If the world’s cities focus on using renewable energy and make it easy for their citizens to walk and bike to work instead of driving, it will go a long way towards shifting the planet’s culture towards one of sustainability. But if these urban centers really want to have a lasting impact, this is only the beginning of the job, writes Peter Newman in “Building Cities of the Future,” available in the “Government” section in State of the World 2010.
The other part of the task involves teaching a city’s residents how to use a new green building or why it makes more sense for them to take the electric light rail to work. If this is not accomplished, the residents will simply “transfer their old consumptive lifestyles to the new ‘eco’ situations.” A phenomenon known as Jevons Paradox or “the rebound effect”—increased efficiency leading to increased consumption—is the likely outcome.
An example of this has been seen with fuel-efficient cars. If it costs less money to fill up your car’s gas tank, you might end up driving it more, thereby negating any ecological gains made through the cleaner technology. A higher gasoline tax, which has been the strategy in Europe as compared to Australia and North America, might help. But education about sustainability, which leads to people wanting to consume less and becoming advocates for the new culture, will have the most significant and long-lasting changes.
One strategy that has worked in several cities is TravelSmart, developed by German sociologist Werner Börg. This approach targets individual households through a letter from the Mayor or the State Minister and then a follow-up visit from a TravelSmart officer (who might arrive on a bike) bearing a package with information designed for the household’s specific needs. The households receive information on transit and walking in their city and why ecologically-friendly transportation is important.
Thus far, the results have been encouraging. In communities where TravelSmart has been implemented, residents have reduced kilometers traveled by vehicle by around 12-14 percent—a result that seems to last for at least five years after the program ends. In Perth, Australia, 200,000 households have taken part in the TravelSmart approach and the city has seen its rail usage skyrocket. Even more importantly, TravelSmart families become advocates for sustainable transport, which can have even more lasting effects. Indeed, this is a key piece of the puzzle. Education alone often fails to lead to long-lasting behavior change. But when influentials in a community advocate for something, social norms shift and so do behaviors.
The next step, which Perth has already employed, is LivingSmart. This program focuses on reducing energy, water, and waste in the household through eco-coaches. In Perth, this approach has been met with enthusiasm and 15,000 households have signed up.
These programs recognize a fundamental principle about cultural change: it works best when it is supported by a community, and reinforced by social norms. But those norms will only develop if its members know exactly why and how to make sustainable choices.