Learning (and unlearning) from cities

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In some ways, municipal efforts toward sustainability are outpacing academic ones. However, it’s easy to misinterpret the value and content of municipal sustainability initiatives. In fact, some of them seem intentionally to invite (encourage?) misinterpretation.
Since one of my hobby horses is the need of the sustainability movement to define its terms, the first element of any sustainability plan that I look at is the part titled “What is sustainability?” (or some reasonable facsimile thereof). And while campus sustainability plans often finesse their way past this question – most often by quoting the Brundtland Commission definition and pretty much leaving it at that – occasionally I’ve run into municipal sustainability plans that do a far worse job of answering their own question.

One example:

“A traditional and widely accepted definition of sustainability is “meeting the needs of people today without jeopardizing the flexibility of future generations to meet their needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development). However, traditional definitions are often difficult to implement ‘on the ground’. Being sustainable does not require fundamental lifestyle changes to established community values. The Sustainability Plan reflects a sustainability approach specific to the City of __________ which is guided by community values. Fundamentally, sustainability is about improving the quality of life and natural environment, while fostering economic development and wisely using and managing non-renewable resources.”

The first thing that struck me was the misquotation of the Brundtland definition, but what made my eyes pop out was the next two sentences: in a plan ostensibly all about sustainability, the second sentence lays groundwork for implementing something less and the third seems to reassure citizen readers that they won’t be required to make fundamental lifestyle changes.

My mind has always boggled at arguments that start with how big and comprehensive the sustainability problem is, but then go on to say how if we each do just a little we can make serious strides; to my mind, that math just doesn’t work. Here, we seem to have a municipal sustainability plan which has resolved that conflict by deciding that there’s no substantial problem with what we’re already doing, and so no need to change anyone’s behaviors or lifestyle very much. It may not be intellectually honest, but at least it’s logically consistent.

Were I much of an optimist, I might understand this statement as addressing a political necessity – an attempt to motivate citizens (and citizens’ groups) to get started (even slowly), on the premise that it’s harder to get a train moving from a dead stop than it is to accelerate it once it’s going forward.

As a realist, though, the prominence of “economic development” in the closing sentence of the paragraph worried me. As I read through the body of the plan, that worry turned out to be justified – far more emphasis was placed on sustaining or enlarging the level of economic activity than on sustaining or enhancing natural resources or social well-being, much less on shoring up infrastructure or restraining community sprawl.

For all of its 70-page bulk, full-color graphics and semi-reasonable strategic methodology (agree on goals, assess existing initiatives, identify gaps), this particular plan reads more like one more in a series of resource exploitation and real estate development plans than anything new, much less concerned with a planning horizon more than a generation (never mind seven generations) long.

Yet it was announced with appropriate fanfare, its adoption is trumpeted by local boosters, it probably qualifies the city in question for a certain level of federal or other subsidies – in every insubstantial way, it’s a success. The same kind of “success” we see on many campuses. The kind of success we’ll see more and more of unless we – those of us who take sustainability seriously — start defining our basic terms. First among them, “sustainability”.

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