Sustainable Planning: Planning vs Action


Progress and Perspective

We began by discussing the static nature of the “sustainability” definition as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (according to the WCED).  Shouldn’t the definition have morphed to reflect or progress in sustainable development? To answer this question, the idea of perspective arose; who is guiding the discussion? Do you think a more narrow/refined definition of sustainability would be helpful in practice or would be too limiting in bringing more stakeholders to the discussion?


The question of perspective was then furthered in discussing the use of “code words” as a metric in evaluating plans. These code words can be fairly nuanced and have different connotations for various stakeholders (ie. A community organizer will have a different definition of “livable” will be very different from an architect). As a class we discussed the possibilities for these ‘code words’ to be manipulated, however it at least brings discussion of sustainability to the table. Do we think there is a need to have a more concrete definition of these “code words”? Would should define these code words?


The Gap: Theory and Action

While we have the tools to now measure our consumption, does that translate into action? Berke and Conroy use the term “innovative land use” which is problematic. It implies that a new and drastic shift has occurred in land use planning. Have we come far enough? How do we make the problems more tangible and prompt people to take action to be more sustainable? Two examples were given as possible models to spur action – Green Business Challenge ( and Greenovate Boston (  Do we think the scale of these innovations are situated to spur change?


Footprint Quiz

As a class we took the footprint quiz and realized many of the individual choices we make don’t actually effect our consumption as much as larger institutional factors. While we all knew that living the US inherently means we consume more (ie. Military, infrastructure, ect) regardless of our individual choices, taking the quiz made it more apparent.  This again brings up the question of scale which has been a reoccurring theme in our discussions.  Did taking the footprint quiz spur anyone to make any active changes in their daily lives? If we as people very aware of sustainability’s importance don’t take action, who should expect will? 

The Science of Sustainability


We began this week with a video released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlining the threat anthropogenic carbon poses to global climate systems.  Greenhouse gas emissions have accelerated since the Industrial Revolution and there is no doubt that anthropogenic and biogenic emissions are contributing to the warming of earth’s atmosphere.  Though it is nearly impossible to predict all the effects rising temperatures will have on the environment, many climate planners have begun to encourage the development of measures for city and regional adaptation to sea level rise and extreme weather events.

The Pataki reading made the argument that we need interdisciplinary, whole-ecosystem studies of the socioeconomic and biophysical factors that influence mass and energy flows in specific cities.  Because most people on earth live in urban areas, analyzing and changing the ways cities operate could have an enormous impact on emissions.  If a city is taken as an ecosystem, scientists can begin to address its flows as a sort of metabolism- inputs and outputs of energy, water, nutrients, materials, and wastes.

Wheeler calls for a more unified response to climate change and more dedicated mitigation efforts.  Though attempts to coordinate on a global scale, like the Kyoto Protocol, have not seen much success, climate change should be enough of a threat to inspire a unified effort.  The current political system, however, does little to encourage near-term change.

A theme that recurred throughout our class discussion was how to use the science of climate change to inspire behavioral changes at all scales.  Even individuals who are informed of the science are largely unwilling or unable to adjust their behaviors to fit into models of sustainability.  So much of individual consumption and emission patterns are dependent on the city in which an individual lives, the infrastructures in place in that city, the businesses that service the city, and the regulations of the government with jurisdiction over the city.

Oftentimes, the science climate change seems too detached from our everyday experiences.  In class, we agreed that, while alarming, the graphs and figures included in the IPCC video did not necessarily look like crisis.  A factor that further complicates the practical and philosophical problems facing the implementation of tactics for mitigation and adaptation is the active force of climate change deniers who mislead and misinform in order to preserve their own economic interests.

Lastly, different parts of the world will feel the impacts of climate change more dramatically than others.  As climate scientists are working to develop more precise predictive models for specific geographic areas, it is important to keep in mind the history of environmental justice (and environmental injustices) when beginning any sort of adaptation planning.  As we continue these discussions, it is important to ask how social and political organizing can be an effective strategy for both mitigation and adaptation.  Coming away from the discussion, we were left with a few questions:

-Should we change the images we use to discuss climate change?

-Would environmental groups be justified in using the alarmism inherent in the imagery of natural disasters to ignite behavioral change?

-Even knowing what we know, can we change our behaviors in order to reach better energy balances in our own homes, communities, and cities?

-How much can planning do to shift the tide to environmentally sustainable development?

The elusive green economy…


When exploring the idea of a green economy, we confront issues of power, equity and scale. These issues center around the critical question of who leads the green economy and what this means for different contexts and communities. Actions by local communities to transform their contexts indicates that the application of the green economy is not limited to high-technology sectors, but a creative mix of locally-relevant services, skills and knowledge. This theme is increasingly recognized within the global green economy discourse, including the UN-Habitat report on Urban Patterns for a Green Economy: Clustering for Competitiveness (2013) and Acey & Culhane’s piece (2013) on community-driven green jobs and livelihoods in Africa.

A number of themes emerged in the class green economy debate:  

A. Local contexts

Perspectives on green economy leadership often depend on scale and definitions of ‘local context’. For instance, while there is often a distinction drawn between cities and ‘rural’ contexts, the reality for many developing contexts is less of a rural-urban dichotomy given the continuation of rural life in cities. The nature of urbanization in these contexts affects the kind of green economy implemented and it is often the case that local actions in developing countries are difficult to gauge and monitor. Without participative, case research, the local green economies embodied by waste pickers in Egypt or bio-digesters in Kenya may escape the green economy label so often applied to the more efficient, post-carbon high-tech industries. While much of this analysis is a function of scale, and indeed a frame of reference, what tangible ways can we use to better appreciate the local green economy and gauge the success thereof in transformative change? Points to ponder:

·         Is the fixed dichotomy between elected official and communities still relevant and useful?

·         What role exists for a supportive policy in stimulating green economy incentives, particularly given the state of governance (or lack thereof) that creates acute government failures?

·         In the absence of an enabling environment, how can local communities drive a structural change in the economy? Viable options for this overarching transformation may exist through identifying synergies across a range of issues, e.g. labor conditions, health, environment, and employment equity. Although the Freiberg case represents the power of citizen-based activism for a greener economy, a robust national renewable energy agenda assisted in Freiberg’s solar transformation. This is in contrast to other countries, such as the USA and South Africa, where for geo-political and economic reasons, renewable energy alternatives have not found the same level of national purchase.


B. Regulatory and institutional context

In the USA, regional scale planning can differ greatly from what happens at the city or local scale, and voluntary formations are often formed between different agencies to coordination in an otherwise multi-layered institutional context. LAANE is one such example where the voluntary partnership and mutual agreement of local governments, NGO’s, research institutions and individual workers have set in motion a campaign to address poverty, inadequate health care and polluted communication are simultaneously addressed through voluntary action and cooperation (LAANE, 2014). LANNE represents the power of voluntary formations to create enabling environments for change, and the importance of achieving consensus among different stakeholders. A great degree of consensus building, stakeholder management and consultation goes into voluntary partnerships, particularly because of the dependency traps, lock-ins and rigidities of many institutional contexts. Insofar as the green economy entails physical, economic and structural transformation, it is also very much about a shift from a rigid governance systems, to an environment of learning and mutual consultation.



C. Innovation and creativity, whose role?


Much of what is represented by the green economy is innovation and creativity in delivering services and consuming resources at national-, city-, industrial- or household- scales. In many respects, a green economy may only be realized through the cumulative effect of innovation and action at these multiple scales. However, to re-collectivize our efforts, requires a multi-level perspective that appreciates and values the individual contributions of different actors in implementing a greener economy, which may challenge and sacrifice our definition of a green economy. The challenge emerges if we consider the massive investments by large multi-national corporations, such as Coca-Cola or Shell, in more sustainable business practices that are inherently unsustainable in terms of resource exploitation, yet provide the employment base for many of the world’s marginalized communities. Should such ‘greener’ economic investments be part of the transition to a green economy in its full sense?


A similar provocation is represented by Denzou, China, the world’s largest solar PV producer. Dezhou’s solar thermal industry employs around 800,00 people and approximately 90% of local households use solar water heaters. However, the bulk of Dezhou electricity still comes from coal-fired power stations and it remains to be seen whether solar technology will be able to shift the economy towards a more sustainable energy mix (UN-Habitat, 2013).


