Sustainability Defined

CityHall.jpgIn his introduction to the line-up of speakers for the opening session of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program, “Building a Sustainable Future”, National Director Doug Loescher repeated a question that my colleague Tracy Davis asked, semi-rhetorically, some time ago.

“What is Sustainability?”

Doug said that in spite of all the media attention, from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth to Vanity Fair’s Green Issue, it’s really not immediately clear what this rapidly emerging concept includes.

He explored the brief history of the movement and identified its most substantial, or at least most tangible, accomplishment to date, LEED’s green building standards. These include green roofs, Energy Star appliances, healthy indoor air quality, and the use of recycled building materials. However, it’s clear that the implementation of the concept has gone well beyond LEED’s standards.

He cited a variety of community initiatives around the country. These included the Port Townsend City Hall, where the community backed away from demolishing their old city hall and instead created an addition that met green building standards, the “Greening of Illinois” program, which has promoted such things as bicycle commuting and rain garden creating, and, of great interest to me, solar-powered wi-fi in Boulder, Colorado.

Although the initial efforts seemed to focus on constructing sustainable buildings, these were quickly followed by those that reach for Mayor Nickel’s goal of creating sustainable cities (Seattle’s new City Hall, which meets LEED’s Silver Standards and sports a green roof, is pictured). I guess that once people agree on worthwhile goals, our creativity can take us well beyond the parameters of the original vision.


  1. Paul Fried said:

    Thanks for bringing up this topic again, Ross. I enjoyed Tracy’s previous post on sustainability, and the replies there by Bruce Anderson and others.

    I have some students this semester at MSU Mankato who are researching sustainability, and they’ve been educating me:

    Sustainable agriculture can mean growing more produce closer to the places where it can be used (instead of buying cucumbers from Canada, iceberg lettuce from California, grapefruits from Florida, orange juice from Brazil, etc.).

    Sustainable economics for grocery stores means giving local farmers a chance to compete on produce that can be grown in-state but often comes from elsewhere.

    Sustainable urban planning can include mixed-use areas where housing is close to where people work, shop and go to school. It can include green spaces and areas for urban community gardens.

    Sustainable lifestyle choices can include moving closer to where you work, or changing your diet (or buying farmer’s market produce).

    Sustainability transportation favors walking, biking, public transportion, better MPG, hybrids, biodiesel….

    Sustainable technology might avoid complicated equipment that needs to be imported from foreign countries in favor of simpler, more locally available replacement parts for, say, builing a water pump or waste treatment center in a developing country.

    Sustainable economics might question whether a consistent expected growth rate of 3-5% is sustainable… along with many of our trade practices….

    I didn’t know till recently, through my students, that the word was being applied in so many ways.

    March 27, 2007
  2. Ross Currier said:

    Great list, Paul! Thanks so much for contributing it.

    Your list details some of the things that were only implied in yesterday’s presentation. It also helps to clarify why Timothy Egan thinks authentic downtowns may benefit from a sustainable future.

    March 27, 2007

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