Recovery 2020: Awake, Aware and Ready to Act

I was one of the panellists of the Recovery 2020 event broadcasted live on August 13, 2020. This post contains the transcripts of my main contributions with links to many of the projects and ideas I mentioned during the panel.

A huge thanks to Mohamed Hammoud for organizing, Paul Seale and Greg Picken for the tech and backstage support and the incredible group of panellists Andrea Jibb, Arielle Kayabaga, Javeed Sukhera and Kate Graham.

Q1: The pandemic is hurting the most vulnerable populations. From warehouse workers to retail and restaurant workers, those with low-paying, wage-earning, non-unionized jobs have been consistently the most vulnerable to losing their jobs. According to Statistics Canada, 38.1 % of people who earned less than $16 per hour have lost their jobs since the start of the shutdown and while office workers have adapted to working remotely, the lowest-paid, minimum-wage earning working-class employees find themselves compromised and at risk, and working for a lower wage. What are some key recovery strategies to ensure that wealth stays in the local economy and it is distributed more equally?

We need to ensure that the money pumped into the local economy stays in the local economy. Let me explain, even if we magically managed to create a local CERB to ensure all Londoners have a temporary basic income or if we provide jobs to many of us who are unemployed, eventually we would be struggling with poverty again. Why?

  • The money used to acquire many of the goods and services consumed in the city just leaks out. To give an example:
    • 90% of the money (1.5 billion) spent on energy leaks out of London (CEAP)
    • At varying degrees, the same is true for food, entertainment and many other industries, even housing
  • And for the capital that remains here, there is no mechanism to foster a more equal distribution.

To address the first challenge (retention) we have Community Benefit Agreements and Social Procurement Policies. Basically what those two mechanisms do is to ensure big projects and the huge purchase power are directed to our local economy. We have big institutions in our city: Hospitals, Post-Secondary Institutions, The City of London itself. They can be intentional about who they are purchasing from and direct millions of dollars to local businesses. There are examples from just across the lake and from the other side of the pond.

To address the second part of the challenge(distribution), we need to promote community ownership. By ownership, I mean that the workers have decision making power and a fair share of the profits.

Employee-owned businesses and worker co-ops are more conducive to profit sharing and are more resilient during crises. With the baby-boomer generation retiring plus COVID, it is estimated up to 1 million jobs in the next 15 years in Ontario that might disappear or be absorbed by big companies. This presents a huge opportunity for converting traditional businesses into a community ownership model. 

Ontario alone already has 1,300 coops with 1.4 million members employing more than 15,000 people. The potential to grow is huge and co-ops are definitely a scalable solution. One of the biggest ones, Mondragon in Spain, employs thousands of people with billions in revenue.

You can read more about an inclusive economy here.

Q2: How do we provide the most vulnerable with access to green spaces, recreational facilities, jobs, basic needs stores and all the city has to offer during and after pandemic?

There are two ways to answer that question. 

1. Affordability

When we say access, we can think in terms of affordability. “Can you pay for that?” And some of us can’t.

To bridge that gap we are inclined to think in terms of growth. Making sure everybody makes enough money to pay the current cost of living. This might not be possible or even desirable with our current rate of material consumption.

The other option is to lower the costs to obtain those things. To redesign our urban space to foster resilience:

  • Implement our urban agriculture strategy. Expand the community gardens. Invest in initiatives like Urban Roots London. Support small, local farmers around London.
  • Recreate conditions where people can entertain themselves in public spaces for free. More projects like the Carfree street at Dundas Place.
  • Not only in business areas, carfree neighbourhoods are also important. They rebuild the social fabric by reactivating streets for different uses, creating many possibilities for people in all age groups.

2. Mobility

We can also understand access in terms of urban mobility. If you can’t afford a car that means you have to either risk riding a bike without the proper infrastructure or wake up much earlier to take the bus. Not owning a car means you are deprived of many job opportunities (they explicitly ask for that in job descriptions here in London, Ontario), you have restricted access to public spaces, green spaces and many public services.

I feel trapped. There is not much to do near my house. Taking the bus with my kids was already hard, now with COVID it got worse. When we have to go somewhere we end up taking a taxi, but that is so expensive for me.

Jessica, single mom in London

We can’t talk about equality and being inclusive without addressing the urban mobility issue. This intersects with all sorts of inequality: gender, racial, immigrant status and income. Solutions are:

  • Rethink our urban development patterns. Sprawling, suburban developments and road widening foster inequality and they are a money pit. We need to focus on increasing density,
  • Invest heavily in cycling and transit. implementing the BRT and a cycling minimum grid as soon as possible.

