How can learning and experimentation improve urban sustainability?

June 24, 2017

Co-design and co-management of urban environments to promote social and ecological resilience and health for a sustainable and equitable future.  Requires a social environment that tolerates experimentation, and lack of trust and forces with strong vested interested in the status quo can block experimentation. Encourages teamwork in a context that encourages experimentation and rapid prototyping. It also builds strong connections to local leaders who have the capacity to get things done.

Urban Designed Experiments are projects that embed ecological research into urban design to study and shape buildings, landscapes, and the infrastructure of human settlements. Designed Experiments are a type of project rather than a specific project, and several have been conducted in the USA.  They combine elements of adaptive management with landscape architecture and urban renewal to co-create new urban landscapes that are sustainable and human-friendly. The projects are adaptable, flexible and are based on connecting educational organizations, grassroots organizations, local Governments, and local Stakeholders.

Design Experiments

From Felson et al 2013. Promoting Earth Stewardship through urban design experiments. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 362–367.

Prof. Alexander Felson (Yale) has been a leader of many urban design experiments.  He conducts an entire project each year in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, with the aid of graduate student volunteers.  In 2015 the project was The Baltimore Earth Stewardship Initiative which organized a demonstration project of how ecology can help solve societal problems. The project connected the Ecological Society of America and multiple agencies in Baltimore, and over 8 months they developed a project, connecting communities with ecologists, urban planners, designers, and students. The initiative proposed co-design and co-management of urban environments to promote social and ecological resilience and health for a sustainable and equitable future.

Designed experiments are scalable and connectable, but require a social environment that tolerates experimentation, and lack of trust and forces with strong vested interested in the status quo can block experimentation.

This encourages teamwork in a context that encourages experimentation and rapid prototyping. It also builds strong connections to local leaders who have the capacity to get things done.

Further information can be found in series of papers:

  • Lesley Evans Ogden. 2013 Integrating Designed Experiments into Urban Planning.  BioScience 63(11):845-851.
  • Alexander J. Felson, Emily E., Oldfield and Mark A. Bradford. 2013.  Involving Ecologists in Shaping Large-Scale Green Infrastructure Projects  BioScience 63(11):882-890. 2013  doi:
  • Alexander J. Felson, Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman, Timothy Carter, Franco Montalto, Bill Shuster, Nikki Springer, Emilie K. Stander and Olyssa Starry. 2013.  Mapping the Design Process for Urban Ecology Researchers.  BioScience 63(11):854-865. doi:
  • Alexander J Felson, Mark A Bradford, and Timothy M Terway 2013. Promoting Earth Stewardship through urban design experiments.Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 362–367.

Cities that Work for People and Ecosystems: Demonstration Projects for the Application of Ecological Science

Sustainability goals will be met only if we change the way science intersects society. Over the next decade, we have a window of opportunity to radically redefine our relationship with the planet to reduce risks of dangerous global changes on Earth’s life support systems. The science of earth stewardship requires interdisciplinary collaboration among many natural and social sciences, including climate, earth, and ocean science, environmental sciences, ecology, psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology. Our recently-conceived program, the Earth Stewardship Initiative, seeks to combine all of these fields into a cohesive, adaptable project that can benefit communities and ecological sites across the country.

The first Earth Stewardship Initiative took place during the ESA 2014 annual meeting in Sacramento, and focused on the American River Parkway. In 2015, we built off of that success and transitioned the project over to Baltimore, MD for the ESA 2015 meeting. The overall goal of the Earth Stewardship Initiative – to connect communities with ecologists, urban planners, and designers, and student fellows to promote social and ecological resilience and revitalization — builds on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals to provide a vision for a sustainable and equitable future

Kolenkitbuurt in western Amsterdam, Netherlands

Kolenkitbuurt is a neighbourhood in western Amsterdam with a bad reputation. It was built shortly after the second world war as part of a major urban expansion plan, following the garden city principles outlined by Ebenezer Howard. Today, the neighbourhood is characterised by a repetitive pattern of monotonous, four-storey tenement blocks. Ninety-five per cent of the mostly small houses are in the social-rent sector, and they are occupied by some 7,000 people, many of them from large immigrant families.

