Trends in governance for urban sustainability and resilience

The Pixel building in Melbourne is the world's first building to comply with three voluntary best-of-class benchmarking tools
The Pixel building in Melbourne is the world’s first building to comply with three voluntary best-of-class benchmarking tools: BREEAM, LEED and Green Star

Oops! More than a month without blog entries. But some good new since the last entry: based on a book-outline and two sample chapters Cambridge University Press has expressed their initial and conditional (etc, etc) interest in the manuscript. I will send them the full manuscript for review once done, which is hopefully by June this year. The working title for the book still is: Innovations in environmental governance: Governing for less in Western and Eastern societies. I will post the book-proposal for everyone to see once I have a contract with a publisher.

And more good news. I am about to round up the other book I am working on – Governing for urban sustainability and resilience: New roles for government, businesses and civil society (under contract with Edward Elgar Publishers).

This week I worked on tracing trends in 52 innovative environmental governance programs from Australia, Germany, India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Singapore, the UK and the USA that I discuss in this book. With innovative environmental governance programs I refer to, for instance, city-to-city collaborations such as ICLEI and the C40 group; best-of-class benchmarking tools such as LEED and BREEAM; and, innovative forms of financing sustainable buildings such as 1200 Buildings in Melbourne or the Amsterdam Investment Fund.

I uncovered five dominant trends in these 52 programs. These will be the core of the conclusion to my book. They are:

  1. Although there is much innovative governance going on in the area of urban sustainability and resilience, the most common governance tools used are still statutory regulations (think construction codes and zoning regulation). This is a relevant realisation because so much academic, policy and media attention is paid to the fancy and shiny new and innovative approaches. But why do we all jump on studying the performance of a relatively small number of innovations, whilst the lion-share of governance tools and policies are still very traditional?
  2. Although many of these innovative governance programs are non-mandatory (i.e., participation in them is voluntary), governments have far reaching and dominant roles in their development and implementation. These innovations further often resemble the exact structure of traditional statutory regulation: rules, enforcement, and disciplinary measures for non-compliance. This asks for a rethinking of what we actually mean with ‘voluntary’ governance programs. It also ask a rethinking of our expectation that these innovative governance programs are better than traditional – an expectation that is frequently addressed by the ‘gurus’ in the green construction industry. Why exactly would ‘innovative’ programs that are largely driven by governments and very much resemble the structure of traditional programs be better than these traditional programs?
  3. There are many voluntary and innovative governance programs that address the top-end of the market for new and future commercial buildings. There are hardly any programs that address residential buildings, or existing buildings more generally. This is, I feel, a major problem. After all, at best 2% of new buildings are added to the existing building stock in developed economies each year. This means that roughly 98% of buildings are left outside the scope of innovative governance programs. In addition, residential buildings contribute roughly as much to global carbon emissions as do commercial buildings. This reduces the focus of the dominant voluntary and innovative governance programs to a mere 1% of the building stock.  And only a marginal number of new commercial buildings actually participates in such voluntary programs.
  4. These voluntary and innovative governance programs largely seek to improve the environmental sustainability of buildings, and hardly seek to improve their resilience to climate risks and man-made hazards. Keeping again in mind that, in developed economies, about 98% of the building stock consists of existing buildings this marginal focus of voluntary programs is a problem. In Australia, for instance, it is expected that more than 80% of all buildings does not comply with construction codes that have been introduced since 1980. Keeping in mind the devastating consequences of bushfires on Black Saturday in 2009 and those of the Queensland Floods in 2010 and 2011 one can only begin to grasp the need for improved resilience of the existing building stock.
  5. Finally, most of the voluntary and innovative programs that I studied seek to improve the uptake and use of (innovative) technological solutions to improve the sustainability of the built environment. Only a few try to do so through a change in the behaviour of how we use our buildings. Again I find this striking. Keeping in mind that most energy and water in buildings is wasted by truly bad behaviour, a stronger focus on occupants behaviour is essential. For instance, by merely switching off electrical appliances instead of switching them to stand-by mode, households can reduce up to 10% of their energy bill. For office buildings these easy savings may be even more, given that up to 55% of energy in offices is consumed after office hours, on weekend and during holiday breaks, when hardly anyone is using these offices.

This truly asks for a rethinking of the potential of these voluntary and innovative governance programs in achieving meaningful results. Policymakers and academics alike have thus far ascribed much potential to these in terms of possible reductions of resource consumption in cities (i.e., energy, water, building materials), possible reductions of greenhouse gasses and other wastes, as well as their potential to improve cities reliance to withstand future climate risks and human-made hazards.

From my study, I cannot conclude anything else than that this trust in these voluntary and innovative programs is unfounded. These programs have thus far not evidenced to be successful to generate a wide-spread uptake of technology and know-how about behavioural change. They have unquestionably provided important lessons and really impressive best-practices of what can be achieved in terms of urban sustainability and resilience. But with the slow uptake of these best-practices, the really small focus of the programs, and their largely low numbers of participants (i.e., relatively only a handful of buildings participates in these programs as compared to all buildings around) caution is in place. A better way forward would be to learn why some successes have been achieved and how these can be replicated on a larger scale. A (soft) push from government might be needed here.


An edited version of this post has appeared on the Independent Australia on 19 March 2014.

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