David Miller on Sustainability and Cities

OpenCanada talked to the former mayor of Toronto and current adviser to the World Bank about how action at the municipal level can contribute to global sustainability.
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February 4, 2013

OpenCanada talked to the former mayor of Toronto and current adviser to the World Bank on urban issues about how action at the municipal level can contribute to global sustainability.

How do you define sustainability? Has your understanding of this concept changed over time?

Sustainability, for me, is what people often call a triple bottom line. A sustainable society has to be environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. And they all tie together – if you get your environmental policies right, you will also create a strong economy that’s sustainable in the long run. And if you get your economic policies right, which includes environmental sustainability, you should have a society that’s sustainable socially, as well.

That’s always been my belief, intuitively, but my understanding of why that’s the case has deepened over time – particularly the connection between environmental sustainability and social sustainability. I’ve always understood the connections between the environment and the economy, and the economy and social sustainability, but I really learned to appreciate the importance of having all three together during my time as mayor. That’s when I really saw the practical policies as a three-legged stool, with each leg supporting the others.

Toronto made significant advances in sustainable growth policies during your tenure. Are there lessons you learned on how to generate political momentum at a municipal level that could be applied to international-level negotiations?

I learned a number of things. First, you have to seize the moment. Second, in politics, it’s very important for people to be able to see and feel and touch what’s happening. It can’t just be a discussion of abstract policy – particularly now, in the western world, where people have lost some faith in their government’s ability to make things happen. So, while you need to produce plans – and this is critical – you need to act on them very quickly so that people can connect the plan to the changes they see happening.

Cities have a special role to play because they’re able to act more nimbly than national and sub-national governments. Cities are critical because they tend to be delivery agents, not just policymakers. National and sub-national governments, like provincial governments, tend to make policy or fund delivery of services, but do not tend to be in the business of directly delivering services. Because cities directly deliver services, they can implement changes very quickly.

For example, in Toronto’s case, we own our electric utility. The wave of privatization hasn’t hit this sector as much as others, which one could argue is a good thing, as one of the things you lose when you lose control of an institution like Toronto Hydro is the ability to combine policy with implementation. The city of Toronto adopted the Kyoto goals and then went further in the outlying years, as we met and exceeded our greenhouse gas reduction targets. The strategy we developed to do this was created in partnership with Toronto Hydro. The strategy was robust – it had the electric utility on side and actually detailed how conservation, demand management, and a smart grid would enable efficient energy distribution. It wouldn’t have been possible for a provincial or national government to act nearly as quickly as we did. It would also have been very difficult to accomplish what Toronto did had the utility been privatized.

I think what we see internationally is city governments able to act because of their capacity to draw together those different threads, including demonstrating to people that real action is happening. People in Toronto may not have seen or heard about our Kyoto target strategy specifically, but they would have seen some of the underlying things – the bylaw, for example, that gives you the right to put small-scale solar or wind devices on your roof without having a zoning approval. That came out of our strategy. Some grant programs we had allowed people to set up a solar-powered hot-water system. People see their neighbours doing these things or hear about them being done, and that helps carry the initiatives forward. Significant practical results are possible because of the unique combination of responsibilities and capacity that cities have.

I think that’s the biggest lesson I learned: Act, and show people you’re acting at the same time.

So, momentum grows as the public traces outcomes back to city policies.

If you can demonstrate to people that the changes they want to see are actually happening, you give people more confidence in the process, and then it becomes self-reinforcing – more public confidence leads to more public support for change, which allows for more changes to be enacted. Momentum builds as people start doing things in their own lives, encouraged by the knowledge that their government is there with them. And so you get a really virtuous circle, something we’ve seen in lots of cities globally.

The world is gearing up for the next generation of the Millennium Development Goals, and some are calling for sustainability to be at the core of the post-2015 framework. Do you think sustainability should underpin targets related to development at the international level? Could we create a virtuous sustainable development circle on a global scale?

I think sustainability defined as I defined it – a triple bottom line of environmental, economic, and social – should definitely underlie the next iteration of the development of the Millennium Development Goals. There are several reasons for this: First of all, the impact of climate change is differential depending on where you are in the world, and is often the most serious in places that are deprived economically. So, there’s a direct connection between a need for development and the need to address the impacts of climate change. Development policies won’t work if they don’t take climate realities into account.

The second thing is that truly sustainable development has to be in harmony with the environment. In development, you can create short-term employment and wealth with unsustainable, pollution-intensive development, and then pay for it for generations, whereas if you find ways to create wealth and employment that are more in harmony with the environment, that development will be sustainable for the longer term. Ensuring that places today that are mired in significant poverty and other challenges are able to move forward – like some cities in the developing world – involves putting them on a path that is environmentally and economically sustainable at the same time.

