Resilient Prosperity via a secure, inclusive, green economy.

Resilient prosperity via a secure, inclusive, green economy.

Excerpted from a draft of Storm Cunningham‘s third book, RECONOMICS, coming January 2020.

The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets which it must turn over
to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.
  – Teddy Roosevelt (emphasis added)

Urban revitalization doesn’t mean growing in size: it means growing in health, wealth & happiness. Healthy, wealthy, happy places are generally more resilient, especially if the source of those qualities is broad-based (diverse).

Your renewal strategy should be the heart of a system for harnessing a broader spectrum of private resources for public gain. When private investment is inspired and guided by a public vision, everyone benefits. The goal, for most communities and companies, will be resilient prosperity. Here’s my current working definition of resilient prosperity: “Resilient prosperity is a feedback loop comprising rising levels of optimism, equitable wealth, quality of life, security, and environmental health, usually deriving from an ongoing, adaptive process of regeneration.”   “Equitable” and “rising” are key:

  • “Equitable” because a society with growing economic disparity and a shrinking middle class is increasingly unstable, usually leading to disharmony, dysfunction, and even violent revolution;
  • “Rising” because—given today’s global degradation of air, watersheds, fisheries, topsoil, infrastructure, climate, etc.—the only way to increase both quality of life and ecological health (especially with a still-growing population) is by revitalizing the urban environments we’ve already developed, and by restoring the natural environments we damaged along the way.

I didn’t mention “happiness” in that definition, because one of the central contributors to happiness is having something to look forward to, and “optimism” covers that. Optimism comes from confidence in the future.  There’s not much optimism or confidence these days.  People in prosperous places don’t feel a need to revitalize, which puts them at risk. All around the world, many towns, regions, and nations that used to be healthy, wealthy, and happy are now either basket cases, or are becoming one. Comfort makes them ignore regenerative activities and opportunities to evolve, which undermines their future. They are on their way down, and don’t know it or feel it. Their future is broken. The 2015 Global Risk report from the World Economic Forum revealed that environmental risks outnumber economic risks among the list of major threats identified by senior business leaders, with water issues leading the pack.

In these days of constant economic, environmental, and social crises, most places—desperate and wealthy alike—have broken futures. All should thus use Adaptive Renewal to create Resilient Prosperity: fostering prosperity where it doesn’t exist, and making it resilient where it does exist. Worse, most of the cities, states, and nations that do pursue the elusive quarry we call “revitalization” are doing so blindly. They don’t really know what they’re after, how to catch it if they did, or even how to know when they’ve got it. This guide is an attempt to better understand the nature of the beast, how to find its trail and stay on track despite interruptions and obstacles, and how to befriend it when they finally meet.

Resilience is toothless without revitalization, which is both a journey and a destination. It’s the process of improving. It’s also the emergent quality we hope for when we reconnect, repurpose, and renew the various natural, built, and socioeconomic components of the living systems we call cities. Human regenerative processes start in the womb. They define aging when they slow down; death when they stop.  Communities are no different in this respect: regenerative processes are the root of their resilience and sustainability. So, why do so few urban or rural revitalization initiatives achieve their goals? Why are so many prosperous places allowed to deteriorate…to lose their future?

A major cause is that local agencies, developers, non-profits, and foundations work in unconnected silos. These leaders and stakeholders all contribute to the goal, but the goal itself is homeless. Economic development efforts are fragmented, inefficient, and ineffective. Most are Band-Aid-style initiatives that recruit employers from other places: a zero-sum game for whole. Few places have the kind of ongoing program that’s needed to inspire confidence in their future, which attracts new residents, employers, and real estate investors. This can be fixed when a “Prosperity Director”(or whatever you choose to call the position)—guiding an Adaptive Renewal system—connects those silos.  Efficiency and synergy rise, with little or no new bureaucracy. It’s low-cost and high-yield.

Most resilience efforts focus on restoring green infrastructure, and on connecting siloed government agencies so they can respond in a quicker and more-coordinated manner to emergencies (as they’ve done in Boston). This is all well and good, but many communities are already distressed, with their budgets under severe pressure. Their primary concern is economic renewal. Unless a flood or other disaster is impending, resilience is seen as a luxury: to be attended to when there’s a budget surplus.

Places that aren’t economically distressed are feeling threats to their prosperity on many fronts, such as industrial flight to cheaper places, and loss of old industries due to technological advances. These cities and regions need more than the goal of long-term resilience for such efforts to be politically and socially saleable. The green infrastructure projects needed to make a place more physically resilient are capital-intensive. This is a hard sell if local leaders don’t believe that anthropogenic climate change is real.

