The Amsterdam City Doughnut – A Tool for Transformative Action

Thriving Cities

Our zoom meet-up back on May 11 heard from Julia Lipton of C40 Cities, all the way from lockdown in Australia, on how doughnut economics relates to city planning after COVID. Here’s a summary of what she said. And Peter LeForte from Cornwall Council outlined doughnut-inspired work already under way in Cornwall.

C40 are a network of 94 cities focused on the toughest climate change targets, committed to the limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, adaptation to climate risk, and the creation of more equitable and resilient communities. They work through peer to peer exchange and collaboration.

The inspiration for the Thriving Cities Initiative lies in Kate Raworth’s scheme she calls Doughnut Economics. (Her book of that title uses the English spelling but if you want to explore further be sure to google Donut economics as well).

In the diagram, the green of the doughnut is the safe and just place for humanity. And it relies on a regenerative and distributive economy, or a circular economy, to deliver basic human needs.The inner circle is based on the sustainable development goals, while the outer boundary is set by Johan Rockstrom et al’s planetary boundaries.

Currently global analysis shows a shortfall on every single one of the social foundations and an overshoot on most of the planetary boundaries. As this University of Leeds project shows in detail, no country is yet delivering on social foundations within planetary boundaries. In this sense, Raworth says, all countries are developing countries.

Taking this on at city level is the mission of the Thriving Cities Initiative – a partnership between Doughnut Economics Action Lab and Circle Economy based in Amsterdam, funded by KR Foundation based in Denmark.

The pilot programme worked with Amsterdam, Portland and Philadelphia to define what thriving within the Doughnut means a city. The definition is that a Thriving City is a socially just and ecologically safe city where all people are healthy, empowered, enabled and connected, and air, water and land are clean and accessible to all.

This is a long term vision. It can be broken down into four questions. How can the city be home to a thriving people, in a thriving place, while respecting all the people and the health of the whole planet?

A City Portrait explores these questions at the local level, presenting “what is good, bad and ugly about the city”. by going through these questions. That combines data from the city’s own strategies as well as what’s publicly available where there’s no specific city target, across the social, ecological, local and global domains.

That allows an opportunity to explore everything from systemic inequality to disconnection between people and nature, land values, social equity – “all sorts of things that come up in the conversations that we’ve had with cities”. It displays things that are already working well, and helping a city thrive, and highlights existing local initiatives, as well as identifying gaps and questions, and key interlinkages between issues. When COVID permits, such a portrait will be a conversation starter on the way to forming new partnerships to drive the city in the right direction.

And there’s a useful piece about Amsterdam’s commitment to this approach to thriving cities from the Guardian here. In the current context, note that the deputy mayor is quoted there saying that this holistic thinking that they embraced before COVID will definitely help them to “overcome the effects of the crisis and not fall back on the easy mechanisms”. This not falling back on the easy mechanisms is crucial for the recovery efforts, rather than just pursue growth in the effort to restore jobs and livelihoods.

The same tools can be used by municipalities at other scales. The results of the work, including a tool with guidance based on Donut Economics, and co-created with cities should be available by June at the C40 Knowledge Hub,

Meanwhile, in Cornwall, they are using a locally-adapted version of the Doughnut Economics model as a “decision-making wheel” to guide local policy choices. As Peter LeForte related, since last September every decision that goes through Cabinet in Cornwall council is tested via an impact assessment using this tool. It covers long term and short term positive impacts, no impact at all or long term and short term negative impacts. It encourages every department to see climate change as a systemic challenge, and consider trade-offs between short and long-term or between different sectors. There are plans to offer the next version as an open source tool for all LAs. The overall approach it embodies is that carbon neutrality by 2030 is a goal, but also a means to an end – a just, thriving and resilient county.

It is not, as discussed in the Q&A in the video, a panacea for all decision-problems, a way of making County Councils’ financial limitations, vanish, or a solvent for all conflicts on priorities between economic development and other benefits of new measures. No more is the model applied to cities. But it does offer a structured way of keeping the wider implications in view, plus a framework for trying to quantify them. And experience suggests that the doughnut and it’s derivatives are excellent communication tools. Le Forte again: to communicate complex systems as not having fixed solutions, being partly predictable, and requiring perspective is a huge challenge. And for me, this tool can talk about that in a way that actually starts to mean something to people because they can see it mapped out. “It is certainly the most powerful tool I’ve seen to do that kind of engagement.”