Sustainable Cities™

Mathis Wackernagel: Wrestling the footprint

Future-friendly infrastructure — cities and buildings designed to be resource efficient, zero-energy buildings and pedestrian or public transit-oriented transportation systems — can enable great lives with small ecological footprints. Mathis Wackernagel tells us how we can measure and balance our ecological footprints.

Mathis Wackernagel's response to the Ecotopedia enquete via telephone from Lago di Garda, Italy, on 8 August 2008.


…What are the qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?

Cities need to become far more compact - not unlike Paris but with bicycles and rickshaws rather than cars. Cities that are pedestrian paradises, where anybody would want to live downtown. There would be food markets where you could buy food from local producers. The food would be less energy-intensive and possibly fresher and more interesting. These are but some of the ways we could structure our lives to make them more effective ecologically speaking and at the same time enhancing our quality of life. In many ways a compact city with buildings of 5-6 floors, with parks and public spaces, tight public transportation networks, food markets, cultural venues and so forth (elements we know from many Mediterranean or Asian cosmopolitan centres, for instance) are good examples of many of the features that would characterize a sustainable city. A sustainable city that operates on about one fifth of what European cities now use per person.

The assets we create today can be future-friendly or not. Future-friendly infrastructure - cities and buildings designed to be resource efficient, zero-energy buildings and pedestrian or public transit-oriented transportation systems - can enable great lives with small ecological footprints.

The essential questions for cities are: Are you investing in resource traps or opportunities? Is our new infrastructure leaving us a positive legacy that allows us to operate in a resource-constrained world or is it a trap that undermines a sustainable future? Moderate United Nations scenarios imply that if current trends continue, humanity's footprint will be twice what the Earth can sustain by 2050. Yet, this level of consumption is physically impossibly. Our accumulated ecological debt would lead to ecosystem collapses around the world. 2050 is before current school children begin their retirement. We only have a few decades to bring society back into 'one-planet living'. Succeeding in future-proofing cities requires a commitment to securing the economic competitiveness even in a time when resources become unavailable or too expensive. The longer infrastructure is designed to last, the more critical it is to ensure we're not maneuvering ourselves into resource-intensive legacies for decades to come.


…What are the challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?

Winston Churchill advises that "it is no use saying, 'we are doing our best' - we have got to succeed in doing what is necessary." What is necessary in order for us to avoid ecological collapse through our ever-increasing use of natural resources is to live within the means of our one-planet Earth. Yet humanity currently consumes at the rate of 1.3 planets. If everybody in the world lived European lifestyles, it would take three planet Earths! This is the overarching challenge we face.

Currently, every city, every enterprise and every country is committed to becoming bigger. These individual dreams contradict our collective dream of living well on our one-planet Earth.

With an increasingly urban future, with more and more people living urban lives, cities will make or break our future. The necessary goal-mark is pretty simple: if we indeed will be 9 billion people a few decades from now, and if we indeed want to leave some space for the 10 million or so other species, city living has to operate on a resource consumption level of about one fifth of what a contemporary European typically consumes.

Because of these trends, the competition for resources will become the defining force of the 21st century. It is not just peak oil, climate change, peak food, biodiversity loss, peak fish - it is 'peak everything' that we will have to contend with. Overshoot (using more resources than are available) will become particularly pressing for the world as a whole if the United States and Europe continue consuming at current rates and if the resource demands from countries like India and China keep growing along current trends.

Any country, state or city that prepares itself for living well in a resource-constrained world will fare far better than those who do not. Such preparations might consist of planning to reduce one's ecological footprint, protecting one's ecological reserve and managing one's biocapacity more carefully, or supporting technological innovations and services that will promote living well without draining resources.

Countries and cities banking on business-as-usual - depending extensively upon ecological resources from abroad - will become extremely vulnerable. In contrast, countries and states with ecological remainders, like Australia or Brazil, or cities and communities with small ecological footprints, like Siena or BedZED will, if careful, be able to benefit from their competitive advantage. Cities that are not able to provide a high quality of life with a low footprint will be at a disadvantage in a resource constrained future.


…What are the most promising initiatives that would make living in cities more sustainable?

In order to understand the scale and scope of the challenges we face and to truly know if we succeed in making changes that help us move in the right direction, we really need to be able to measure our impact on the planet and to make data and measurements available for governments and cities so they can see whether they are reacting fast enough.