Built between 1949 and 1953, the neighbourhood wasn’t originally given a name, just a number, so residents began calling it by the same nickname as the church around which it was built: Kolenkit, or “coal-scuttle”. Fifty years on, the area had fallen into despair and in 2004 was proclaimed the least popular neighbourhood in Amsterdam, with all “liveability” indicators in the red: high unemployment, poverty, youth crime and a relatively high rate of high-school drop-outs.

By then an urban renewal programme had started, demolishing more than 1,000 houses and building back bigger homes to diversify the housing stock and attract more wealthy residents. Yet in 2007, when neighbourhood liveability and social security were made priorities on the national political agenda, Kolenkitbuurt was still listed as one of the worst neighbourhoods in the Netherlands. All 40 areas on that list were targeted with an intensified programme to prevent ghettoisation.

The need for a different approach to solving the problems of disadvantaged neighbourhoods has been widely supported in theory and practice. Academics argue that “bottom-up” urbanism can respond more quickly to societal needs, compared to a top-down approach. Kolenkitbuurt is an example of this strategy – for the social part of the programme, the district government adopted an unusual approach.

A tender call was put out to garner ideas on improving liveability in the neighbourhood. The eventual winner would be awarded the opportunity (and an operational budget) to execute their plan for a limited amount of time, during which they could prove their value to the neighbourhood.  The tender was won by Cascoland, a small international network of artists, architects and designers formed by Dutch community artists Fiona Bell and Roel Schoenmakers. Cascoland has guided participatory projects in South African slums and in Rio de Janeiro, among other cities; each time it has provided an empty casco (“frame”) of facilitation and artistic skills which is eventually given meaning by local communities.

The four mobile hen houses in Kolenkitbuurt.

Four mobile henhouses – with added decoration. Photograph: Mark Weemen

Cascoland had already been working in the Kolenkit area for three years as part of a study by the University of Amsterdam into the role of cultural enterprises in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The fact they were already known by major stakeholders in the area – indeed were residents themselves – created the preconditions for a higher degree of local involvement, which was an advantage over other competitors.

According to Stephen Graham, professor of cities and society at Newcastle University, one of the benefits of bottom-up urbanism is that it highlights creativity – in addition to encouraging entrepreneurship, providing incentives to property owners to maintain properties, and supporting environmentally sustainable development. In this sense, Bell and Schoenmakers have acted as cultural process managers for bottom-up initiatives and ideas.

Due to the open character of their approach, however, no promises could be made about the outcome – which meant policymakers were initially reluctant to accept Cascoland unconditionally. The collective was allowed to run a pilot project for eight months from August 2010, with an operational budget that enabled two or three artists to work in the neighbourhood. The local housing corporation also made two small locations available for free; to gain a better understanding of the local residents and what services or activities were lacking, Cascoland began by organising weekly activities in these locations. The first was an open neighbourhood dinner where ideas were exchanged over an affordable meal.

By hosting activities with a low barrier to entry, Schoenmakers and Bell gathered many participants to share information about what small additions would impact the quality of life in the neighbourhood most efficiently. This research phase revealed that the issue of liveability in itself was not perceived as problematic. Instead, the local families, many originating from rural areas of Morocco and Turkey, expressed a desire to keep small cattle as they had done in their home countries.

Video: the Cascoland Kolenkit project

According to Nina Wallerstein, professor of family and community medicine at the University of New Mexico, “empowerment is a social-action process that promotes participation of people, organisations and communities towards the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of community life and social justice”. Cascoland’s involvement in Kolenkit increased its residents’ feeling of responsibility about the interventions and services developed in the neighbourhood. Moreover, the empowerment process increased the residents’ happiness with their living environments, because they could replicate some habits and activities typical of life in their home countries.

For example, residents said they wanted more meeting places such as parks in the area. As a result, one of Cascoland’s first interventions focused on a one-acre plot that had been vacant for years: the plot was derelict and surrounded by a fence, and perceived as a source of discomfort. Still, this piece of land was valuable because of its central location and its proximity to shops and the main walking routes in the neighbourhood, so Cascoland began by organising playful activities connected to the boundaries of the site – creating a labyrinth made from the fences so people could interact with the fenced environment in a positive way.

As some residents had expressed a desire to keep chickens, Cascoland also developed four mobile henhouses for the site, which were designed and made in collaboration with the residents. Several neighbourhood families with children were selected to keep the chickens, under the condition that they would feed them and clean the henhouse.

Gradually, the vacant plot developed into a meeting place. The henhouses stimulated commitment from neighbours and encouraged them to take responsibility for the management of their public space. The government saw the success of this intervention and eventually removed the remaining fences, allowing the community to fully reappropriate the unused plot.

Indeed, the mobile henhouses proved such a success that Cascoland could not meet the demand of neighbours interested in keeping chickens. Schoenmakers and Bell saw this as an opportunity to implement another important aspect of their approach: empowerment. They helped these interested neighbours apply for a permit at the district office to enlarge the henhouse project, and ultimately enabled the community to co-operatively design and build a large chicken coop surrounded by fruit trees.

The community-designed and built Kolenkitbuurt chicken coop

The community-designed and built chicken coop. Photograph: Paul Fennis

Meanwhile, Kolenkitbuurt residents who frequented barbecue spots outside the city expressed a wish to have the same facility within their neighbourhood. At the time, other districts of Amsterdam were imposing stricter regulations to prevent the development of barbecues in parks and squares, but thanks to the moderation of Cascoland and the involvement of the local community, Kolenkit was able to implement this project. The HoutsKolenkit, a publicly accessible area furnished with three barbecue grills and several picnic tables, created a viable place for residents to cook dinner and eat together; it was a valuable social asset to the neighbourhood.

Cascoland’s strategy went further than simply facilitating general requests from residents, however. It was also able to identify less visible problems around the neighbourhood – for instance, children at the local school who were often appearing tired in class.  Upon investigation, this was traced to families letting visiting relatives sleep in children’s bedrooms due to lack of space. The kids, forced to sleep on the couch, were tired the following day. Cascoland and the residents came up with a simple solution: one of the vacant apartments was turned into a neighbourhood guestroom, maintained and managed by neighbours, that can be booked for a small amount.

In all, more than 20 interventions have been implemented since the beginning of the Cascoland project in 2010. Others include the decoration of a formerly dark and dank tunnel by neighbours, the creation of an ice-skating rink and a festive neighbourhood breakfast. Each project has its own purpose, its own planning, management and financing process, and different combinations of artists and residents are involved in each one.

In the beginning, policymakers had been reluctant to agree to such an open-ended approach to the Kolenkitbuurt programme. However, the openness of Cascoland’s strategy – which did not include a precise set of outcomes, only a working method – can be considered its strength. No single “result” should be regarded as the final stage of an urban revival process, and when institutions support the creation of a bottom-up initiative, they should also define how to transmit the management of the process to the citizens themselves.

Cascoland was always focused on empowering the community to keep the programme going in the long term, helping residents to initiate and manage their own projects without outside assistance. In theory, this makes the Kolenkit programme resilient and Cascoland, in itself, redundant – so they can move on and focus on new initiatives.

This is an edited extract from CITIES Foundation‘s new book, We Own the City: Enabling Community Practice in Architecture and Urban Planning, published by Trancity/Valiz and launching from Amsterdam on 27 May. Read more of We Own the City here


Over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and rates of urbanization continue to increase. In the Anthropocene, cities are significant players. Dense concentrations of people and resources, while sometimes environmentally taxing, are also fertile grounds for cooperation and models of sustainability.

