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Neighborhood Ecological Footprint

Is Your Neighborhood Sustainable?
by Marty Kraft

Environmental problems are often very difficult to see. They are even more difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. The Ecological Footprint is a tool that can help us see a little more clearly our effect on our planet.

Here I focus on my own neighborhood to bring environmental awareness home to where we live. It was delivered with the neighborhood’s newsletter. Other neighborhoods or cities are invited to use this article as an educational model for newsletters in their own communities.

Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees have written a book, "Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on Earth" that puts carrying capacity back on center stage of the international development debate.

Using Rees' "ecological footprint" concept and figures from Wackernagel’s web site, Ecological Footprints of Nations this article shows just how much of the Earth's land and water area it take to support each person in the 49/63 Neighborhood.

Sustainability - Central to their work is the concept of sustainability - “living in material comfort and peacefully with each other within the means of nature.” Implied in living within the means of nature is that we of the present time don’t ruin nature’s balance and bounty for our children. Sustainability also implies that we live on renewable resources not on fossil fuels that will run out in the foreseeable future.

An Ecological Footprint - An ecological footprint includes the land used to supply all our energy needs, the land used by all the roads, buildings, parking lots, etc. that we depend on, the land used to grow our food, the forest land providing us with wood and paper and the land necessary to dispose of our waste. Drawing from readily available statistics, Our Ecological Footprint attempts to show how much land area our life style requires now and also how much land area we would use if we lived sustainably. Since the statistics used are collected from the whole country the footprint we see turns out to be an average American’s footprint. Each person would then have to evaluate the various factors in their own lives and adjust up or down from the average.

According to the Footprints of Nations the ecological foot print of one average American is 10.3 hectares or 25.45 acres. That is five city blocks plus about two lots (using 5 acre blocks divided into 24 lots). That is how much land it takes to supply all the energy, food, paper, building materials, and consumer goods to keep one average person living the life to which he or she has grown accustomed. By contrast the ecological footprint of average world citizen is 2.8 hectares or 6.92 acres. That is one city block plus about three lots. In India the average person uses about 1.98 acres. That means that about nine city lots supplies all that the average Indian survives on.

If everyone on our planet used as many resources and created as much waste as the Average American, we would require four and two thirds Earths to sustain us.

Our Neighborhood’s Footprint Let’s apply the ecological footprint idea to our neighborhood. In the 49/63 Neighborhood we have approximately 8,000 residents. Assuming that we are all average Americans, (which we are not) each one of us requires 25.45 acres of land to support our lifestyle. Multiplying by the number of our residents we find that it takes 302,600 acres or 318 square miles of land area to support our neighborhood. That is a square with 17.8 miles per side. A circle with 318 square miles would have a radius of approximately 10 miles. A circle whose center is at 55th and Rockhill would include Swope Park, the Sports Complex, Bartle Hall, Antioch Park in Kansas and Bannister Mall. The land we actually live on in the 49/63 neighborhood is about 1.44 square miles.

Kansas City’s Footprint - Kansas City, Missouri takes up about 320 square miles. Our footprint is 436,000 individuals times 25.45 acres, or 10,096,200 acres or 17,338 square miles. That is a square with 131.6 miles on a side or a circle with a radius of 74.3 miles. The circle would include St. Joseph, Cameron, Marshall and Clinton in Missouri and 18 miles beyond Topeka in Kansas. If you look at the population of the greater Kansas City area which was in 1990, 1,582,875 the foot print would extend to Manhattan, KS on the west, Lake of the Ozarks to the southeast and well inside of the Iowa state line to the north.

A similar circle drawn around the St. Louis area would easily overlap the circle drawn around Kansas City. This doesn’t account for the land needed to support the people in all the towns and farms outside the two metropolitan areas.

Fair Share - Ever since the sixties I have seen media coverage stating that we Americans use up far more than out fair share of the Earth’s resources. What would be fair? What would be sustainable?

To give us an idea of what the human carrying capacity of the land is let’s try to estimate how many American Indians the land we inhabit supported. William Cronin in his book Changes in the Land, Indians Colonists, and the Ecology of New England estimates that the crop raising Indians of southern New England had a population density of 2.87 persons per square mile. Assuming that the land in Kansas City is similar to the land in southern New England, the land within the boundaries of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition would support slightly over four persons living as American Indians did who used agriculture and stored food for the winter. In comparison the land occupied by the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition now has approximately 5,555 residents per square mile.

Consequences - It seems there are two groups of issues to look at. The fairness or justice of this situation and the problems that arise because of the imbalance. Most people in America value justice. I find it disturbing that I am a part of this injustice. We have the largest military budget in the world. How much of our military need arises to make sure that we get the resources to live at our present level of convenience? Illegal immigration is a growing political issue. The ecological footprint of the people of Mexico is 6.42 acres per person with only 3.46 acres of ecologically productive land per person. If you were afraid your children would starve wouldn’t you consider risking illegal immigration?

The social problems that arise out of the fairness or justice issue are but child’s play when you consider the consequences of overshooting the carrying capacity of the Earth. When the fossil fuel runs out if we don’t have methods in place of living sustainably for the level of population we have, literally billions of men, women and children will die. Can you imagine the wars and suffering that will occur as countries compete for the meager resources?

Will this happen in our lifetime, our children’s or our grandchildren’s. We don’t know. We seem to be trying to export our lifestyle and consumer products as fast as we can, everywhere on Earth. The more over consumption the faster the crisis approaches. Earth’s support system could falter due to imbalances humans have created by our activities. We might consider that that crisis has already begun with famine in Africa due to climate change or with increases of children with lung disease in Los Angeles.

So what can we do? We can begin by consuming less, raising some of our own food, adjust our work activities so that they are sustainable and make solving this problem part of our daily responsibility.

We really don’t know if our cities can become sustainable. Will our neighborhoods work as fossil fuel diminishes? It’s time we begin doing our research and development while we have fossil fuel to power it. Its time to try things and see what will work. When the crunch arrives it will be too late for anything but blind reaction.

Block Centered Sustainable Community Building - The Heartland All Species Project has been working for three years on Block Centered Sustainable Community Building. That might be defined as getting to know your neighbors and working together to keep the block safe and economically and environmentally healthy. In addition to the issues most neighborhoods focus on, the environmental perspective asks us to think in terms of global systems and direct our local actions accordingly. The block-based component comes about in the attempt to wean ourselves from the automobile. Not only is the automobile a serious environmental problem, but our total acceptance of it has really hurt neighborhoods. With the use of the automobile we can fulfill all our needs without ever having to talk to a neighbor. Huge malls with acres of parking have put most of the mom and pop neighborhood stores out of business. We probably won’t see our neighbors at the mall and mall owners don’t have much reason to contribute to our neighborhood as mom and pop did.

The smallest social unit is the family or the household. Sometimes households are traditional “families”. Other times they’re not. Way back when, our ancestors lived in extended family groupings, or tribes. We all relied on each other for food, protection, education and recreation. Even though we live in modern cities we still have some needs to have the support of our tribal community. But we don’t have closely related people to work with. We have city blocks with a diversity of genes and values. As we feel the grip of energy and food prices go up as they surely will. We will be put in situations where we will have to learn to share to a much greater degree than we do now. At a time when companies are moving away from responsibility for the well being of their employees and the communities that support them, it might be a time for us to get to know each other, to form neighborhood groups that reinvent employment. Perhaps we could form cottage industries of several neighboring cottages. How many of our needs can be supplied by neighbors, eliminating the need to travel across the city?

A year ago when we had five or six garage sales on our block there was a buzz of excitement in the air on Saturday morning. Neighbors were shopping with neighbors. Some neighbors went together for the sales. People got to know each other better. A number of other block residents are ordering food from a natural foods warehouse. In the process they talk to each other a couple of times per month. On another block four households share their yards by gardening together.

At a time when cynicism seems to be a national disease and mistrust prevents us from looking each other in the eye, we have forgotten the supportive feelings that community can bring. Perhaps we remember. Maybe we’re afraid that reaching out to help or for help is a thing of the past. I know how powerful the support and caring of a group can be. In graduate research on encounter groups I found that group members discovered a sense of community that made them come alive. Many did not want to go home. It is not easy to maintain that level of trust but it is possible. Why not?

What About Your Block? - Each one of us can take some small step to improve community relations on our block. Block parties, open houses, shared gardens, even throwing your neighbor’s newspaper on the porch when they are out of town is a step in that direction. We will have to be patient in building community. Community takes months, even years, to build. Trust must be developed and that takes time.

If there is some way that you would like to reach out to your immediate neighbors, some idea you have, and you would like to get an opinion of how it might work please call. I have been thinking about this for a long time. I have passed out flyers on my block for three years and organized several projects. Some worked and some didn’t. I offer my help to you but I also really need your thoughts, suggestions and help. Have you been part of something on your block that worked? Would you like to meet with others who are interested in building strong blocks? Please give me a call at 816/361-1230, or write your comments on the All Species Forum at http://www.allspecies.org/bbs1/. My address is 5644 Charlotte, Kansas City, MO 64110.

Specific sites: How to do a block Earth Day, http://www.allspecies.org/neigh/block.htm or 49/63 EcoKids program, http://www.allspecies.org/ecokids/index.htm

Ecological Footprints of Nations http://www.ecouncil.ac.cr/rio/focus/report/english/footprint/ Mathis Wackernagel

"Our Ecological Footrint: Reducing Human Impact on Earth”, by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees. Gabriola BC and Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers (1996).

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