If large-scale industrial solutions pose a threat to more a true green economy, that is a fundamental shift in the structure and nature of an economy, is there an inherent threat posed by scale? Household-level innovation may assist in shifting individual decision-making from previously unsustainable paths, and importantly, towards to an ‘off-grid’ mix of infrastructure, resources and services that is so critical given the growing food-, water-, waste- and energy- footprint of the world’s growing number of households. However, it is this very growth, including the nature of contemporary urbanization, which undermines the Earth’s capacity to provide services and regenerate. At a personal level, we may have to make difficult choices about what we eat, drink, waste and how we power our lives, and it may be that we can’t implement a green economy globally, but can engage in a more localized green economy, one that is tangible and makes sense for us in our own ways. 





Acey, C. S. & Culhane, T. H. 2013. Green jobs, livelihoods and the post- carbon economy in African cities, Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.

LAANE. 2014. LAANE: A New Economy for All. [Online]. Available:  [15 February 2014]

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat). 2013. Clustering for Competitiveness: Urban Patterns for a Green Economy. Nairobi: Kenya.


Also read for interest:






Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity.


I. Our discussion leaders asked: Are stakeholders useful or esoteric? 

According to this week’s readings, you need income equality and participation to achieve sustainability.  Students’ opinions on this ranged from that meaningful participation is necessary in order to strengthen democracy, for government accountability, and to accurately give voice to the lived experience of environmental and social exposures, vulnerabilities, and resilience. Some felt there has to be a mid-level of organizational engagement, not just grassroots or the federal level, but the heads of organizations.  It’s hard to change when the executive bodies in the middle level, when their interest is to keep the system running.

A classmate encouraged us to question what is the role of government, grassroots movements and hybrids: involve community in a tokenistic way, or integrate them into the structure, and do they work together?  If community is too integrated into the structure of government, will they be eventually co-opted?  Is there a need for community to be outside of the government for accountability purposes, or do we want to strive for a government truly “of the people”?  Or as a hybrid, perhaps there is need for the “inside-outside” game? 

II.  Our facilitators put up a conceptual model of how they think sustainability plays out for us to consider:

Theory–>  Mentality–> Politics–> Norms and Institutions–> Practice–> Physicality

We were asked to engage critically with it.  I would like people to respond to their ideas on whether this model holds with their lived and work experiences around sustainability as we’ve been discussing it.

For example, we could consider an alternative conceptual model:

Power and privilege–> Institutions and systems–> politics–>  practice–> physicality–> mentality–> institutions and systems

(ie. Our institutions and systems are created as a way to maintain current or emerging orders of power and privilege and economies.  These systems determine the politics needed to maintain them, which determine our practice, which leads to the physical world we create, including environmental, social, and economic inequities.  This physicality creates the mentality, including the unconscious implicit bias we discussed that causes us to recreate the institutions and systems that keep business as usual.)

III.  We discussed several dichotomies that arose from the readings:

  • Reality vs. utopia
  • Theory vs. experience
  • Urgency vs. normativity

Re. reality vs. utopia, a classmate suggested we should be “radically rewriting what we consider capital, where there is not someone at the short end of the stick”.  Please respond to what reimagining this new form of sustainable capital could look like.

IV.  Narrative and stories:

One strategy we discussed was communicating your story of the daily and immediate experience of environmental degradation, not the oil spill in the ocean, but the daily experience and priorities of most families.  For example, that you can wipe the soot off of your window each day in West Oakland and also know someone near you experiencing asthma.  For framing, public health has been powerful in understanding how it impacts you personally or your community.

Our readings said that there had to be an EJ movement that creates a constituency that demands sustainability.  Do people have ideas about why we don’t currently have a health movement that demands health equity as part of sustainability?  Esp. if this is a lever point for sustainability?  Or perhaps people have ideas about how to create a health movement to forward sustainability.

V.  Equity at the core of sustainability:

Prof. Acey laid out the historical creation of racialized space and de facto segregation with the help of discriminatory policies and city planning.

  • In 1868, after slavery, the 14th Amendment was adopted that enforced federal law over states rights in providing a level of protection to everyone.
  • Racial covenants which restricted people’s ability to sell houses to non-whites and Jews (who were not then considered “white”).
  • Redlining
  • Not investing in low-income inner core neighborhoods.
  • Low income and people of color couldn’t get loans to invest in their communities and also couldn’t move out.
  • Metropolitan filtering where people with economic or race privilege moved to new housing stock on outskirts, while the old stock in inner city declines with VOCs, lead, etc.