Melbourne, Australia started turning heads in 2015 when they put forward a simple, yet revolutionary, model for renewable energy transition. Thirteen of the largest institutions in the city (including the city government itself) put their heads together and signed an agreement to purchase their energy from a new large-scale renewable energy projects.

The “revolutionary” aspect of this was an unlikely partnership among prominent institutions from all over the city. Members of this consortium range from the Melbourne city government, Australia Post, National Australia Bank, and University of Melbourne, among others. This group of buyers plans on purchasing 110 GWh worth of energy from new large scale renewable energy facilities through a “group purchasing model”.  A group model allows for investment at a much larger scale than any of this institutions could do on its own.

There are many benefits of this group purchasing model. Firstly, a renewable energy project of this size is predicted to offset up to 138,600 tonnes of CO2 each year. It also secures a long-term market for renewable energy production project, which is a needed step for the development of large-scale projects.

Currently, the consortium is in the process of accepting applications from potential developers. There are two successful tenders so far, both large-scale wind farms.

The most exciting aspect of this model may be its replicability. Other large cities from around the world have expressed interest in Melbourne’s model, notably members of the C40 Cities climate Leadership group, which consists of many of the world’s largest, and most influential mega-cities such as London, Beijing, Paris and New York, who are committed to addressing climate change.

In an article from last year, the Guardian referred to Melbourne’s energy plan as a ‘blue-print’ for other cities to follow.  In the absence of global leadership on climate action, solutions may come from cities, through unlikely partnerships and cooperation.

Photos by Anna Kusmer; Info-graphic from City of Melbourne

The City of Melbourne, together with other local governments, cultural and educational institutions, and private-sector corporations launched a competitive tender in April 2016 to purchase large volumes of renewable energy through a group purchasing model, to purchase 110 GWh worth of energy from new large-scale renewable energy facilities. This amount of renewable energy will save up to 138,600 tonnes of CO2 each year, which is the equivalent of planting more than 160,000 new trees and is enough energy to power 28,475 Melbourne households.  Through a group tender process through Procurement Australia, they sought proposals from the market to deliver renewable energy at an attractive price for a 10-year term, and to demonstrate a range of community and economic benefits.

Preview of infographic. Expand to view or download the full infographic.

The Melbourne renewable energy project, conceived and managed by the city council, has been two years in the making. Thirteen major institutions operating in the city have formed a consortium that will sign an agreement to purchase a large chunk of their electricity from a new large-scale renewable energy project.

The consortium members are the city of Melbourne, Australia Post, National Australia Bank, the University of Melbourne, RMIT, data centre operator NEXTDC, Zoos Victoria, the city of Port Phillip, Moreland city council, the city of Yarra, Citywide, Melbourne convention and exhibition centre and Bank Australia. If the project goes ahead, it will reduce Melbourne’s carbon emissions by 138,000 tonnes per year.

The strategy will give a would-be project the chance to secure a buyer for the electricity it would produce but it also overcomes the reality that none of those 13 organisations would be big enough on their own to sign such a large-scale energy agreement.

A tender process is underway to find a proponent to provide 110GWh of renewable energy each year, enough to power 28,000 homes. The tender deadline is 20 June and, as the process is confidential, the council has not revealed which energy companies have submitted proposals.

Hypothetically a proponent might already have an advanced plan to build a large-scale solar or wind energy plant somewhere outside Melbourne but still need to secure a long-term buyer of the electricity before an investor will come on board with money for construction. If the Melbourne consortium were to sign a 10-year purchase agreement with that proponent, the proponent would have the certainty required to go ahead with its project.

The strategy is revolutionary, as it is the first time in Australia that a group of buyers has joined forces to purchase large-scale renewable energy. In fact, the council says it is not aware of a similar model anywhere in the world, especially under the leadership of a city council.

“We don’t often talk about government being the innovators but this is a really innovative project driven by the city of Melbourne,” Wood says.

