The TH Interview: Greg Searle One Planet Living North America

Hands touching miniature buildings in a sustainable setting surrounded by wind turbines.

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How do you shrink the average American’s ecological footprint down from 5 planets to the necessary one? It’s certainly a tough task, but Greg Searle, of One Planet Living North America, believes his organization may have some answers. He is part of a network aiming to build flagship developments on five different continents by partnering with progressive developers and providing them with "no-nonsense expertise to build the most advanced sustainable communities in the world." We Treehuggers are already huge fans of the Bioregional Development Group (who came up with the One Planet Living concept in partnership with WWF) and we’ve reported on their massively important cutting-edge initiatives here, and here. We’ve even interviewed the founders Sue Riddlestone and Pooran Desai here. Now, in this interview, Greg explains why their framework is so important, and what they are doing to implement it in North America. He also gives some handy hints on things every Treehugger can do to reduce their ecological footprint, no matter where they find themselves on this (one) planet.

Treehugger: What differentiates One Planet Living from the various other schemes, initatives and frameworks that are around for achieving sustainable development, such as Natural Step, or LEED for example?

Greg Searle: Like the Natural Step, One Planet Living has broad application; it is being used as a sustainability framework by companies, such as Nokia and, and by governments, such as the UK Department of the Environment, in ways that have little to do with green building. That being said, our largest effort in North America is in green residential development.

One of One Planet Living's unique angles is having the measurable target for sustainability embedded right in the name. There's no fuzziness about what sustainability means. We're rejecting Five Planet Living, which is what most of us in North America achieve in the course of a normal, high-consumption day, in favor of productive, practical ways to live within our one planet's natural limits.

Secondly, we're using ecological footprinting as our decision-making tool, which means that we're looking at Big Picture sustainability – not just building efficiency. Paul Hawken calls the footprinting approach "true north when it comes to sustainability," and using it in planning compels us to take responsibility for the 50% of our ecological footprint which has nothing to do with buildings or infrastructure, but everything to do with lifestyles. As a developer, your money can go further towards true sustainability if you design for wiser food and transportation and recycling choices in a real estate development. Triple glazed windows are expensive; inviting a local farmer's market on-site can actually generate revenue, and achieve a higher footprint reduction.

Third, we don't do checklists. We're not prescriptive, nor are we going to dictate to local experts how to achieve sustainability in humid New Orleans or frigid Montreal. We leave it up to the ingenuity of the design team, much like the new and very important Living Building Challenge does. We do ask design teams to hit some very simple, very ambitious targets. And that's the fourth difference: mere carbon reduction isn't good enough (after all, it's not good enough for the planet). Our commitment to Zero Carbon means 100% of energy used on-site comes from renewable sources. Zero Waste means that only 2% of our waste ever makes it to landfill. With targets like this, One Planet Living is trying to raise the bar of the green building movement to a more realistic level – true, measurable sustainability.

Fifth, we're not going to wait for construction to wrap-up before we endorse a project. If a developer can convince us that they're committed to doing the right thing, we'll sing their praises right away. Because we roll up our sleeves and get involved on-site throughout every stage of development – design, construction, and operation – we're taking equal responsibility for hitting our ambitious targets. That's a big difference from a building standard.

Then there's One Planet Living's exclusivity. We're trying to create a handful of the greenest neighborhoods in North America – we're not going to do hundreds, or even dozens. The goal is to do a few projects so well that we'll inspire a second generation of exceptional green building. This exclusivity is attractive to developers looking to differentiate their product in the increasingly noisy green market.

And finally, we have the backing of the World Wildlife Fund – the most trusted brand in the environmental movement. Their Panda logo is more recognizable than the Golden Arches.

GS: As your website states, North America's ecological footprint is the largest of any continent in the world. What particular challenge does this represent to you in terms of implementing One Planet Living here?

TH: Like I said, it's a five-planet footprint. We're seeking an 80% reduction here. That's not going to be easy. But because so much of North America's swollen footprint is related to food, transportation, and waste, it means that our Green lifestyles program (which creates easy, practical alternatives to over-consumption) will achieve a bigger reduction here than in, say, Europe, where consumers are by default more responsible.

TH: What about the plus points? Does North America have any strategic, cultural or resource advantages that would help in the transition to a more sustainable society?

GS: Big-time. Americans live in the most influential, innovative country in the world. Once One Planet Living takes off in North America, the ripple effect will be global. We're talking about a Tipping Point here.

TH: You recently described the Vancouver EcoDensity Initiative as 'The single most important strategy for reducing the ecological footprint of vancouver residents'. Why is density such an important factor in urban sustainability?

GS: We were asked by the Mayor of Vancouver to support the launch of his initiative by speaking at the press conference. That's not something we would normally do. But "quality" density is just common sense, a matter of scale and efficiency, and the lay public need to better understand this pivotal issue.

