Doughnut Economics

Forget the bar – Nanaimo is reaching for a new sweet (spot)

by Jen Groundwater

It was 2012 when Oxford University economist Kate Raworth published “A safe and just space for humanity,” an article introducing her Doughnut Economic Model to the world. She threw down a bold challenge for the twenty-first century: “to eradicate poverty and achieve prosperity for all within the means of the planet’s limited natural resources.”

Ten years later, Raworth’s model, initially designed for nation-states, has been adopted by local governments all over the world – including in Nanaimo, where the new City Plan: Nanaimo ReImagined was developed using Doughnut Economic principles as its framework.

Raworth invites us to picture two concentric circles. The outer represents the environmental ceiling: the limits of what our planet’s systems can tolerate. This is based on the nine planetary boundaries laid out by a group of eminent Earth scientists in a 2009 Nature article. The inner, based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, represents the social foundation: necessities like clean water, healthy food, access to education and jobs, etc.

Within the two is a doughnut-shaped “sweet spot.” Here, every human has enough to thrive while the earth’s environmental limits are not exceeded.

Through her Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), Raworth provides open-access tools for local governments, regions, and countries to adapt the model for their own unique social and environmental conditions.

Which is where Nanaimo comes in.

In late 2020, the city was engaged in an extensive public consultation process to update its Official Community Plan. Council and administration made a unique decision to integrate this plan with several other key strategic planning documents that would otherwise have been updated separately. This process resulted in the creation of one comprehensive document (City Plan) to guide policy and decision-making around all aspects of life, including transportation, housing, accessibility, climate resilience, health, recreation and culture, and more.

Unfettered GDP growth isn’t sustainable on a planet with finite resources, and trickle-down economics has actually widened the gap between rich and poor – both globally and within Canadian cities.

During the consultation process, Councillor Ben Geselbracht brought the Doughnut Economic Model to the table as a way of “integrating the environmental sustainability lens with the need for social equity” for a city trying to chart a course that would last for the next 25 years.

Through almost two years of consultation, that model helped guide Nanaimo’s attempt to anwer its own version of the Doughnut question: “What can we do to further ensure that we meet the needs of our community without exceeding the boundaries of our ecological ceiling, locally and regionally?” On July 4, 2022, the bylaw containing the 304-page City Plan: Nanaimo ReImagined was adopted.

Within the plan are Five City Goals that will help to guide Nanaimo’s policy-making for the next quarter century: A Green Nanaimo, supporting resilient and regenerative ecosystems; A Connected Nanaimo, supporting equitable access and mobility; A Healthy Nanaimo, supporting community well-being and livability; An Empowered Nanaimo, supporting reconciliation, representation, and inclusion; and A Prosperous Nanaimo, supporting a thriving and resilient economy.

Now what? A cynic might say it’s all well and good to make these kinds of declarations – but how will this ambitious plan translate into action? As Lisa Bhopalsingh, Nanaimo’s Director of Community Development, notes, “you can spend two or three years just discussing doughnuts and not making any progress,” but Nanaimo was determined not to fall into that trap. The City Plan has used doughnut economics as a practical strategy to guide the city’s future evolution, and this is to be followed by a coordinated approach to implementation.

Staff are already drafting an Integrated Action Plan (“concrete actions that the City can put in motion to make progress towards the Five City Goals”). Others are crafting a Monitoring Strategy to measure progress towards the Five City Goals using a variety of indicators and metrics. This will include identifying potential indicators – ranging from water consumption to GHG emissions to the number of unhoused people – and then working with Council to set targets to aim for.

Nanaimo was the first Canadian city to adopt and customize the model for municipal use, but the movement is catching on. With Canadians currently using the equivalent of five planet Earths in resources, more communities may consider putting the Doughnut at the top of their strategic planning menu. Unfettered GDP growth isn’t sustainable on a planet with finite resources, and trickle-down economics has actually widened the gap between rich and poor – both globally and within Canadian cities.

Nanaimo’s doughnut-inspired City Plan is intended to last for 25 years. From our current vantage point, it’s impossible to imagine what challenges it will help future councils and staff to navigate. But it provides a sound basis to guide the community toward becoming a place where humans can continue to thrive while protecting and enhancing environmental assets.

The Doughnut In Action – Some places where Doughnut Economics is already getting results

In Nanaimo, the main effect of the Doughnut has been guiding the city’s new 25-year plan – measurable effects on the ground will take time to see. But there are a number of international doughnut-guided initiatives that are already up and running – here are just a few:

New Zealand cities will soon have Doughnut Hubs—composting facilities and community gardens—where people can compost and grow fresh food. The first one opened in October 2022.

Barcelona is implementing over 300 measures to encourage people to walk, cycle, or use public transport. These include creating more bike lanes and purchasing only gas-hybrid, electric, or hydrogen-powered buses.

Amsterdam has turned down the heat by 3° in all municipal buildings, which will reduce CO2 emissions by up to 15%.

Portland, Oregon, recently launched the “From Excess to Access” program, which helps low-income property owners access free donated construction materials so they can can bring their buildings up to code.

Further reading:

Jen Groundwater is a writer, editor, and author living in the Comox Valley.

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