The council has set itself a target to source 25% of the municipality’s energy from renewables by 2018. Right now, that figure sits at 12% and Wood says, even with the 110GWh project, a lot more will need to be done to reach the target. The project is the biggest step so far in the city of Melbourne’s overall wide-ranging efforts to mitigate climate change, including partnering with businesses to make buildings more sustainable and working to replace the city’s streetlights with LED lighting.

Bringing together an group of completely unrelated businesses and institutions to purchase 110GWh of renewable electricity might seem like a maverick idea but the City of Melbourne’s chief executive, Ben Rimmer, says the council has studied the economics closely.

“We have done a lot of very careful homework, including the request for information process,” Rimmer says. “This is not something that we have dreamed up in a couple of weeks. It’s something that we’ve been doing for some time with professional advisors. We are very confident that it is going to be a good financial deal.”




Tyisa Nabanye is a non-profit urban agriculture organisation growing organic food on the slopes of Signal Hill in Cape Town, seeking to improve food security, promote sustainable livelihoods and create employment for their members. Started in 2013 by a group of urban farmers from the townships around Cape Town, Tyisa Nabanye, which means “feed the others” in Xhosa, is an urban garden based on the principles of permaculture. The team consists of eight members: Mzu, Lumko, Unathi, Chuma, Lizza, Vuyo, Masi and Catherine.

The land that Tyisa Nabanye occupies in Tamboerskloof, was once used by the army, and is now referred to as Erf 81. The land is owned by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and administered by the Department of Public Works, but the members of Tyisa Nabanye got permission from Andre Laubscher, the de facto caretaker of the property, to start growing some vegetables and moved into an uninhabited military storehouse on the property. At the moment, neither department has a clear plan for the property and as a result they have not granted Tyisa Nabanye official tenure, although tacitly the department acknowledges their presence.

The urban farm at Tyisa Nabanye is turning into a real gem in the heart of the city- they hold markets every 2nd Sunday where people can buy their fresh produce and also home-made food. Every Wednesday and Thursday, they hold yoga classes for volunteers on the farm and every so often, they have a live music gig in the barn on the farm. Despite their uncertain status, they continue to innovate and learn, trying to create an environment where food can be grown, stories exchanged and lives valued.

Check out their Facebook page for more info:


How can people organise to gain control of the place in which they live?  The Scottish Ilse of Eigg replaced its historic semi-feudal system of land ownership, in which residents were tenants of an absentee laird (a large landowner) with a new model community based ownership.

Eigg is one of the Scottish Inner Hebrides.  In 1997, the island was bought from its absentee landlord for £1.5m, raised from residents and thousands of non-residents.  Many people in Scotland live on land owned by large landowners.  Scotland has highly unequal landownership, where over 50% of the land is owned by just 500 individuals.  The Gigha purchase was enabled by new Scottish laws which have aimed to produce a more equitable ownership of Scotland.

The island is owned by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, a partnership between the residents of Eigg, Scotland’s government’s Highland Council, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, a Scottish NGO. Since then the population has grown from about 60 to about 90.  Many of the new residents are young people who have returned to the island or who have moved to start new businesses.

A Common Right ~ Isle of Eigg ~ Scotland-HD from Community Land Scotland on Vimeo.

Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust aims to be the island’s guardian.  It defines this as providing and creating opportunity for the development of the island’s economy, housing and infrastructure, while enhancing stewardship of the Island’s natural and cultural heritage. The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust has set up three subsidiary companies to focus on different tasks: Eigg Trading Limited, Eigg Construction Limited & Eigg Electric Ltd.

A major project of the trust was the creation of a community electricity network powered by renewable power.  Eigg Electric Ltd was formed to operate this network, which was established by grants from the UK’s National Lottery and the Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company.

Prior to community ownership,  individual houses privately produced their power using a variety of methods.  Since 2008, Eigg generates almost all of its electricity using renewable energy.  It claims to have the first completely wind, water and sun-powered electricity grid in the world. Energy is drawn primarily from four wind turbines, a set of solar panels, and a small hydropower generator.  They also use a battery bank to even out power supply.  Eigg residents have organzied to restrict their electricity use (5 kW per house & 10 kW for businesses). Additionally, if is less wind or low water flow, a “traffic light” system lets residents known they should restrict their electricity use.  This system reduces demand by up to 20%, and allows the system to cope with variation in power generation.

Eigg Trading Limited owns and manages An Laimhrig, which contains the Island shop and Post Office, Tearoom, Craft Shop, Trust office waiting area and toilet /shower facilities. This was the first major project managed by the Trust, and was built with assistance from Highlands and Islands Enterprise.  Eigg Construction has renovated a number of houses and carries out infrastructure projects & other small scale repairs.

Eigg was also involved in the developed a novel internet system.  There is little phone service on the island, and after some other intial attempts at bringing the internet to the island  a wireless broadband network was developed.  This system is run by a Community Interest Company, a British type of social enterprise, which now also operates on other small Scottish islands.

Eigg residents also operates  a variety of programmes to connect to the off-island world in different ways.  These include a programme to encourage people to come volunteer for conservation projects to Volunteer on Eigg.  Eigg Box, is a social-enterprise brings together local artists with artists from around the world, as well as sell Eigg crafts online.

In January 2010, the Isle of Eigg community co-won 1st place and a £300,000 prize – in the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) Green Challenge to find new and better ways to tackle climate change.

Eigg residents view it as a  vibrant and attractive place to live and work.  The community is growing, and they are developing new ways of living in a remote place that requires overcomming many challenges and continually negotiating connections with the larger world.

The success of their community land purchase has changed the way people on Eigg relate to nature, as well as generated many new projects, and the success of Eigg has been a model for other communities in Scotland.

Former Chair of the Eigg turst, Scottish historian and land reform advocate, James Hunter, argues that a re-invention of crofting could provide a way to create resilient and sustainable rural livelihoods by promoting occupational pluralism (i.e. one person doing a number of different jobs), and the stewardship of local cultural ecosystems.  Scottish historian Jim Hunter has written a book, From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Top, that documents how recent examples of community ownership has built local self-confidence while reverse contracting economies and shrinking populations, and attracted new residents while providing affordable homes and enabling the creation of new businesses.  This type of shift in land ownership makes Scotland innovator in community focused land reform.

Community Land Scotland was established in 2010 to represent and network current and aspiring community landowners in Scotland. The International Land Coalition supports community land rights and land reform movements around the world.

An article and short film about a former music journalist who returned to Eigg gives a more intimate look at the realities of life and economics of small farm, and how entangled it is with larger EU and UK polices, but also the benefits such returnees bring.  In her case, being able to organize a music festival on the small island.

Back to the land: from London to sheep farming on Eigg from the source project on Vimeo.

A 2017 Guardian article provides an update on the state of the island as its population exceeds 100 residents.

A 2012 article by geographer Fiona Douglas Mackenzie : A common claim: Community land ownership in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland as well as her 2012 book Book review of Places of Possibility: Property, Nature and Community Land Ownership

Also 2013 Sarah Skerratt‘s article on the challenges that local community faces  Enhancing the analysis of rural community resilience: Evidence from community land ownership.

As well as Robert Mc Morran and others Reconstructing sustainability; participant experiences of community land tenure in North West Scotland


The Blindspot Think Tank, based in England, aims to develop solutions informed by system-change opportunities that are widely overlooked. One of their projects is ‘Planet levers’: a problem-solving method and ready-to-use policy options designed to match the complexity, scale and speed of today’s problems ( They suggest that breaking big problems into pieces has become the standard approach, even though this has never worked for the world’s largest problems. The challenge now is how to create effective change on a scale of ambition that can be difficult to even imagine.  Planet levers works with high-leverage policy solutions to reverse damaging system dynamics across a range of issues.

