Ecocity World Summit

Ecocity World Summit ’15 Profile: Debra Efroymson

Written by Staff
The Ecocity World Summit in Abu Dhabi will take place October 11-13th of 2015


Debra Efroymson is Regional Director of the Canadian NGO HealthBridge. She has been living in Asia since 1994, working on reproductive health, tobacco control, gender issues, and liveable cities. She is the co-founder of the local NGO Work for a Better Bangladesh and of the Institute of Wellbeing, also in Dhaka. She frequently writes and speaks on a number of topics related to health, the environment, and economics. In April 2015 she published the book Beyond Apologies, Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing which is available for free download at Institute of Wellbeing or from a number of websites (just search under the title or send Debra an email for a pdf). Contact her at

1. What do you find most interesting about the Ecocity concept (cities in balance with nature and culture)?

When I first heard the concept, I thought it was nonsensical—of course cities are dirty, polluted places! Then, after starting to read Richard Register’s books on the topic, I became completely entranced. Of course it makes perfect sense that cities, our biggest creation, should support rather than destroy nature. Of course there are all sorts of untapped possibilities, or ones that are being explored in some places and are directly applicable elsewhere. The whole idea of designing out cities to be in harmony with nature and culture is incredibly invigorating and inspiring! While in my work I focus mostly on transport and public spaces, I’m also very interested in urban agriculture and issues of water and eco-sanitation…and finally in how our understanding of economics facilitates or impedes our ability to move towards ecocities.

2. What are you going to be talking about at Ecocity World Summit ’15 in Abu Dhabi?

I will be talking about our work here in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of 15 million people. We have had some major policy successes, and the work has taught me the ability of ecocitizens to work effectively for change at the policy level. I want to share those successes, and also show how a city which ranks towards the bottom in many measures of liveability actually has some good things to show the world. I also want to share my new book, called Beyond Apologies, Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing.

3. What do you hope to learn about at Ecocity World Summit ’15?

Every Ecocity World Summit I have attended has given me the opportunity to learn new things, particularly in the areas I don’t work on as much, such as water, ecosanitation, and agriculture. Just as importantly, I look forward to connecting with some truly amazing and inspiring people. I look forward to meeting leaders in the field, sharing ideas and visions, learning from their experience, and exploring possibilities for further communication and collaboration.

4. What are some ecocity elements in the city you live in?

It doesn’t appear much like an ecocity on the surface, but Dhaka has some surprisingly good elements. We have great modal share: over a third of our trips are made by cycle rickshaws, and our main form of transport is walking. We still have some waterbodies and parks and trees. We have a thriving “informal” economy: lots of people selling goods and services in the streets, which helps create a fun environment. We also have people eager to be outside, interacting with others. Because Dhaka is for the most part mixed use and densely built, and most people can’t afford a car, it would actually be relatively simple to transition to a carfree city, unlike in sprawled cities that separate uses and thus make destinations too far to reach comfortably by foot or bicycle.

5. What is your definition of “eco-citizenship” (being an ecocitizen)?

We all need to realize that we have the power to work for change…and act on it. I’ve written a book partly on that topic: Beyond Apologies (it’s available for free download at and other sites). An ecocitizen is someone who recognizes the importance of nature and the environment, and that we can’t keep compromising for the sake of more material wealth, more comfort, whatever. An ecocitizen then acts on that belief, to inspire others and to push policymakers to make decisions that are better for people and the environment. Ecocitizens write letters to policymakers, join in demonstrations, speak at events, talk to friends and neighbours, and work together to maintain a focus on wellbeing of people and the environment, not on profits, GDP, and economic growth.

6. What is your advice to young people who want to make their cities and neighborhoods more ecologically and socially healthy?

Don’t wait for someone else to take the lead. See the problem you want to solve and start working on it. If you can’t find a group to join, start your own. If nobody else seems interested, convince them. Do not give up. I recently saw a great slogan: “I never lose. Either I win or I learn something.” We need to learn from our defeats and be strong in the face of the exciting possibilities that await us. Working together, we really can achieve a better world. So don’t just sit back and complain about what you don’t like; do something about it!! Again, my book Beyond Apologies is full of specific examples. And it’s free!

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