Footprint for Cities

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Why track resource consumption and natural capital?

Local governments succeed by helping all their residents live fulfilling lives, both today and in the future. The availability of natural capital, nature’s ability to renew and provide resources and services, is not the only ingredient in this vision. However,  without natural capital – healthy food, energy for mobility and heat, fibre for paper, clothing and shelter, fresh air and clean water – such a vision is impossible. Thus, providing current and future human well-being depends on protecting natural capital from systematic overuse; otherwise, nature will no longer be able to secure society with these basic services.*

What’s in it for local governments?

Ecological Footprint accounts allow governments to track a city or region’s demand on natural capital, and to compare this demand with the amount of natural capital actually available. The accounts also give governments the ability to answer more specific questions about the distribution of these demands within their economy. In other words,  it gives them information about their resource metabolism.

To learn more about cities that have calculated their Ecological Footprint, we invite you to read our Case Stories.

For example, Footprint accounts reveal the ecological demand associated with residential consumption, the production of value-added products, and the generation of exports. They also help assess the ecological capacity embodied in the imports upon which a region depends. This can shed light on the region’s constraints or future liabilities in comparison with other regions of the world, and identify opportunities to defend or improve the local quality of life. Footprint accounts help governments become more specific about sustainability in a number of ways. The accounts provide a common language and a clearly defined methodology that can be used to support staff training and to communicate about sustainability issues with other levels of government or with the public.

Footprint accounts add value to existing data sets on production, trade and environmental performance by providing a comprehensive way to interpret them. For instance, the accounts can help guide “environmental management systems” by offering a framework for gathering and organizing data, setting targets and tracking progress. The accounts can also serve as environmental reporting requirements, and inform strategic decision-making for regional economic development.

The global effort for sustainability will be won, or lost, in the world’s cities, where urban design may influence over 70 percent of people’s Ecological Footprint. High-Footprint cities can reduce this demand on nature greatly with existing technology. Many of these savings also cut costs and make cities more livable. Since urban infrastructure is long-lasting and influences resource needs for decades to come,  infrastructure decisions make or break a city’s future. Which cities are building future resource traps? Which ones are building opportunities for resource efficient and more competitive lifestyles?

Without regional resource accounting, governments can easily overlook or fail to realize the extent of these kinds of opportunities and threats. The Ecological Footprint, a comprehensive,  science-based resource accounting system that compares people’s use of nature with nature’s ability to regenerate, helps eliminate this blind spot.

San Francisco, CA (USA)

In 2010 Global Footprint Network joined forces with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) to calculate the Ecological Footprint of San Francisco residents and the city as a whole. With urban design and infrastructure having a major influence on its residents’ Ecological Footprints, the goal of the project was to expand the thinking and knowledge around urban living and sustainability. The completed footprint study (download the PDF) found that the average San Franciscan’s overall footprint was about 6 percent higher than the average American’s. The study revealed one of the paradoxes of Footprint trends in modern cities: while density and public transportation options significantly reduce per capita Footprint, the increased affluence of city residents correlates with increased consumption. A $1000 increase in expenditure is expected, on average, to correlate with a 0.09 gha per capita increase in Ecological Footprint. A 100 people per square mile increase in population density is associated with a 0.06 gha per capita decrease in the Ecological Footprint. (Read more about the study.)

*Text from this page was written by Global Footprint Network staff and much of it has since been published.  Citation: Wackernagel et al. 2006. The Ecological Footprint of cities and regions; Comparing resource availability with resource demand. Environment and Urbanization 18(1): 103–112.