If you put up the map from the 1930s showing old redlined neighborhoods and current maps of predatory lending, it’s a perfect correlation.  It’s reverse redlining.  The institutions leading to the unequal exposure and bads are still there, and we have to still wrestle with them now to create sustainable communities.  Clearly in the predatory lending crisis, the banks are the main institution implicated.  What are the other institutions that currently produce these disparities in an ongoing way?

Social Justice and Sustainability, Place vs. People?


Tuesday’s class focused on unpacking what “just sustainability” might look like in practice. Two graphics were particularly useful in guiding our discussion: first, the sustainability “triangle” proposed by Scott Campbell, in which social justice, economic development, and environmental protection form three axes of a triangle at the center of which planners can (and should) sit; and second, Graham Haughton’s chart comparing his four models of sustainable urban development (self-reliant cities, re-designing cities, externally dependent cities, and fair-share cities) through weighing their success in addressing five distinct equity concerns (inter-generational, social, geographical, procedural, and inter-species).

Campbell’s sustainability triangle illustrates the conflicts surrounding the meaning of sustainability. In several different ways, our discussion linked this conflict strongly to power. The question of “whose justice?”, for example, illustrates the inequities present in the very process of defining the concept of sustainability itself. Whoever is able to dominate the debate “wins”, and their interests become the focus of “sustainability”. It seems, though, that the deck is already stacked heavily for one side. As incredibly influential shapers and disseminators of values, institutions are key in determining the path of “just sustainability” moving forward – yet at the same time, institutional power and socio-economic inequities reproduce one another. Is it possible, then, to produce a truly “just” and equity-oriented understanding of sustainability within the current institutional framework?

Haughton’s four models of sustainable urban development brought up in our discussion the question of scale – an emergent theme in our seminars. Haughton foregrounds the local-global dimensions of the sustainability debate in his analysis; he discusses equity from a global vantage point, but describes possible models of sustainable development at the level of the city (the globally-connected city, that is). In addition to deepening our discussion of the appropriate scale at which to approach sustainability, Haughton’s breakdown of equity into five different forms further complicates and enriches Campbell’s arguments about the useful role of conflict in sharpening sustainability as a concept.

To circle back to the issue of institutional power: what about brick-and-mortar institutions themselves, like the World Bank? The World Bank is a clear reflection of the global order & of capitalism, both of which are responsible for perpetuating climate/environmental/social/economic injustice — and yet the World Bank maintains its commitment to “sustainable development”, which it defines as the following:

“Sustainable development recognizes that growth must be both inclusive and environmentally sound to reduce poverty and build shared prosperity for today’s population and to continue to meet the needs of future generations. It must be efficient with resources and carefully planned to deliver both immediate and long-term benefits for people, planet, and prosperity.”

Can it be and do both? Or, alternatively, is it less important to raise this question than it is to acknowledge and appreciate the boost that attention like this from major institutions gives to the “sustainability” movement?

The Emergence of Sustainable Development


The discussion in class on Thursday (January 30th) focused on the emergence of the idea of sustainable development. We also discussed the importance of sustainable development in the future. The Wheeler reading looked at the historical roots of sustainability, laid out several debates in sustainability, and discussed the evolution of worldviews in the field. The report titled “Our Common Future” looked at the concept of sustainable development in terms of development strategies that will move countries from their current path towards a more sustainable future. In this blog post, I will discuss the various histories of sustainability that we have been presented and will then wrestle with the idea of common interests in sustainable development.

History of Sustainable Development

In our readings so far, we have seen two different attempts to trace the history of environmentalism and sustainability (Daniels and Wheeler). Daniels presents a diagram that shows the five eras of environmental planning starting from the 19th century to present day. He discusses the worldviews in each of the eras that slowly built off each other to reach today’s era of planning for sustainability and the global environment. Wheeler provides a history of works that helped to define and progress ideas of sustainability. As pointed out in class, this history of sustainability is missing several things. We determined that some concepts missing were the long term social implications of the actions taken and environmental justice issues.

