What is “Sustainability”?

There’s a lot of talk about sustainability lately. I’m sick of the buzzword, but I love the concept; I’ve often run processes, projects, and goals through my own sustainability filter of “Is this something that can be done with authenticity/integrity, whose benefits outweigh its costs, whose philosophy or patterns can be continued down another generation or two or ten if necessary without destroying or compromising the [family, environment, economy, insert your criterion here]?”

As Northfield begins to undertake the revision of its Comprehensive Plan, the Bible of what Northfield as a community wants to stand for, become, and look like, “sustainability” is a concept that should be understood and considered as much as possible, whether we’re talking about it from the environmental, economic, social, or other viewpoint.

One of the inherent tensions in planning is balancing the needs and rights of the individual against the “common good”. Personally, I believe it’s easier to do the balancing in a small community, if only because our civic leaders are move accessible and the common good may be a bit easier to fathom and define.

A recent Op-Ed on the Planetizen website articulated the philosophical underpinnings of the sustainability concept, and provided some tasty food for thought.

Now more than ever, the future of cities and towns and villages must be something that is deliberately created through public choice. It can no longer be left so much to the forces of the market. That’s because the only signal that the market heeds is price. But that signal isn’t enough to protect our future. There are many other signals that must be heard and heeded.

Why isn’t price enough? Because the future depends on the protection of the commons, those public spaces, amenities and resources that are being polluted, depleted and degraded. It is the forests, soil, air and the water on which all of our lives depend. Commons fall outside the forces of the market. The services they provide cannot be boxed and sold and the costs of their loss and depletion are being left off the corporate balance sheets. Because of that, their protection can only be found in the realms of individual decisions — what each of us decides to do on our own — and public policy — what all of us decide to do as citizens, collectively.

Achieving sustainability requires a more sophisticated view of the commons, one that extends beyond the world of natural processes and into the social. It should include not only forests and farmland, but also the public squares, the city parks, the paths and corridors, and the buildings that give our communities character and identity.

On a practical level, the piece continues, this can be done by:

. . . Viewing local farmlands, forests and rivers as indispensable for their productive and replenishment capacities, as well as their contribution to beauty and sense of place. By encouraging locally owned manufacturing enterprises that utilize local resources and diminish dependence on external resources. By replacing oil and coal, which have to be imported, with wind and solar power, which are generated locally. By seeding and nourishing local talent. By viewing taxes as an opportunity to build local inherent capacities for productive activity and satisfying living.

What do you say, fellow citizens? Are we up to the challenge?

10 thoughts on “What is “Sustainability”?”

  1. As a fellow citizen, I say we MUST plan for sustainable development in this community, and we need to be up to the challenge. I’d love to talk more about sustainable community development at any time and in any forum.

    To get a sense of where I’m coming from and what my sense of a “sustainable” community is, check out my new (and developing) website, http://www.sustainablecommunitysolutions.com/, and a recent blog on the subject at http://www.sustainablecommunitysolutions.com/index.php/2007/01/12/what-is-a-sustainable-community/.

    I look forward to the opportunity for public input at the April 2nd public meeting. What about something sooner on Locally Grown?

  2. That’s a good idea, Bruce, I’d like to build some awareness and buzz before the next meeting with the planning consultants.

    Maybe we can do a show featuring this topic in March, followed up by some blogging or even a forum….? Maybe.

  3. The Center for Sustainability is getting the discussion started with an event this Thursday. You can read about it here http://northfield.org/node/2586.
    And Tracy, it would be great if you and the city would share this information with all the websites in town. We all would be happy to be part of the effort to get this story out. I’ll start a forum discussion on Northfield.org tonight.

  4. Tracy, I’m glad you’re on our planning commission!

    One correction to Bruce’s comment, the public input on the comprehensive plan will be April 3, 7 pm. The city web site still says location to be determined.

  5. For some folks who may not understand the term sustainability…it might be good talk about defitions, where the term came from and how it can be used in planning documents and decision making at the local government level.

    I know from my own application in Australia that sustainability it is a balance between
    a) Protection of ecological processes and natural systems at local, regional, State and wider levels; and
    b) Economic development; and
    c) Maintenance of the cultural, economic, physical and social wellbeing of people and communities.

    Here’s a clip from a piece of planning legislation and how sustainability can affect a wide ranging set of criteria.

    Act’s purpose includes:—

    a)ensuring decision-making processes are accountable, coordinated and efficient; and
    take account of short and long-term environmental effects of development at local, regional, State and wider levels; and
    apply the precautionary principle; and
    seek to provide for equity between present and
    future generations; and

    b)ensuring the sustainable use of renewable natural resources and the prudent use of non-renewable natural resources; and

    c)avoiding, if practicable, or otherwise lessening, adverse environmental effects of development; and

    d)supplying infrastructure in a coordinated, efficient and orderly way, including encouraging urban development in areas where adequate infrastructure exists or can be
    provided efficiently; and

    e)applying standards of amenity,conservation, energy, health and safety in the built environment that are cost effective and for the public benefit; and

    f)providing opportunities for community involvement in decision making.

    Did you know that sustainable development makes good business sense.

  6. Peter, thank you for providing this good, thorough definition of “sustainability” from a planning standpoint. Obviously there are aspects of this definition that aren’t readily quantifiable, so the more we can get our heads around the concept and its principles, the more we’ll be able to develop our own criteria, and the better equipped we’ll be to filter projects and prospective developments through that criteria.

  7. Thanks Tracy, you touched on a really good point about the concept of sustainability.

    I believe it is more than just buying the right type of light bulb or achieving a certain energy efficiency. These are certainly measurable criteria, but are they achieving sustainability when we consider the ‘upstream’ or ‘downstream’ process that go to produce them. I hope that folks who are either have civic or business responsibility will learn to appreciate that sustainability needs to have a framework for it to succeed. What this framework becomes depends upon the commitment of the community and its civic leaders. Like Bruce above, I too have a passion for the subject. I believe it is a way of thinking…and there are many ways to help people learn and understand the importance of the principles. Certainly, education is the start.

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