Last month Amsterdam became one of the first cities in the world to adopt the “doughnut economics model” as a means to help it become genuinely socially and ecologically sustainable. Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon are amongst other cities following suit.

In the words of the model’s inventor, Kate Raworth, “This takes the global concept of the doughnut and turns it into a tool for transformative action”.

The doughnut model

Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics proposes the idea of a ”safe and just space” for humanity. This combines the concept of planetary boundaries with that of social boundaries. In the ring doughnut metaphor, the inner edge of the doughnut represents the sufficient level of resource use to meet people’s needs, and the outer edge of the doughnut represents the planetary limits.

For the sake of fairness and sustainability, people should live within these two limits, that is within the doughnut itself; this is the safe and just space.

Anything less and the quality of life is reduced; anything more and we are living beyond our means.

Are there any communities in the world at the moment that occupy this space? Sadly, no.

“Its use in Amsterdam has the chance to inspire many more places – from neighbourhoods and villages to towns and cities to nations and regions – to take such a holistic approach as they begin to reimagine and remake their own futures,” Raworth says.

Researchers at Leeds University have shown that you can’t satisfy people’s social needs without healthy, functioning ecosystems and the resources that they provide.

They also examined how to achieve the same social outcomes with fewer resources: for example, travelling by bike, car or train will all get you from A to B, but each will use different quantities of resources for each person.

This is the objective of adopting the doughnut model: to meet the requirements of most of the sustainable development goals without harming the planet – and ideally by repairing the damage we have done to it.

Nine ambitions

So to start with Amsterdam has adopted these nine ambitions:

Food and organic waste streams

  • Ambition 1: Short food chains provide a robust sustainable food system
  • Ambition 2: Healthy and sustainable food for the people of Amsterdam
  • Ambition 3: High-quality processing of organic waste streams.

Consumer goods

  • Ambition 1: The city sets the right example by reducing its consumption
  • Ambition 2: Using what we have more sparingly
  • Ambition 3: Amsterdam makes the most of discarded products.

Built environment

  • Ambition 1: The transition to circular development requires a joint effort
  • Ambition 2: The city sets the right example by formulating circular criteria
  • Ambition 3: A circular approach to the existing city.

Thriving Cities Initiative

It’s working with the new Thriving Cities Initiative. With help from C40 Cities, this is supporting mayors and city governments, together with city change-makers, to embrace this new way of thinking, governance and collaboration, to foster community-led action.

Features of a thriving city.

Initially, TCI is working with three pilot cities and a wider group of advisory cities through a discussion forum, to produce learning and resources which will be useful and applicable to other cities.

The pilot and advisory cities are: Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Portland (Oregon).

The advisory group cities are: Copenhagen, Durban, Lisbon, New York City, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Vancouver.

The Thriving City Portrait tool helps a city create a “city doughnut” – a visualisation of the city’s challenges – which is used to help it decide what changes are needed and whether the plans it has in place are ambitious enough.

Portland and Philadelphia have also created city portraits.

“The idea is that we pilot this program and we work now with these three cities, and once we have created that complete journey, then more cities can take this path,” says Ilektra Kouloumpi, a senior strategist at Circle Economy, a nonprofit that has been working with Raworth.

Amsterdam already has ambitious environmental goals, including a plan to become carbon neutral by 2040. It is experimenting with a district heating network powered by energy from waste supplied by the sanitary installations.

It also wants to transition to a circular economy, meaning that all materials will be used in closed loops instead of ending up in landfills.

The tool helped it recognise that it needed to include social goals. The planning has been underway for more than a year and was formally adopted last month.

Four key questions

Amsterdam is asking itself and its citizens the following questions:

In answering each of these questions, the city has defined four targets along the road to attaining these targets.

For example in answering the second question about nature in the city, it is improving air quality and focusing on biomimicry. This is innovation inspired by nature.

So urban designers are integrating biomimetic designs into the fabric of their buildings such as by creating habitats for species directly in the fabric of buildings and incorporating green roofs and walls.

Measures to provide water, sequester carbon, protected from erosion, regulate temperature at harvest energy are also included in this section.

Amsterdam is also calculating its ecological footprint in relation to imported goods using input output analysis.

Finally, in answer to the fourth question, it is measuring itself on how well it is doing in keeping within planetary boundaries, that is being globally responsible.

How Amsterdam is performing in relation to planetary boundaries.

How Amsterdam is performing in relation to planetary boundaries. The red wedges of overshoot indicate the extent to which the city’s resource use is currently exceeding those boundaries – where, for example, 2.1 signifies that the city’s pressure on the planet is more than double its share.

Core principles

Amsterdam is asking those who wish to join its on this journey to embody the following core principles, to create a successful city fit for the future:

  1. Embrace the 21st century goal. Aim to meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet. Seek to align your organisation’s purpose, networks, governance, ownership and finance with this goal. Expect the work to be challenging, innovative and transformative.
  2. See the big picture. Recognise the potential roles of the household, the commons, the market and the state – and their many synergies – in transforming economies. Ensure that finance serves the work rather than drives it.
  3. Nurture human nature. Promote diversity, participation, collaboration and reciprocity. Strengthen community networks and work with a spirit of high trust. Care for the wellbeing of the team.
  4. Think in systems. Experiment, learn, adapt, evolve, and aim for continuous improvement, Be alert to dynamic effects, feedback loops and tipping points.
  5. Be distributive. Work in the spirit of open design and share the value created with all who co-create it. Be aware of power and seek to redistribute it to improve equity amongst stakeholders.
  6. Be regenerative. Aim to work with and within the cycles of the living world. Be a sharer, repairer, regenerator, steward. Reduce travel, minimize flights, be climate and energy smart.
  7. Aim to thrive rather than to grow. Don’t let growth become a goal in itself. Know when to let the work spread out via others rather than scale up in size.

“I think it can help us overcome the effects of the crisis”, Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Marieke van Doorninck, told the Guardian before the launch. “It might look strange that we are talking about the period after that but as a government we have to … It is to help us to not fall back on easy mechanisms.”

“When suddenly we have to care about climate, health, and jobs and housing and care and communities, is there a framework around that can help us with all of that?” Raworth says. “Yes there is, and it is ready to go.”

David Thorpe‘s work builds on the doughnut concept, which is explored in ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and in the online course Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance.