Sustainability has many definitions and provokes a wide range of concepts and approaches. In many aspects sustainability has been overused and lacks the clarity needed to fully understand what it means for a particular place. In my experience stemming from years of hands-on planning in communities of all sizes and locations, one lesson is that one size does not fit all in terms of sustainability solutions. Anyone concerned about a brighter future for the next generation across the globe will promote a tailored, custom solution to the unique needs and situations faced by the range of communities and cultures. In order for the concept to have meaning, it needs to be tied to measures that reflect where we are and whether what we do is making us more or less sustainable.
Patterns of human development – physical, social, and economic – affect sustainability at the local and the global level. City and regional planning helps define how, where, and when human settlement occurs. The location of urban development and the choices for reusing and adapting cities make a huge difference in resource consumption. Planners can play a crucial role in improving the sustainability of communities and the resources that support them.
Sustainability, seen broadly, should address three main goals, commonly referred to as the “three Es”: Environment, Equity, and Economy. The most sustainable policies and implementation practices will be the ones that simultaneously advance all three goals. For me sustainability is a value-based effort to achieve what is right for society, or in any given community. My organization, The American Planning Association (APA), just held its 105th annual conference in Chicago which included over 1,000 students. It is critical that we reach out to young people from all disciplines and all countries to engage them in the process of shaping the future. Too many times, their voices are not at the table when decisions are made yet their generation will be most affected.
Widespread urbanization in both the U.S. and around the world is one of the most significant demographic trends seen today. Fortunately, it is also one of the most sustainable trends. Populations in urbanizing areas experience lower birth rates, higher educational attainments, and an awareness of the need for smaller carbon footprints. In other words, urbanization is at the core of sustainability. Yet for the benefits of urbanization to be realized, there are things we need to do better:
1. Improve citizen involvement. We must engage each other in the discussion of the choices we have based on knowledge and information sharing. Planners are especially trained to help citizens become more informed and engaged in shaping a more sustainable future. In many places, citizens do not have a direct voice in development decisions and resource allocation and participatory governance, a new concept, that needs our support.
2. Plan according to Nature. Look at the regional picture and protect sensitive areas from urbanization. Much of today’s urbanization is occurring in areas of high risk for natural disasters: coastal and delta regions, earthquake and tsunami prone areas and places susceptible to sea level rise. Planning for hazard mitigation and avoidance is a critical effort that is often overlooked. We must not continue to place people in harm’s way through lack of planning.
3. Respect and learn from traditional patterns and techniques. Today the world is more interconnected than ever and we can recognize and value cultural differences and approaches to creating places. In many cases, historical building styles and materials embody the essence of low energy and sustainability. Equating high technology with modernity is a concept that needs to be questioned as we examine and respect the traditional settlements, designs and cultures that can inform our options.
In essence, planning is about choosing a future that is socially, economically, and physically sustainable. We have learned that we can’t drive our way to sustainability, nor can we reduce choices for the many while preserving them only for the wealthy. Cities that are walkable, with density that reduces our demand for energy and provide places to live, work and play all in the same neighborhood are the most energy efficient places as well as the most convenient. That cannot be said for the sprawling suburbs and exurbs characterized by housing only where every trip means a car ride.
(Jeff Soule is the Director of Outreach and International Programs for the American Planning Association. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners.)