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Rio+20: Dispatch #4

Posted 06.20.2012

This editorial ran in the Portland Business Journal on June 20, 2012.

Tsunami, MoMA, Vancouver, BC, Bring Rio+20 Home to Pacific Northwest

Rio de Janeiro may seem like a world away from the Pacific Northwest, but our global community just got smaller this week at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, in Brazil.

The aftereffects of Japan’s tsunami, a Museum of Modern Art proposal for Keizer, and Vancouver, British Columbia’s David Cadman brought it all home at the “Sustainable Cities and Innovation” session of the Sustainable Development Dialogues preceding high-level ministerial talks this week.

With entire shipping docks washing up on the Oregon coast as part of the Japanese tsunami debris threatening our West Coast, it was timely to hear from renowned architect Shigeru Ban. Known for his work quickly and efficiently housing disaster victims in structures built from recycled cardboard tubes, he became famous for using this approach to provide temporary housing for victims of the 1994 Kobe, Japan, earthquake. More recently, his firm has donated relief services with temporary housing to help 2011 tsunami victims in Onagawa. Considering how amazing these “temporary” structures are, it wasn’t surprising to hear Ban ask, “What is permanent and what is temporary? One of the ways of making sustainable cities is to stop building new [structures].”

Also on the sustainable cities panel was the Museum of Modern Art’s Barry Bergdoll, who was responsible for bringing MoMA’s “Art of Advocacy” exhibit to Riocentro Convention Center. Featured is a proposal from WORKac architects to transform the Salem suburb of Keizer into a “Nature City” — one protecting its urban growth boundary and affordable housing in the quickly growing community.

But perhaps most vocal among the 11 panelists from all over the world was Vancouver’s Cadman, president of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Cadman called out climate negotiators for making little environmental progress since the original Rio sustainability conference in 1992, saying “The cities are doing it. You’re not doing it.”

Cadman highlighted many specifics of the sustainability plan for Vancouver, which include reducing carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. He pointed out that in British Columbia 34 products can’t be put into landfills, thanks to deposit or “take back” legislation, and that the recovery rate for these products is 93 percent. Like the proposed project for Keizer, density is key in Vancouver as the community works to preserve agriculture and forests, and stop development in flood plains.

The outcome of the sustainable cities dialogue? Some 2,000 people representing the citizen sector (the non-diplomats) were present and voted electronically on 10 topic areas. Below are the top three, which were submitted to heads of state to consider in official negotiations this week:

1. Plan in advance for sustainability and quality of life in cities.
2. Promote the active engagement of local communities to improve the physical and
social environment in cities.
3. The design of urban spaces should take into account the empowerment of local

All 10 of the topic areas that were being considered seem to me to blend together. How is one different from the other? As panelist Janice Perlman, president of the Mega-Cities Project, said, “We don’t believe in one over the other.”

Bottom line: Negotiators need to set measurable goals this week. According to the UN’s Global Environmental Outlook, significant progress has been made toward only four of what the publication deems the 90 most important environmental goals. Each of those four — including removing lead from fuel and eliminating the use of ozone depleting substances — required specific goals and targets.

About 100 heads of state began deliberating a draft text adopted late Tuesday. You can read our preliminary analysis here.