Robert Costanza Talks EcoDistricts + Neighborhood Scale Sustainability

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Robert Costanza is the new head of Portland State’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, founder of the Solutions Journal, and he’ll also be speaking at the EcoDistricts Summit, put on by Portland Sustainability Institute (PoSI). Robert has spent his career exploring sustainable systems and reaching for solutions that will allow us to live a high quality of life, while at the same time sustaining our planet’s resources. One of the most compelling concepts he has discovered is district-level sustainability.

SE: Since you’re new to this position and the area, can you give us a brief snapshot of where you’ve come from and what your new job at Portland State University (PSU) entails?
RC: I started out in engineering and then got a masters degree in architecture. Then I shifted and got a PhD in systems ecology with a minor in economics—I took economics as a foreign language actually. That systems training education has allowed me to look at the world in a much more integrated way. Ever since I adopted this philosophy, I’ve been trying to put pieces together rather than take things apart, or at least balance the two. I think that’s what we need more of in the education and management aspects of our system. Things are much more interconnected these days, or at least the interconnections make more difference, because the world is filled up with people and their artifacts. There’s no frontier out there anymore, so the goals have shifted significantly from capturing resources as fast as you can, to working together and trying to sustain things in a desirable way.

To do that well, we have to start working across disciplines. We have to transcend these disciplinary boundaries and also the boundaries between academia and the community. Those are some of the things I’ve been trying to do throughout my career.

SE: Is that part of the reason you created the Solutions Journal—to broaden the conversation?
RC: Yes. I also started the journal, Ecological Economics, back in 1989. We were trying to make economics into a life science and build bridges. The Solutions Journal is a further step to reach out of academia into the general public, and across a broader range of disciplines. It’s about starting a dialogue on how we solve these problems.

We’ve spent plenty of ink describing the problems and analyzing them—I think we have a pretty good idea of what our big issues are. Now we need to spend an equal amount of time and effort trying to figure out what the solutions are. That goes beyond the technical fixes and partial solutions. We also need to figure out how we redesign the system to make it really sustainable and desirable.

Sustainability is one thing—how long things last, and we certainly want the system to last—but we also want to create something good. I think we can improve our quality of life and reduce our resource consumption at the same time. In fact, in many instances we’re finding that it’s the maldistribution of resources that’s more of a problem than the actual rates of consumption. We can lower rates of consumption all together and everyone can actually be happier while consuming less.

I think we need to get past the “growth at all costs” paradigm of economics and more towards asking how we can improve quality of life and sustainability—so that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my work. Portland State University has offered me a real opportunity, because they have a deep commitment to sustainability and see themselves as a leader, as does Portland. That means the community/university partnership can  happen here much better than anywhere else I know of. It can also be a model for others to see how to do this kind of thing—and I think the world needs these kinds of models. It’s important for us to lead the way.

SE: Speaking of models and problem-solving, we’re talking because of the EcoDistricts Summit that’s coming up. This idea of district-scale sustainability that Portland is gearing up to study in five key areas around the city (Lloyd District, Portland State University, Gateway, Lents and South Waterfront), what bigger problems will this concept solve if successful?
RC: The primary issue EcoDistricts let us address is how to build a sustainable, desirable city environment. Often when people think of sustainability, they think of getting back to the land, self-sufficiency and a smaller-scale way of life. I don’t think that’s necessarily the right approach. I think cities can be even more sustainable than a dispersed rural environment. We have so many people on Earth now that if we spread them out like that, it would use up all the available land. I think we’re better off concentrating people in certain areas. The question is, how do we do that in a more sustainable way? We’re getting into lots of things with this—including transportation and energy. Where do we find new solutions for those problems?

Portland is a good distance down the road to finding solutions, with our emphasis on bikes and mass transit, energy efficiency, green buildings, but not quite there yet. I just moved into the Cyan building next to PSU and it’s great to have a green building so conveniently located for me. My commute is by elevator. I don’t even have to use a bike that often and I was able to sell my car because of mass transit and Zipcars and biking.