An example of a planet lever is the switch from today’s take-make-waste linear economy to a circular economy, where used resources end up again as resources for nature or people. Climate change, ocean pollution and unrepairable gadgets are all symptoms of today’s destructive linear economy. The alternative has been promoted for at least 50 years without actually happening, due to the relentless focus on gradual change in limited areas. Yet if we remember to design not just better products and better business models but also better economics, then markets could be harnessed to quickly solve the problems they previously caused. BlindSpot has published a proposal for circular economics, which is now highlighted as a “big idea” in an international review of best practice options for governments ( )  “Critical ecological, social and economic risks could still be reversed if we act now.”

FIVE FEET aims to initiate gatherings large and small “at the tide” (along beaches and tidal lowlands) around the globe to connect everyday people with the coming realities of sea level rise. Five feet (or 1.5 meters) has been chosen as a benchmark, because it is a measure easily judged using human stature as a guide. The goal is to use these Five-Feet Moments as a learning tool to engage everyday people in awareness of the impact sea rise will have at meaningful places near their homes; and then provide resources and educational tools that help individuals reduce their carbon footprint and ecological impact at home, at work and in the communities where they live.The project asks people to perform the following exercise:

  •  Take yourself to a place where the tide runs each day. If possible, go there in person or if the shore is far away, then use your memory to guide you.
  •  Take in your surroundings and stand at the high-tide mark or as close as you can.
  •  Face inland for a moment, away from the water.
  •  Hold your hand straight out in front of you—palm up by the way, this is an invitation, not a salute.
  •  Imagine water at the height of your hand extending forward as far as you can see.
  •  Imagine next what you and those around you will lose in the decades ahead, and never forget what you have seen.
  •  Now restart your day, and everyday forward making choices which reduce your impact on our climate and our world. Teach others to do likewise.

In the words of the founder, BT Hathway, “We see many protest initiatives aimed at seats of power. aims to engage everyday people in the kinds of personal transformation needed to undergird and strengthen societal change. To date we have seen few if any organizations designed to lift people up and give them the awareness and the confidence to act on climate issues on a personal and local level.” at you have seen.  Now restart your day, and everyday forward making choices which reduce your impact on our climate and our world. Teach others to do likewise.  Only with daily effort from billions of people, will we diminish and then reverse the constant self-destructive impact our society has upon our one and only home.​

In the early 1980’s Gaviotas began planting a Caribbean pine tree in the otherwise barren llanos of eastern Colombia. These trees were able to survive in the highly acidic soil with the help of mycorrhizal fungus applied to their roots. Over the years, this forest has expanded to approximately 8,000 hectares, or 20,000 acres. The presence of the forest has altered the local climate by generating an additional 10 percent rainfall, which also supports Gaviotas’ water bottling initiative.

The processing of tree resin has become an important economic activity for the community. Gaviotans discovered that their pine forest can produce twice as much resin as any other resin-tapping forest in the world. Tree tappers normally use sulfuric acid when making incisions, but Gaviotans use an enzyme that appears to be beneficial for the trees. The use of mycorrhizal fungus may also contribute to their productivity.

Gaviotans produce a very high-grade resin in their efficient, zero-waste facility. Even the packaging of the resin was designed to minimize excess material. Resin can be poured directly into cardboard boxes, cooled and shipped to market.

Palm trees are now being planted in the forest to support the production of biodiesel for the trucks that to transport their products to Bogota.

Over the years the pine trees have provided a shady understory for other plants and animals to thrive. Some of these species may be dormant seeds of ancient rainforest that once covered the region. The pines are slowly being crowded out by the regeneration of indigenous species. The community is generating power with turbine engines fueled by the aging pines in their forest.

