Doughnut Economics for Towns, Cities and Regions

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On 16 March 20201, York and North Yorkshire LEP hosted a webinar on this subject. The recording of this is available at

The webinar highlighted the work on Carbon Abatement Pathways currently being developed by York and North Yorkshire LEP that emphasizes the need for moving towards a circular economy. The plans being modeled around transport, land use/agriculture, buildings, power, and industry have ambitious targets:  to achieve net zero by 2034 and a carbon negative circular economy by 2040.

Circular Malton & Norton is another example of local work locally focused on an economy that works for people and planet.

The main focus of the webinar was a presentation by Kate Raworth, the inventor and author of Doughnut Economics. She has recently launched the Doughnut Economics Lab, a resource for people and communities who want to embrace the Doughnut vision for their places.

She gave us a quick overview of the concept of Doughnut Economics and among other things presented the following graph:

I found this quite informative. The location of the ‘doughnut’ symbol/image in the top left corner is where we should be at, what Kate Raworth calls ‘humanity’s sweet spot’. What the graph shows is that no country is anywhere near it, but for very different reasons. For example the UK is in planetary overshoot but heading for achieving social threshold targets (in a global context; we’re still a long way from anything resembling equality!) whereas South Africa is both in planetary overshoot and nowhere near social threshold targets; and India is making a lot less of an impact on the planet and also nowhere near social thresholds.

We all have a long way to go but we need different pathways to achieve approaching the ‘sweet spot’.

Kate Raworth then reflected on work that is being done by a number of cities and communities to do that necessary work, giving examples from Portland, Amsterdam, Berlin and others.

She then identified the key factors that help move a society towards being a doughnut place.

There are 5 key aspects to making cities thrive rather than grow: purpose, networks, governance, ownership, finance. To ensure the strategy works for thriving the following are needed:

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  • Purpose: the leaders of the Council and other anchor institutions need to be behind the approach; how do they communicate their vision for their area; what do they want to achieve; do they speak about thriving or growth? If there is leadership on such an approach at the most senior level in key institutions and anchor organisation then there is more of a likelihood that it will work. Who are the key anchor organisations in our area that need to be brought on board. How far are they on board?
  • Network: you need to start from where you are and make the best possible use of the resources available. What is already here? How do industries and economic actors interconnect – do they see themselves as part of a circular system; do they identify that the waste from one process could be the raw material for another? Are the necessary connections and links in place or being created? Do anchor institutions recruit and procure locally by preference? Do they create critical mass for local production (or energy for example) by working together. We looked at examples from Cleveland, Ohio – recruitment strategies – and Melbourne, Australia – energy generation.
  • Governance: There are aspects to bringing in local approaches to governance that can make a key difference. Local procurement, for example will support local employment. And local businesses stick because they belong to the place. Using locally sourced materials (such as building materials – the example given was Amsterdam) will also support local business. Other areas may be more difficult to direct locally where regulation is imposed at national level; but local Councils can explore how far they can push the envelope on this, particularly in terms of planning. There need to be quantitative measurable targets to show what progress is being made; there need to be pilot projects to learn from – these will also make it easier to get started because a pilot project is just that, not a permanent decision that can’t be changed. Cornwall decision-making wheel is an example of a Council using the doughnut visual to frame their strategic and detailed decision-making in order to ensure that they are clear about their impact on the planet and on social wellbeing.
  • Ownership: ownership of resources and that includes land is one of the critical factors; we were given the example Vienna where 50 % of housing in the city is owned by city. And because such a large proportion of local residents live in what would be called social housing, it is good housing, well maintained and respected as a viable choice for almost everyone. Locally owned utilities give control over how energy is generated and how water is managed (for example) to local people. This means there is more of a sense of ownership and responsibility and therefore those utilities are more likely to be in tune with what local people need. Support for locally owned businesses – back to procurement – is another key factor (which takes us back to governance and shows that all this is interconnected.
  • Finance: the Council and anchor organisations need to think about where their finance comes from and how that impacts a sustainable, circular economy. If the Council derives a significant part of its controllable income from  car parking then that is an inbuilt bias towards car use. To move away from that, other forms of income need to be identified. But there are also questions of where the Council and anchor organisations bank, what is in their budgets and how that relates to their commitment to a thriving (rather than growing) local economy; This also involves investment decisions – e.g. Pension Funds: are they invested in fossil fuel industries. This is partly an ethical issue but it also an issue of long-term sustainability of the funds themselves as fossil fuel (and some other industries harmful to the planet) can become stranded assets.

It was a fascinating hour and a half that highlighted the many ways in which everyone can contribute to the move towards humanity’s sweet spot. But we also have to recognize that we need to do this now. There isn’t that much time left.

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