Several cities have begun to use the ecological footprint tool to measure their own demand on the biosphere. This provides a comprehensive tool to see how fast they are moving and whether it is in the right direction. I developed the tool together with William Rees at The University of British Columbia, starting in 1990 and the ecological footprint is now in wide use by governments, communities and businesses around the world to monitor current ecological resource balances and to plan for the future.

The ecological footprint tracks the demands made on nature in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water needed to provide natural resources and absorb the wastes of a population, an individual or an activity. It measures the total ecological demand of any activity by translating all the resource requirements for the activity into the biologically productive area necessary to provide these resource flows and then this is compared to the total amount of biologically productive areaon Earth - within a country or a region that is available to support that population. This comparison provides us with answers to the critical question of a resource constrained world: Who is using what and how much? Do we all fit on one planet? What strategies would help us to fit on one planet again?

This accounting tool estimates that humanity's demand on ecological resources over the past 20 years has exceeded what Earth can renew. Our estimates, based on about 5000 data points per country and year, suggest that, globally, it now takes one year and four months to regenerate what we use within one year. We are in a state of ecological overshoot, on an unsustainable path.

The city of Calgary in Canada has recently adopted the ecological footprint into its strategic endeavors. The city decided to engage in this after a national survey stated that Calgary had the largest ecological footprint of all cities in Canada. The reaction was prompt and now the Calgary administration recognizes more profoundly that city infrastructure which encourages high resource consumption will become a liability in a resource constrained world. They are reconsidering the importance of encouraging urban density. Their current plan includes both a 100-year vision and 30-year targets and strategies aiming to reduce, for example, landfill waste by 80 % by 2020, to reduce per capita water use by 30 % in 30 years, producing new planning initiatives to achieve a more sustainable land use and transportation objectives, to introduce Triple Bottom Line policies in city government and to create a comprehensive ecological footprint project.

A crucial part of Calgary's plan takes place under the motto 'Slow things first'. Considering the rapid escalation of overshoot (using more resources than are available) and the slow rate at which human institutions, land-use patterns, and infrastructure change, the most critical action steps must focus on decisions that will be with us for many years. These decisions will shape community consumption patterns and determine success in reducing the footprint for years to come. Human-made infrastructure - homes, roads, office structures, power plants, dams, transportation - may last 50 or even 100 years. Not only do infrastructure decisions require resources to build, they also dictate how we use resources over their entire life cycle.

Applying this thinking really underlines how crucial urban planning and urban design is to make our lives sustainable. How can we make our cities perform efficiently enough so that all people can live well within the limited capacity that we have of roughly 1 hectare of ecological productive area per person world-wide (this is the space we would have per person if we grow to 9 billion people and leave a little capacity for wild species). How can we build cities that can operate on that budget? That's the big challenge and that's where we can make the biggest contribution for this century.

It is without doubt the cities that are able to provide the highest quality of life on the least resource consumption that will be the most liveable and competitive ones.

About Mathis Wackernagel

Mathis_005_MK_D Mathis Wackernagel is co-creator of the Ecological Footprint and has worked on sustainability issues for organizations in Europe, Latin America, North America, Asia and Australia and has lectured for community groups, governments and their agencies, NGOs, and academic audiences at more than 100 universities around the world. Mathis previously served as the director of the Sustainability Program at Redefining Progress in Oakland, CA and directed the Centre for Sustainability Studies / Centro de Estudios para la Sustentabilidad in Mexico, which he still advises. He is also an Adjunct Faculty at SAGE of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Mathis has authored or contributed to over fifty peer-reviewed papers, numerous articles and reports and various books on sustainability that focus on the question of embracing limits and developing metrics for sustainability. After earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, he completed his Ph.D. in Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. There, as his doctoral dissertation with Professor William Rees, he created the Ecological Footprint concept. Mathis's awards include an honorary doctorate from the University of Berne in 2007, a 2007 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, a 2006 WWF Award for Conservation Merit, and the 2005 Herman Daly Award of the US Society for Ecological Economics.

Most important publications:

  • The Winners and Losers in Global Competition: Why Eco-Efficiency Reinforces Competitiveness : A Study of 44 Nations (with Andreas Sturm) 2003
  • Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, Sharing Nature's Interest (with William Rees and Phil Testemale) 1995

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Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014