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Natural Capitalism from a city planning perspective 2009/12/09

Posted by mdeveau in Uncategorized.
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Natural Capitalism is not principally a book about city planning. The topic is discussed on occasion, but the book’s main focus is as its subtitle suggests: “Creating the Next Industrial Revolution” by re-thinking the way we value natural resources and systems. Accordingly, the book seems to be geared primarily towards economists, environmentalists, engineers and, perhaps most importantly, executives.

But Natural Capitalism is a useful resource for city planners. Many of the ideas and techniques detailed in its 300-plus pages certainly have practical applications in planning. Its main contribution to planning, however, is in the overarching theme it expresses: That “solutions lie in understanding the interconnectedness of problems, not in confronting them in isolation.” That concept should by now be familiar to planners, but Natural Capitalism reframes the challenge in a compelling manner and does so within the specific context of the natural environment.

The book was written by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins and was published in 1999. As a ten-year old book focused almost entirely on the future, it inherently runs the risk of seeming dated. For the most part it avoids this fate. The next industrial revolution, if it is indeed underway, has been slow in coming, but the books general premise (and most of its ideas) remain relevant at the time of this writing.

True to its title, the book is centered around the concept of “natural capital.” The authors define natural capital as what we typically think of as natural resources (things like timber, minerals, water) as well as living systems (wetlands, forests, estuaries) that provide “services” such as clean air and flood control. Conventional capitalist wisdom assumes that any shortages of these resources will trigger the development of a suitable replacement and that byproducts of value creation – waste – can be disposed of elsewhere. The authors dismiss these assumptions as fallacious. Capitalism exists within the concept of the planet, which is neither growing in size nor adding natural capital at a fast enough rate to offset human industrial activity. Many of these resources also have no workable man-made substitute and are thus irreplaceable and of incalculable value.

The authors do not rebuke capitalism itself but instead see “no true separation between how we support life economically and ecologically.” They suggest that it is possible to have a prosperous capitalist economy in which natural capital – along with what they call human capital – are properly valued.

The book is structured as a collection of ideas and techniques for implementing this vision. They vary in scope from narrowly-focused engineering challenges like the creation of more efficient building systems and cars, to widespread economic solutions such as the transition to a “service and flow” economy in which consumers purchase services instead of goods that will ultimately be disposed as waste.

Of particular interest to planners is the example of Curitiba, Brazil, to which the authors devote nearly an entire chapter. Curitiba stands apart as a “First World city in the midst of the Third World.” The authors view it as an embodiment of natural capitalism. It owes this success to planning exercises that “approached transportation and land use, hydrology and poverty, flows of nutrients and of wastes, health and education, jobs and income, culture and politics, as intertwined parts of a single integrated design problem.” The city’s design mentality treated problems not as competing interests but as “opportunities for synergies to be optimized.”

The Curitiba underscores one of the book’s most important themes: Interconnectivity. The authors use a vivid anecdote to illustrate this point. To confront malaria in a village in Borneo in the 1950s, the World Health Organization sprayed DDT to kill mosquitoes. The plan worked, but too well. Cats in the area were poisoned and began to die off, resulting in an increase in the rat population, which threatened to spread different diseases such as typhus. In response, the WHO facilitated 14,000 live cats, which the British Royal Air Force sent into Borneo as part of “Operation Cat Drop.”

Though the story is quite possibly apocryphal, the absurd imagery of parachuting cats serves as a memorable reminder that actions, even those undertaken with the best of intentions, will have consequences that reverberate throughout the system. This is equally as true in city planning as it is in ecology or economics.

So while Natural Capitalism is not specifically about city planning, it is relevant to the field. It challenges planners to constantly think about the interconnectedness of problems, certainly from an ecological standpoint, but also from social and economic perspectives. Though it discusses planning only as an ancillary topic, it provides the framework for an approach that planners should take in their everyday activities.

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