The third issue is that all of this is connected to social justice. What I’ve heard from the mayors of the developing world are clear statements that they expect help in dealing with these complex problems (problems such as people flooding into urban areas who are essentially climate refugees, and of having inadequate housing and little work – hugely complicated problems that could overwhelm the administration of one city). If the post-2015 goals don’t incorporate social justice along with environmental and economic sustainability, and don’t analyze problems from the perspective of all three points, they’re not going to be achieved.

I think the Millennium Development Goals are extremely admirable, but that it’s fair to say they haven’t achieved all that was hoped. Part of that is because sustainability wasn’t at their core to begin with. I think we have a chance now to get it right and actually accomplish some things.

I’ll give you a concrete example: You’ve got severe flooding in a city in the developing world that’s getting worse and worse because of changing storms, which are likely due to climate change. How do you deal with that flooding? Do you build more sewers? Do you conserve natural systems like riverbed networks that take up the storm surges and have performed this function for thousands of years, rather than building over them? The World Bank might fund the conventional hard infrastructure today, but if the new goals, or the next iteration of them, choose to address the problem from a sustainability perspective, they will need to fund green infrastructure that actually works in the long run in dealing with storms and storm surges. And this might involve less construction and more conservation, proving less expensive to maintain over the longer term.

If you aren’t thinking about the triple bottom line, you’ll default to widely used, but perhaps not the most effective, solutions. But if you get the thinking right, the results can be much more robust, and ultimately more successful.

So, a holistic understanding of sustainability is what’s needed to create momentum.

If you get environmentalism right, a holistic approach is exactly what you get. To give you a Canadian example, the David Suzuki Foundation worked very strongly with other environmental organizations in the forestry industry. And for a long time, people said, “You environmentalists are crazy,” and “You just want to stop job creation,” and “We have to clear-cut – it’s the only way.” Well, the forestry industry is in crisis now, and that came about because people were clear-cutting and planting just one kind of tree.

Now, the forest industry has come forward and we’ve got a sustainable development model that satisfies environmental concerns, the forestry industry representatives, and the people who work in it through their trade unions. And so we get social, economic, and environmental sustainability. That’s the model for what we should be doing in many industries around the world. Yes, it took a crisis to persuade business interests that the environmentalists were right. But the environmentalists were also pragmatic and not rigid.

Cities are increasingly acknowledged as critical actors on the world stage. Do you have any thoughts on the roles that cities and mayors can play when it comes to the Millennium Development Goals? Do you think it’s more productive for cities to focus on building their own problem-solving networks rather than try to get their agendas adopted in existing global governance forums?

Cities are building their own networks because from their perspective, national governments have failed – particularly when it comes to environmental issues. There’s been some progress, but not nearly the progress that’s needed – not on climate change, nor on issues of extreme poverty. Cities will continue to build networks because they can. They’re nimble, and they have an advantage over some international discussions in that they don’t need unanimity. If you can mobilize a critical mass of cities, those cities can make a huge difference by acting together. The C40 group that I used to chair is now composed of more than 60 cities, and the populations of the urban regions represented amounts to well more than 600 million people. It’s equivalent to one of the biggest countries in the world taking action on its own. 

I think an ability to act quickly is the big advantage for city-based networks, but I do think there should be links with international organizations and discussions. The best thing to do is to empower cities to act rather than constraining them by international discussions. In some countries, that means funding. The C40, for example, negotiated a really good agreement with the World Bank that created additional access to funding for cities in the developing world.

So, should cities be at the table? Yes. But should being at the table mean they can’t do their own thing? No. And should international organizations and national governments find better ways to work with, and fund, cities? Absolutely, because that’s the way to meet their goals. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities these days – something that wasn’t true even 10 years ago. And populations are only going to become more concentrated in urban areas.

And are city networks truly global?

Yes. That’s the gift of the C40, for example, which was deliberately set up to have a balance between the developed and developing world. Roughly speaking, it’s half of each. And when new members come in, they really pay attention to that. The fascinating thing is that the developing cities have as much to teach the developed ones as vice versa. And that’s not always the public perception. If you ask someone on the street, “What do you think we can learn from Addis Ababa?” they’ll likely say, “Not too much.” But what if you then told them about a millennium project where everybody in the city was asked to plant a tree – and that’s millions of people – and they actually did it? And then you asked them whether we could plant three million trees here in Toronto? It makes you think.