 By natural law, energy is neither created nor destroyed – it simply transforms from one medium into another. No matter where you are, it is always there for the taking. One might even say that it is so close, that most people are unable to see it! One should always use all the locally available energy first – tap all locally available resources first – before even thinking of bringing in energy from somewhere else. In that spirit, here is what Gaviotas has done recently:

For years, Gaviotas has been generating its electricity by means of a steam turbine running on wood culled from its forest. This year, the villagers have developed a novel fuel mix made of turpentine (distilled resin tapped from the pine trees in the forest) and plant oil (extracted from the fruit of the palm trees in the forest or from recycled cooking oil) that now runs all their diesel engines – electric generators, tractors, and soon trucks as well. All that was needed were stainless steel filters (developed in-house) to replace the regular paper oil filters in their engines. This new fuel mix doesn’t require any changes to the engines’ diesel fuel injection pumps.Gaviotas features a community dining hall that is very popular with the villagers. Its kitchen makes about 200 meals a day. The massive cooking stoves have now been equipped with internal piping through which water is heated to near boiling and is then circulated without a pump, simply via natural convection (thermosiphon). This new heat exchange system replaces the 30 solar collectors that used to sit on the roof of the dining hall. The old collectors (also thermosiphon with no moving parts) are still in top shape, so they will simply get a new paint job and be sold for $1,000 a piece!

Biodiversity in the Gaviotas forest continues to increase. The villagers have planted a mix of pine and palm, and now fruit trees, and nature is adding the rest: hundreds of native plant and animal species are emerging that had not been seen on these arid plains in ages.

Earth Stewardship Initiative

At the upcoming Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2017 meeting in Portland, Oregon this August, the Earth Stewardship Initiative (ESI) Demonstration Project is organizing a “learning from the city” program. Working in conjunction with the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), we will evaluate Portland’s green infrastructure (GI) design and implementation practices and propose design research and monitoring strategies to inform their process. We will do so through a field trip, targeted workshop, and writing session during the ESA. We now invite applications for as many as 30 ESI Student Fellows to participate in this exciting project.

Since 2014, ESI has collaborated twice with representatives from the cities where the ESA conferences were held and brought together multiple local organizations and academic institutions. ESI solicits fellows from around the country to work with city officials, practitioners, and ESA organizers on large-scale land planning projects. Participants collaborate on an urban design process to generate sustainable design strategies, and propose ways of improving research methods for these projects through designed experiments and other adaptive management tools. ESA 2017 offers unique opportunities to evaluate current GI design for the City of Portland and to develop designed experiments with a team of senior ecologists, ecology students, and city managers. Portland is a national leader in implementing green infrastructure, and has established a city-wide green network drawing on considerable experience with GI design, implementation, monitoring, maintenance, and community engagement.

 Prior to the meeting, selected ESI Fellows will review synthesized materials from Portland and participate in a conference call with ESI advisors and the City. At the ESA meeting, fellows will attend an organized field trip on August 8 to Portland GI sites with BES officials, and discuss how research can be integrated into the design of these built environments to assess their ecological value and add ecological function. During a subsequent workshop on August 10, fellow will collaborate with senior ESA research scientists, landscape designers, and city managers to develop strategies around the design, engineering, and maintenance of local GI for future integration of ecological research. Workshop participants will engage in a collaborative brainstorming session to develop strategies for integrating experimental research into GI projects. Following the workshop, fellows will hold a writing sessions to synthesize materials from the field trip and workshop and make recommendations for integrating monitoring and research through designed experiments and other adaptive management tools for GI in Portland. After the meeting fellows will use this synthesis work to complete a white paper on Portland’s GI implementation, leading to potential scientific publications. Fellows will also benefit from opportunities to network with ESA scientists and City of Portland BES officials.   ESI fellows are expected to: 1) register for and attend ESA 2017 for both the field trip and workshop, 2) review materials and attend the conference call and planning session, 3) attend the workshop, field trip, and writing session during the ESA in Portland, and 4) dedicate several days of remote work following the conference to edit and complete the white paper. Funding is available for outstanding fellows to cover conference and transportation costs. To apply, please send a one-page statement of interest and resume/short CV as a single PDF document to Yishen Li ([email protected]) by May 20th. Applications received after May 20th will be considered on a rolling basis. We look forward to working with you!


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