Showing models like the EcoDistricts as individual buildings and eventually on a city scale in Portland, is really important. The city, as a whole, is not there, but by tackling things district by district, we can make progress in manageable chunks. That’s good for us, plus we can show it as a replicable model for others to enact in the rest of the country and the world, really. And we can use things like the Summit and the Solutions Journal to communicate these successes and processes to others, so they can learn from our experience—not to mention learn from other cities as well.

SE: Is there a danger of these repeatable, neighborhood-scale sustainability projects stoking gentrification issues in areas that are currently underdeveloped? And if so, is there a way they can be used to instead create more equitable access to sustainable living with the right attention?
RC: In that ecological/economics paradigm I was speaking about earlier, we talk about four basic types of capital that are necessary for maintaining a high quality of life. There is conventional built capital—infrastructure and those types of things—there’s also human/talent capital—health, knowledge, ideas, that’s what universities are about, building human capital—then there’s also natural capital—the resources and services provided by the natural environment—and then there’s social capital which is all the interactions between people.

There’s psychological research showing that social capital is very important to people’s sense of well-being and quality of life. That’s something that living in smaller neighborhoods can contribute to positively, this sense of social capital, people working together. It provides a significant component of their quality of life, and yet we haven’t emphasized it yet. We’re focused on the built capital and monetary income. Which is funny, because the evidence shows that beyond a certain point, more income doesn’t lead to more happiness, in fact it can lead to less happiness, because you’re so stressed out trying to maintain your income and keep up with the Joneses.

And also the distribution of income is a problem, because that tends to destroy social capital—if there’s too big a gap in the money population issues start cropping up. There is some new research that shows, across many countries, that the higher the gap in income, the worse the whole range of social problems are—crime, incarceration, obesity, everything really, gets much worse if there is a large gap in incomes. I think these kind of small scale examples can show how we can build social capital and how that contributes to quality of life.

We did a research paper at the University of Vermont (where I just came from) not long ago on quality of life differences between intentional communities and regular neighborhoods. That study showed that quality of life is much higher in intentional communities. I actually lived in a co-housing community in Vermont with 17 households and very intentional construct. We were trying to build a community and share a lot of resources, and find the right balance between individual and the social whole. Humans have evolved to be social animals. We’re not happy as isolated individuals, even though the conventional economic paradigm thinks of people as completely isolated, autonomous units—which we obviously are not. So we’re getting past that. We’re trying to find a better model of what really contributes to well-being. And a lot of that is outside the markets and it doesn’t really get picked up in conventional economic analysis, but it’s exactly what we need to focus on now.

SE: Do you think that universities have a unique opportunity to exploit EcoDistricts in a positive way, being that they pretty much exist in their own little ecosystem anyway? My alma mater, for instance, used to have this farm—which is now the athletic complex—where they grew all of the food for the school.
RC: I think university campuses can definitely be models to try out some of these ideas. They also have an opportunity to be thought leaders and connect with the community. A lot of the courses that we’re going to offer are problem-based/solutions-focused courses. Instead of doing lectures, we go find a problem out in the community and get the stakeholders together with faculty and students, and try to solve the problem, with published results. You know, it’s an entirely different way to go about education. We want to help people learn how to solve problems, rather than memorize information and leave problem solving way off in the distant future. It’s a whole skill, which we unfortunately don’t teach people as much as we should—the complexity of real world problems and how you need to communicate across a whole range of ideas and perspectives, stakeholders, etc.

Robert Costanza is Director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, and a featured speaker at the EcoDistricts Summit in Portland, Oregon, October 25-27, 2010. You can learn more about his work at: http://www.pdx.edu/sustainability/robert-costanza. Get more information about the EcoDistricts Summit and Initiative in Portland at: http://www.pdxinstitute.org/. You can also follow PoSI on Twitter at: @PDXInstitute. Tune in for live tweets from the EcoDistricts Summit, October 25-27.

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