Carlos Rymer

Sustainability, Life, and More…

Archive for the tag “sustainability”

Urban Sustainability: Creating Lasting Prosperity in an Age of Transition

In 2008, humanity reached an important milestone that speaks to an ongoing trend. For the first time, more people lived in urban areas than lived in rural areas. This is important for various reasons, among them that cities can promise greater opportunities for people and help reduce people’s impact on the planet. It also presents key challenges. We have seen what lack of planning can do to large cities, including widespread sprawl and reduced quality of life for people. So, if the vast majority of people will eventually live in urban centers later this century, we have to make sure that we build cities to guarantee the highest quality of life for their residents while also minimizing the impact on their surroundings and the rest of the planet. How do we do that?

While there isn’t one clear way to guarantee that this happens, every city can work towards finding the right ingredients that will spur increased quality of life for people and lower per capita ecological footprint. As a goal, sustainability, or the ability for populations to endure for long periods of time while improving themselves, is the key to ensuring that every city guarantees the best quality of life for its residents while safeguarding the planet. Sustainability can lead to greater innovation, better-paying jobs, an improved urban environment, and lower resource intensity.

Throughout the world, many major cities are embracing the goal of sustainability through specific action plans drawn up by coalitions of government agencies, businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals. In such action plans, everything that can help increase quality of life while minimizing the city’s impact is on the table. This includes replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, improving overall health of residents, increasing pedestrian-friendliness, building more energy efficient and livable buildings and neighborhoods, creating new and improving existing recreational opportunities, improving transportation, preventing urban sprawl through zoning, reducing waste, enhancing educational and job opportunities, and much more. All of these things not only help reduce a city’s ecological footprint, but also increase the quality of life of its residents through improved social conditions, greater outdoor opportunities, and enhanced economic growth.

One example of such an action plan is New York City’s PlanNYC, which not only initially set a host of specific goals to be achieved in the short term, but also sets long term ambitions to the year 2030. The plan is ever-evolving to align with technological improvements, economic conditions, and experiences. In addition, many of its goals include specific legislative provisions, economic incentives, and public engagement. It covers eighteen specific areas, among them Housing and Neighborhoods, Parks and Public Spaces, Public Health, Transportation, and Climate Change. It is a holistic plan that clearly states what the city will look like in 2030 and specifies how it will get there. It clearly understands the city’s challenges and impediments, and realizes that it needs to constantly evolve and engage politicians, businesses, and the public.

Over the coming decades, it is important for cities large and small to draft such comprehensive and inclusive sustainability action plans. Not only is this important because it can lead to innovation due to the uniqueness of most cities, but also because it will ensure lasting growth. We cannot continue to allow models where urban centers grow outwards into suburbs, leading to decreased quality of life, increased infrastructure costs and pollution, and greater ecological footprints. We need cities to lead in this wave and engage other cities in sharing what they have learned along the way. Sustainability needs to be taken seriously at every level by governments, businesses, and the public. And it needs to be seen as the way forward, not as a political tool or simply a nice thing to do.

As the human population increases and people continue to move towards cities, it is imperative that we act now before it is too late. We can do this through public engagement, city to city engagement, national policy, or international accords, but in the end it must be done if we are to reach sustainable levels of resource use that can guarantee better opportunities for future generations. Urban sustainability needs to become a bigger topic in the international public debate, not just in international conferences, but in mainstream media, government action, business outreach, and public advocacy. We now have enough examples throughout the world of how this can be done, and it is time for cities everywhere to take sustainability as their key to the future.

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Student Opportunities: Research and Development for Sustainability

sustainability_researchOriginally published in It’s Getting Hot In Here.

The sustainability movement on college and university campuses has grown immensely this decade. In just a few years, sustainability has gone from a debate in a few campuses to a reality in virtually most colleges and universities. Behind this movement of colleges and universities trying to become sustainable is the energy of students who have organized to push sustainability forward in regards to funding, awareness, policy, and practice.

Students have organized themselves to pressure schools to do more on areas like energy and climate change, waste, food and water, and transportation. But at the same time, another group of non-activist students has been emerging to push sustainability from a different angle. This group is made up of students who don’t necessarily want to become active organizers on campus, but instead want to help colleges and universities research and develop new technologies, practices, and designs that can lower society’s ecological footprint.

There is a strong need to create opportunities for students to develop technologies, practices, and designs that can make campuses more sustainable. While many institutions have been integrating sustainability into curricula, few are actually creating research opportunities that directly engage students in creating or improving the solutions that can help us become more sustainable faster. To add to the lack of student research opportunities, there isn’t a vibrant organized community of students pushing to create these opportunities, probably because such students are simply interested in helping develop solutions but not ready to organize to make such opportunities available.

Recently, new opportunities have become available through national initiatives and federal funding. For example, the President’s Climate Commitment has stimulated fascinating campus work to develop campus solutions to reach climate neutrality, and in many schools students have been able to participate in such work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has also made funding available for research and development at major universities in key areas like energy and transportation. Finally, the Higher Education Sustainability Act passed last year makes $50 million available for campus projects that directly create student research opportunities.

In spite of these new opportunities, more needs to be done to fully capture the potential held in students. Recent legislation is a first good step, but more will be required to ensure that more students can participate in the development of solutions to critical global challenges. By experimenting on campus, improving existing technologies, and creating new designs for products and processes, students can greatly add to the wealth of researchers available in colleges and university campuses. This is especially important because the challenges we face seem to be becoming more alarming over time, requiring us to act more quickly to catch up.

In a time like this, where the world faces critical ecological and social challenges like climate change and dwindling water supplies, it is important to support student research opportunities not just to solve these challenges, but to create the capacity society will need in the future to prevent future ones. Student organizing may be at its peak because of the institutionalization of sustainability, but that doesn’t mean students should not be part of implementing the plans we have committed to on college and university campuses. Students should be key players in the creation of solutions and tomorrow’s leading clean tech industries.

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