Another thing that I felt was missing in this history of environmentalism and sustainability was a discussion of the key events the propelled change. I felt that the diagram presented by Daniels inadvertently gave the impression that the evolution of environmental planning was a gradual change. In reality, certain events such as the OPEC oil crisis, International debt crises, and Exxon-Valdez oil spill helped to motivate government, corporate, and grassroots actions. The International Institute for Sustainable Development keeps a sustainable development timeline  that lists key events in the journey toward sustainability. It is important to keep in mind how each of these events propelled change and learn how to advance sustainable development without waiting for the next big disaster.

Promoting the Common Interest in Sustainable Development

A question posed in class on Thursday was:

In “Our Common Future”, the authors state “our inability to promote the common interest in sustainable development is often a product of the relative neglect of economic and social justice within and amongst nations.”  Do you agree with this statement? If not, where do you see fault with the argument?

In general, I agree with this statement. In most every decision made, there are usually a few winners and few losers, at least in the short-term. Oftentimes, the winner is benefiting economically while negatively impacting those around them. This can be seen in the relationship between developed and developing countries and in the relationship between urban, suburban, and rural developments. However, in the long term, the distinction between winners and losers can blur. A developed county that extracts resources from a developing county, benefits in the short term because of the economic implications.  The developing country may also benefit monetarily but at the expense of the environment and public health. In the long-term, it is in no one’s interest to see a degraded environment, resource depletion, and poor public health because this means that the economic growth cannot continue. All parties share a long-term common interest. However, our inability to promote this long-term common interest results in short-term decisions that are not in the common interest.

This leads to a question of what actions can be taken to ensure that people are aware of the common interests they share. Some actions include:

  • Promoting Transparency – people should be able to see the consequences of their actions
  • Providing Education
  • Developing Local Institutions
  • Allowing for Public Participation in Decision Making
  • Promoting International Cooperation
  • Enforcing Laws

Do you agree with this list? And what actions are missing?

The common theme running though this discussion was tracing the history of sustainability and using that knowledge to create a vision for the future. Hopefully, we will be able to promote this common interest in our future work.

Dilemmas of Sustainable Development


Tuesday’s discussion spoke clearly to Rittel and Webber’s definition of sustainable development planning as a wicked problem. Sustainable development encompasses such a broad range of definitions, problems, approaches, and possible solutions that it seems daunting to move forward. However, the more we unpack these issues the closer we come to understanding how to achieve sustainable development. Class discussion centered on various dilemmas facing sustainable development summarized below:

Framing sustainability

Sustainability has become such a buzz word that its has lost meaning with no clear definition. It is constantly reinterpreted and reframed for political and marketing purposes. We had an interesting discussion on green consumerism versus consumption use. Someone in class mentioned the difference between driving a hybrid Prius car versus not driving at all. We tend to applaud the former rather than recognize the privilege a person must have to buy green in order to maintain their consumption use.


A major dilemma facing sustainable development is the various government systems, cultural landscapes, and individual behaviors that are simultaneously impacting and responsible for addressing environmental degradation. It’s difficult to see where the role of local, national, and global policy fits in to address these issues, especially as many of these regions may be opposed to approaches in a different region. We are also looking for solutions across time. How do we address needs now and in the future?

Economic vs. Social vs. Environmental sustainability

Our discussion leaders posed a pressing question about whether Daniel’s three pillars of sustainability (economic, social, environmental) could co-exist. Historically economic interests have always been placed ahead of environmental interests or maintaining social equity. Much economic growth is dependent on a pool of low-wage labor and extraction of environmental resources. It seems that these three pillars are all diametrically opposed, but we are coming to a point where there can no longer be economic growth without an environment to support itself. We are also seeing much political unrest, as people worldwide are demanding social equity. If we are to move forward these three pillars need to come together.

Political will

It takes more than just changing individual behavior to achieve sustainable development. Because of all the complications mentioned above, it’s difficult to see if the problem is lack of political will or just the inherent nature of not knowing how to approach a wicked problem. There are interesting cases of cities taking charge in creating innovative policies and programming to address sustainable development like San Francisco and Bogota. The Atlantic published an article about the power mayors in the U.S. have and are taking to lead the way in pushing forward progressive agendas, especially while the federal government remains in a gridlock to actual get anything done.

Flowing throughout our discussion were also questions surrounding access, equity and sufficiency. While we have only begun scratching the surface on these issues, I look forward to digging deeper into these dilemmas throughout the course.