Think about how many stops a bus has to make to service an entire suburb. You'll find the same number of passengers in a couple square blocks in Manhattan – and that's just one stop for the bus. That same efficiency equation works for energy, and water, and treating wastes, and the supply of local goods. "Planet of the Slums" author Mike Davis has said that "The only way the human species will survive this century and the environmental disasters brought about by indiscriminate capitalism is to make the cities our arks." I think he's right – the central challenge of our age is making our cities far more self-reliant than today's human settlements, so that we can ride out the looming climate and population crises. Eliminating sprawl (goodbye energy-sucking McMansions, 3 car garages, thirsty lawns, and social isolation) opens up more productive land uses for habitat and farmland and, um, mountain biking.

TH: Can you describe some of the projects BioRegional North America is working on? Is there an official One Planet Living community in the pipeline for North America yet?

GS: We're still looking – if you're a developer with a great transit-oriented site that's bigger than 20 acres, come talk to us. We do have several Top Secret projects in the works. There will be some big announcements this year. But I can tell you that we're committed to a project in Washington DC, right under the noses of Congress, where we hope to demonstrate truly sustainable living to some of Washington D.C.'s 26 million annual influential visitors. We have some excellent opportunities in Montreal and California. And we're in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, too, working to retrofit the "Neighborhood that Climate Change Wrecked" into a climate-neutral community.

TH: You have a background in community engagement and leadership facilitation, as well as technology and knowledge management. How does this inform your work at BioRegional?

GS: I'm a former internet entrepreneur from the post dot-com era, when getting a round of investment was virtually impossible. Building our software company meant being ultra-scrappy and thrifty (and we did score investment). Although we're a non-profit, we need that same entrepreneurial attitude to help us raise money for creating One Planet Living communities in North America. We also are looking for donors who want to participate in this world-changing project with us.

My experience with community engagement, which I picked up while working in West Africa, means that I bring a passion for being participatory. There's no better person to tell you how to build a neighborhood than the person who's going to live in it, or next to it.

And the knowledge management background means that I push developers to modernize their proprietary, old-school thinking and learn from other industries where transparent knowledge-sharing is considered to be strategic. Developers hate talking about unintended outcomes; but that same knowledge could mean the difference between success and failure to every other green builder. In the end, sharing one mistake made could bring ten-fold returns – an influx of valuable lessons from other developers on mistakes they made. It's about making the entire green building movement horizontally smarter and less error-prone.

You know, I'd love to see a new kind of "confidential" green building conference for developers and design professionals, where they could really open their kimonos without fear of harming their reputations.

TH: What is the single biggest step that your average Treehugger can take to move towards One Planet Living?

GS: The big step is taking responsibility - find out just how swollen your personal ecological footprint is. Let that big fat scary number motivate you to take a bunch of baby steps to reducing your footprint. Buy local. Find out where your groceries come from. Eat less meat, especially beef – you'll save 1 ton of annual carbon emissions. Join a car-sharing club, carpool, or drive a hybrid – you'll save another ton of carbon. Compost. Try not to fly – aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon emissions. Cancel that return flight to Australia – you'll save 5 tons of carbon. Buy sustainable products. Try Amtrak. Upcycle. Find ways to make recycling more convenient for yourself at home. Hit the hardware store and do some basic energy and water efficiency upgrades to your home. Cycle to work. Take public transit. Push for an ecological footprint audit at your work. The list of practical baby steps is almost endless and well-documented at Treehugger. It's the will to commit to real personal change that is in short supply.

An interesting sidebar; while living at BedZED (the prototype eco-neighborhood for One Planet Living in South London, UK), I found it much easier to make some of these changes in my personal life. Not only was the community designed ergonomically to make habit change easier; but many of my neighbors were in various stages of green lifestyle adoption. My hypothesis is that a compelling social context – e.g. living in the right community - can accelerate a move towards One Planet Living. We know from our experience at BedZED that people are more open to "resetting" their behavior within the first year of moving in – many aspects of their lives are changing (home, commute, school, grocery store, etc.), so it isn't as much of a stretch to, say, recycle more or join an on-site car-sharing club. This is good news for "new build" green communities. But if you're not lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that was designed intentionally to make One planet Living easy, attractive, and affordable, what do you do? We've just produced an interesting report on achieving One Planet Living with suburban retrofits. It's a great step in the right direction, and we need to think more about this big, big challenge of fomenting mass lifestyle change towards One Planet Living in existing neighborhoods, using an emergent, incremental, social marketing approach that can be implemented by activists and "early adopters" in their own neighborhoods. A program that weaves together local suppliers, community agriculture, and awareness-raising; a method to harness diverse neighborhood activism and social enterprise efforts towards the goal of One Planet Living, backed by empirical ecological footprint monitoring. That's a project we'd really like to undertake or collaborate on at some point.