An immodest proposal for Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund

In case you missed it, the richest person on earth earlier this week announced the world’s biggest fighting fund for the climate crisis. He has not said much about how that $10 billion will be spent. So in a rare display of immodesty, I am going to offer a proposal.

Jeff Bezos Instagram post announcing Earth Fund

I’ll come to it shortly. But first, it’s worth thinking more deeply about the task Bezos has set himself. Figuring out how to spend that much cash (or at least, to spend it wisely) is not as easy as it looks.

It’s both too much – many times more than current non-governmental spending on the topic – meaning it would swamp existing programmes. And it’s w-a-a-a-y too little: a mere drop in the warming ocean compared to the kind of economic resources needed.

Let’s frame Bezos’s problem. The Earth Fund will need to:

  • Spend the money quickly: emergency or not, few question the need for urgent action;
  • Reduce carbon emissions now, AND pave a robust path towards the much greater reductions that will soon be essential;
  • Overcome enormous political and moral challenges, in order to help shift the consumption patterns of the global rich – which includes pretty much anyone reading this post (and its author).

“If we continue to produce, consume and power our lives the way we do right now, forests, oceans and weather systems will be overwhelmed and collapse.” Marco Lambertini, Director-General, WWF International (article for World Economic Forum).

There’s no point in funding blue skies research that will take decades to make a difference. Big infrastructure projects would swallow the cash in a flash. And while it might be tempting to pile money into US political lobbying, I doubt this would provide the necessary moral foundation for building mass support.

Multiplier effects are key to the Fund having an impact that matches its ambitions. Both spatial multipliers (ways to spread good ideas around the world) and temporal ones (virtuous circles and positive feedback loops over time).

In sum: the Fund must genuinely help to win people over. It must have a long-term, collective moral perspective baked in. And it must support interventions that can be refined, copied and rolled out quickly and easily. Of course something PR-friendly would not go amiss either.

So Jeff, I reckon I have just the programme for you. I call it child-friendly urban design – though your PR folk can surely come up with a snappier label. At heart, the proposal is to support city administrations to make rapid, scalable investments that make neighbourhoods greener, healthier, more livable, and less car-dominated.

What’s in the mix? Interventions like green playgrounds and schoolyards, traffic-tamed and car-free neighbourhoods, all age and ability cycle networks, child-friendly streets and cheap or free public transport for children and young people. For an oven-ready prototype progamme – already up and running in cities around the world – check out the Urban95 initiative from the Bernard van Leer Foundation (one of my clients).

Street makeover, Fortaleza, Brazil. Image: NACTO.

Street makeover, Fortaleza, Brazil. Image: NACTO.

Why focus on children? First, as this week’s WHO/UNICEF/Lancet Future Child report showed, urgent action is needed to improve children health and well-being. Even where they are doing comparatively well, it is at the cost of their future on the planet.

Second, placing children centre-stage cannot help but overcome damaging vested interests, and foster consensus and longer-term perspectives. Their energy, positivity, playfulness, affinity for nature, openness to ideas and hunger for agency make their voices powerful catalysts for action.

Third, our cohort of adults owes a huge debt to future generations. There is no time like the present to start to repay that debt.

And finally, there’s the salient, if sometimes oversimplified ‘catch them young’ argument from the Jesuits (or was it Aristotle?)

“Children’s energy, positivity, playfulness, affinity for nature, openness to ideas and hunger for agency make their voices powerful catalysts for action.”

Why cities? Global urbanisation is relentless. To keep pace with it, we will need to build the equivalent of one new city of a million people every week – yes, every week – for the next 30 years. Comparing the sustainability of urban and rural settlements is complicated and arguably unhelpful, because in truth they are interlinked. However, one thing is clear: if the war against CO2 is to end in victory, it will be won in the cities.

Why municipalities? City administrations are not perfect. But they tend to be closer to their electorates than national governments. They move more quickly. They hold many of the key levers of environmental change: planning, transport, education, parks. And they are largely reliable vehicles for taking action and scaling success.

The growth in municipal innovation and competitiveness shows that they can be an effective way to spread good policies (just look at the global spread of urban cycle infrastructure). With ideas like the livable neighbourhood model being taken up in Paris and Melbourne, some municipalities are already well down the path being sketched out here. Adding the voices and views of children would bring much-needed moral momentum.

So this is my proposal, or the bones of one: a municipal innovation programme for making the built fabric of cities more child-friendly. I expand on it in my forthcoming book, Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Design Can Save Cities.

Whaddaya say Jeff? Shall your people speak to my people? (Actually, there is no ‘my people’, there’s just me.)


2 responses to “An immodest proposal for Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund

  1. Good work! I understand that Plato advised that children should play until they are 7 years old, then begun formal education.

    Jesuits want children to begin Roman Catholics education at 7 and will then be RCs for the rest of their lives.

  2. Reblogged this on PlayGroundology and commented:
    Along with many others, I’ve been a fan of Tim Gill’s work for years. His ‘immodest’ proposal to enlist the planet’s most overly cash-endowed mazillionnaire to contribute some of his wealth to support fundamental urban design changes for the benefit of children has got legs. Jeff, creating a thirst for cities to become more child friendly is a step along the path toward the real prize – embracing the possibility that all aspects of our lives can be more child friendly as the broader society is informed and influenced by the best that children have to offer. Jeff, many of us believe that the ROI of this kind of approach will be incalculable, off the charts. Don’t miss the opportunity to make a real difference ….

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