Those measures will benefit all, but especially the most vulnerable by providing safe and reliable options (they didn’t have before) to access all of those amenities the city has to offer. Not everybody can drive, we don’t want everybody driving. It’s unsustainable as it is for the environment, for the economy and it is ripping our social fabric apart.

Q3: The biggest sources of GHG emissions are private vehicles and residential buildings. How can an economic recovery promote a green recovery by addressing those two?

1. Residential Buildings

The green building industry alone contributes $48 billion to Canada’s economy and directly employs twice as many full-time workers as mining, forestry, oil and gas industries combined! There is so much untapped potential.

We need more projects like the Embassy Commons that provide construction jobs, permanent jobs, address the housing crisis and provide energy-efficient homes.

And of course, Retrofit programs, strongly encouraged by London Environment Network‘s recommendations. And ideally employing local groups like the ones I described in my first answer.

2. Private Vehicles

Our municipal transportation budget is over $100 million. A lot of it goes to repair and widen roads. And no. Cars do not pay for the roads. We all pay as a society, to allow some of us (usually the most privileged) to drive.

In fact, society pays as much as ten dollars for each dollar we spend driving. And according to some calculations, society might even earn money when we bike. This is not speculation, that is why some countries like England, Netherlands, France and even Canada are paying people to commute by bike. It’s an investment. They get their money back.

Not only we save money when people bike, but we also save money to provide the infrastructure needed to make a safe, convenient option. This is crucial when we need to get the best bang for our bucks. When Copenhagen decided to invest in cycling, they did that because it was the only option they could afford. It turns out that cycling had a much higher return on investment than they expected. Copenhagen is considered the most bike-friendly city in the world and, by the way, it also snows there.

The longer we wait, the worse it gets. Oil and gas industries are shrinking and right now we are over-dependent. It will be increasingly expensive to pay for a vehicle that is one of the main causes of our climate crisis.

Significant investments in cycling infrastructure are urgent. If we offer a safe and convenient alternative for all those people who cannot afford a car, we can take some of the pressure off the public transit system with revenue loss estimated at $9.3 million because of the free rides during COVID-19.

London, Ontario – cycling minimum grid

What to do? Accelerate our cycling master plan and use the Federal government fund recently announced ($3.3 billion). Construction projects for the Federal Funds need to start by September 30, 2020.

3. About Green Recovery in General

I want to tie this back to the first question I answered. Equality is not only consistent with sustainability. It is a precondition. There is quite a bit of international research in this area. You can find some examples in The Inner Level:

  • Survey with global business leaders and their concern for the environment
  • Mapping of recycling levels in industries around the world

The findings show that more equal countries are more conscious of ecological impacts and take more action. Without equality, it’s much harder to ask for environmental action. That is why we need to redesign our ownership structure.

Another finding is that unequal societies collapse easier when faced with scarce resources. So you think about the next coronavirus wave or the next global crisis, we will all be worse off if we don’t address inequality. It doesn’t affect just the most vulnerable. Everybody should support social justice, even if we only have our self-interest in mind.

Call to action

DO IT – If this all seem to complex, here are three simple individual calls to action: buy local, ride a bike and grow your food.

SUPPORT IT – If you don’t feel safe, confident, knowledgeable or available to do those things. Consider supporting local organizations that are working to turn those three actions into an everyday reality.

Final thoughts

Recovery is how we usually frame our current moment. But, that implies a going back to an initial state. This is more like a transition to a new state. That means we need to start doing things differently.

For a long time, we’ve been in a boat full of holes. We are very good at getting a bucket and taking the water out. We’ve been doing this for so long that we forgot to fix the holes or maybe even start looking for a new boat. When a storm comes the boat is vulnerable, we need to take shelter and we start sinking again.

All the ideas I proposed here point to a regenerative economy, and they actually will have a positive impact on GDP. Even if you are thinking in conventional terms about the economy, those ideas are still pretty valid.

In an extractive economy, we could also make GDP grow by simply depleting all of our natural resources: mining oil/gas, cutting down forests, paving on top of rich soil and exhausting fishing grounds. And probably most of the profit would go to a handful of people while all the rest gets poorer.

If those two very different scenarios lead to GDP growth, it is obvious that GDP is not a sufficient (or even meaningful) measure anymore and it needs to be replaced by metrics that take into account wealth distribution, ecological restoration, well-being and happiness. An economy primarily based on GDP growth is like an old boat full of holes.

Our 2020 pandemic is just a preview of other crises to come. An opportunity to fix the holes before we ran out of buckets.

We have an economy that grows whether we are thriving or not. We need a thriving society whether our economy grows or not.

Kate Raworth

You can also watch the full recording here:

Recovery 2020 – Online Panel on August 13, 2020

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