This is why the Rockefeller Foundation launched their 100 Resilient Cities program, which covers the salary for a local Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for three years. But if resilience is such a good thing, why do cities need to be paid to do it? Rockefeller’s goal is to provide the world with 100 role models, showing how such efforts can pay off, in the hope that other cities will fund their own. Having a CRO is good, but how will they obtain the resources and political support needed to make a real difference?

The answer is to fix both problems simultaneously: to wed what people care about now (boosting their economy and quality of life) with what they should care about for the future (boosting their security). The holistic nature of resilience programs is the integrated approach that’s desperately needed by local revitalization efforts. And attracting new residents, employers, and redevelopers is what resilience programs desperately need to secure funding and support from public and private leaders alike. Resilience programs must therefore be integrated with a revitalization process. Managing resilience and revitalization efforts in an adaptive manner is the surest path to a secure, inclusive, green economy.

So why don’t more places pursue Resilient Prosperity? We know that many unsuccessful people avoid the risks needed to achieve their dreams because they fear failure. In cities and nations, similar anxieties prevent many public leaders from shooting for revitalization. They’ll promote projects that fix roads, renew waterfronts, and restore historic buildings. But they won’t create an integrated, ongoing revitalization program for the entire area. But a program needs a strategy, and a strategy needs a vision. A place that’s effectively working towards Resilient Prosperity will have three distinguishing features:

  • Vision: Producing an economy that’s secure, inclusive, and green should be the goal;
  • Director: A full-time individual who helps ensure that public and private initiatives are strategic—fixing the present and future together—and who documents progress.
  • Team, Agency, Partnership, and/or System: Local implementation models vary greatly, but the form is less important than the process. An ongoing, strategic process captures momentum, making each subsequent project easier, and inspiring greater confidence in the local future.

Why is now the time for “secure, inclusive, and green” to be our “universal” goal? Because inclusive and green economies are more resilient (secure). The three goals are self-reinforcing. Conservation groups are discovering there are no pristine places left on Planet Earth. It’s no longer a choice of “conserve or restore”; now it’s just a matter of determining how much restoration is needed. All water and soil is now contaminated to some degree, whether by radiation, invasive species, or any of 10,000+ toxic, human-made compounds. The new model is “restore and protect”, not just “protect”.

Since my first book, The Restoration Economy came out in 2002, I’ve had some clients—like Montana governor Brian Schweitzer—who grasped the need to quantify the economic and employment benefits of restoring watersheds and brownfields. He published the landmark Montana Restoration Economy report in 2009. But no one has properly documented the revitalization of whole communities or regions.

In 2012, The Nature Conservancy and Oxfam America held a Restoration Economy summit in Thibodeau, Louisiana for over 100 local leaders. Its purpose was to explore the job creation and economic revitalization potential of the post-BP oil spill restoration activities. In 2013, researchers at Yale and the University of North Carolina published a Restoration Economy report.  So did US Fish & Wildlife in 2014. But it wasn’t until resilience joined the agenda that places worldwide started getting the message.

On a finite planet with a growing population, basing economic growth primarily on renewing the capacity of our existing natural and urban assets is obvious. But the shift to healing and rebuilding is primarily happening locally, not at state or national levels. Restorative economics is gaining momentum, hopefully leading to a “Return On Regenerative Investment” (RORI) metric.  But we can’t capture those values until we climb out of our silos and get a handle on the mysterious outcome called “revitalization”.

Some cities run out of room for sprawl before others. Some countries (especially island nations) run out of natural resources before others.  In such places will we find our “windows on the future”. As Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London said in 2007, “We talk of sustainable development and sustainable economies, but it is time to move on to restorative development and restorative economies.” After 12,000 years in the Holocene Epoch (defined as the time when humans started impacting and reshaping the planet), we have now entered a period known as the Anthropocene Epoch, in which human impact dominates the planet. It’s typified by widespread depletion, decline, and fragmentation. We spent 12,000 years adapting Earth to our needs, a mode I call Adaptive Conquest. We must now adapt to the consequences of our adaptations, basing our economic growth on Adaptive Renewal.

In the 20th Century, we adapted our cities to prioritize automobiles. We now realize that excessive cars kill cities. Portland, Oregon is adapting to this new reality: their newest Willamette River bridge, Tilikum Crossing, accommodates pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit, but not cars. Helsinki is going a step further, with plans to make their downtown effectively car-free by 2025. They are renewing their present and future together.

In the next issue, we’ll explore how adaptive renewal can be a path to resilient prosperity and climate restoration.

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