programs have won recognition as leaders in the sustainable building and energy sectors. Since the 1980s, Austin launched the Energy Star Program which rated energy efficiency of new homes.

In the early 1990s, there was a sense among the more progressive architects and builders that more could be done beyond energy savings. Materials in house building, for example, are generally inefficient as the used building materials, containing mined materials and other recyclables, mostly end up in landfills because of the low disposal fees. In 1990, with a grant from the Urban Consortium for Energy, a partnership between Austin Habitat for Humanity and American Institute, with the help of volunteers, created a demonstration project which helped to promote the program to buyers, builders, developers and architects. Green building principles view the house as a system, which includes four main areas (water, energy, materials, and waste). The program began as a checklist which focused on site, energy, water landscape, waste material issues and indoor air quality which later evolved into a rating system ranging from 1-5 stars (5 being the highest). Green practices included in the system might include:


  1. Recycled carpets made from PET bottles to use of fly ash in concrete.
  2. Straw bales for insulation.
  3. Reduction of toxins which are found in many building materials and paints, for example formaldehyde-free fiberboard, low volatile organic compound recycled materials in carpeting.


  1. Composting toilets, greywater recycling or rainwater harvesting.
  2. Xeriscaping in gardens to conserve water use (as opposed to traditional lawns or non-native plants unsuited to the climate).


  1. Use of solar panels.
  2. For heating: “passive solar energy” or design or positioning to optimize natural sunlight for heating and lighting.
  3. For cooling: design of windows for ventilation, strategic planting of trees to provide shade and moisture, creation of a porch to provide shade for walls, the inclusion of windows in rooms to allow for cross-ventilation, the choice of galvanized metal roofing to avoid heat buildup


  1. Options for backyard composting.
  2. Choice of materials for recycleability.

Austin currently has slightly different programs for residential, commercial, multifamily and municipal buildings (setting standards with the construction of its new airport and other City buildings). The program also offers technical support and assistance for architects and builders, puts out educational publications for builders, promotional and educational materials for buyers, and offers financial incentives for builders and the public. The program has largely relied on using market forces to achieve critical mass and drive the standards into the mainstream instead of appealing to regulation to force it there.

In 1992, Austin had the only green builders program and the National Association of Homebuilders had little awareness or interest in promoting it; but today the NAHB hosts green building conferences and many similar programs are thriving around the country.

Integral to the program is the Green Choice program, considered one of the more successful utility-sponsored green power programs in the US, especially considering it is in the country’s fossil fuel capital. The program offers a choice to consumers to pay extra for energy from renewable sources (which in Austin would be wind, solar or biogas from a landfill) at 3.3 cents/KW-hour as opposed to standard fees of 2.8 cents/KW-hour for standard fuel sources (which rely on coal or natural gas). While of course these renewable sources can’t be singled out to provide energy to individual subscribers, the program operates so that the more subscribers pay for the program, the more green power sources will be contracted out, displacing conventional sources. The program also promotes renewable energy and provides low-cost loans for installation of solar panels, as well as offering rebates for improvements to energy efficiency (i.e., upgrades to more efficient air conditioners or other appliances).

For more information visit the Austin Green Building Program and the Austin Green Choice Program.

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USA – Texas (Austin) – Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Program

In the 1980s, Travis County in central Texas was growing, with most development in the periphery of Austin. The Balcones Canyonlands, a natural area of limestone hills, spring-fed canyons, caves, springs, and sinkholes (below which is an aquifer which supplies water to some 1.5 Central Texas residents) are home to unique species found nowhere else in the world.

When it became clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service would list species found in the area as endangered, such as two songbirds (the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo), some city and regional planners worried that enforcing the ESA (Endangered Species Act) would lead to an ad hoc checkerboard pattern of development across the county.

In 1988, the city of Austin and Travis County formed a steering committee that would create a plan for economic stability and that would protect certain species. A series of meetings were to begin a grueling, 8-year long process of public meetings with agencies from three levels of government as well as scientists, developers and environmental organizations. In 1992, Austin’s mayor supported a $US 22 million city bond, with which the Nature Conservancy acquired land, as the first step towards creation of the Balcones Canyonlands Nature Preserve which came into being in 1996. The Preserve is a multi-agency conservation effort which includes the Nature Conservancy Texas, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Texas Audubon Society, various government agencies and industry.

It works through acquisition of targeted land in the reserve deemed to be habitat of several endangered species or “species of concern.” The final goal is to acquire and manage 30,428 acres, approximately 80% of which had been acquired by 2002. Certain reserves have various levels of regulation and conditions, for example some are required to provide for maintenance, patrol and biological management, biological monitoring and research, as well as restriction of activities such as biking or hiking. Others are open to various recreational or development activities, including hunting or building. It is meant to strike a compromise between development and conservation. It works under a system of “incidental take permits,” where acquired land is given mitigation “credits” for infrastructure development; that is, development in the acquisition causing direct or indirect damage (or “take”) of an endangered species is “compensated for” by purchasing the credit which goes towards acquisition of other land in the reserve.

The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Program (BCCP) was among the first of regional multi-species habitat conservation plans, which has served as a model for locally-based habitat protection programs that balances competing needs of developers and conservationists. It has had mixed reviews of its success. Restrictions on mountain bikers has drawn criticism from sport/adventure enthusiasts who say their impact is minimal and far less invasive than the construction of strip malls or subdivisions built close to the edge of reserves. Others say that development at the edges of reserves means the area of the reserve is much smaller than it appears, as a large buffer zone is needed between pristine and developed areas. (These songbirds, for example, need a 100-meter distance away from human settlement). Still others say that the BCCP was designed to allow development to continue, and that developers pay for the right to destroy habitat (much as the greenhouse credit trading critics say it allows industries to buy the right to burn greenhouse gases). For example, the BCCP allows “take” of 55% of black-capped vireo and 71% of identified golden-cheeked warbler habitat. The original habitat documents prepared by scientists identified a region more than twice the size of the current target.

But many environmentalists do concede that while it is far from adequate, the BCCP is better than nothing, and that it has potential to protect a large tract of land from being swallowed up by development characteristic of Texas. It has been praised as increasing badly-needed trust between developers and environmentalists, and built a strong relationship between the city and county staff. It has also set the wheels in motion to establish other land near BCCP boundaries.

For more information visit the Austin Chronicle.

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