Reconciling urban sustainability tools with equitable development: Does a transdisciplinary approach further these goals?


This blog covers discussions from both March 11th and March 18th, and I feel there are some underlying themes that can tie together the readings, class comments, and ‘grab bag’ solutions. While our class conversation ranged from ‘big picture’ urban sustainability solutions such as supporting policies of compact development and a paradigm shift to adopting the precautionary principle over risk-based management, our discussion over the two days also provided real pathways and opportunities for solutions to the challenge of making urban sustainability a reality. Between the two days of discussion, I saw the following themes emerge, and will be interested to hear how the class views this synthesis of our discussion:

Major discussion threads

  • How do we reconcile innovative urban sustainability tools with goals of equitable development? What tools (policy and design) are needed to assist communities on a path of sustainability and equity? Looking at the scaling of tools and policy. We once again touched upon the question of scale in our discussions, both in how it relates specifically to the policy of compact development and through its application through data systems such as GIS
  • Taking a transdisciplinary approach to sustainable development. What happens when we let problems be drivers of knowledge, rather than relegating sustainability to one discipline? I believe we saw aspects of this discussion in the ‘grab bag’ solutions to my question of how we go from pilot projects to implementation for local urban sustainability projects.

How do we reconcile innovative urban sustainability tools with goals of equitable development? What tools (policy and design) are needed to assist communities on a path of sustainability and equity? How do we properly scale tools and policies?

When discussing the chapter from Wheeler, our class drew out two major policy ‘solutions’ – the adoption of an urban growth boundary (UGB) and the implementation of a land tax (i.e. value capture) to capitalize on the economic gains made when an area begins to densify –that could assist in promoting more compact, transit-oriented development and mitigate the negative effects of suburban sprawl.

The first strategy, the urban growth boundary, was mainly discussed in the context of the political and societal implications of enacting such a policy at the citywide scale. We turned to the case of Portland, Oregon that has had an urban growth boundary since the late 1970s. Several students took issue with the UGB concept, citing that the fact that it continues to be expanded to accommodate additional housing and economic growth that largely seem to be motivated by political reasons (see The Oregonian’s article on the 2011 expansion: Additionally, questions were raised as to how the UGB may cause land and housing values to rise, thus decreasing affordability across Portland and potentially leading to displacement of more vulnerable, low-income populations. A major concern in this second argument is the fact that while denser, compact development has become a priority for many urban areas, the tools to ensure that this development occurs in an equitable manner are not always in place. In the Portland, OR case it was highlighted that the city’s UGB promoted higher density development around transit centers, but possibly at the expense of lower-income populations who were living in existing, historically affordable neighborhoods now feeling pressures to increase density. Charisma cited a study conducted by the Kirwin Institute that highlighted the tensions caused by the UGB and the stressors placed on certain more vulnerable populations who were forced to look elsewhere for affordable housing.

While compact development, and strategies that support such policies such as the UGB, can be a key factor in urban sustainability planning, if additional tools to ensure equitable development and a maintenance of affordability are not in place, certain populations will not necessarily experience the benefits. The City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability recently commissioned a study on displacement and gentrification occurring within the city, and from the report, incorporated much stronger language to encourage equitable and affordable development within the city to maintain economic, social and racial diversity An additional strategy raised in class to mitigate the potential negative effects of the UGB, was to take on a more regional strategy to urban growth and supporting compact development. Such a strategy would require regions to work together to solve the crisis of affordable housing and maintaining economically diverse populations in urban areas.

When considering the impacts of promoting denser urban cores, we turned to the scenario of New York City and questioned in they had a negative contribution to regional sustainability by exporting all of their waste.   However, it was argued that we might be facing a trade-off between wealth generation and waste generation. If the New York City enacted stronger policies to promote the recycling, composting or other use of wastes within their city limits, would that come at the expense of their economy. And how would this decision affect the regional economy, which profits on accommodating NYC’s waste? Once again we come across the question of scale and the tensions that arise. When it comes to strategies to guide sustainable urban form and policies to promote sustainability, does the regional scale seem to work best? When we look at trade-offs that allows one area to grow and one area to make sacrifices to accommodate that growth, is this ultimately a sustainable regional strategy?

Taking a transdisciplinary approach to sustainable development. What happens when we let problems be drivers of knowledge, rather than relegating sustainability to one discipline? I believe we saw aspects of this discussion in the ‘grab bag’ solutions to my question of how we go from pilot projects to implementation for local urban sustainability projects.

Another line of discussion that served as a bridge between the two days was the conversation around the four types of hybridization – and in this post I would like to propose that as a class we seemed to favor the transdisciplinary approach as the most effective manner of addressing the ‘wicked problems’ of sustainable development. In the current approach to sustainability planning, and much project management in general, our class agreed that an interdisciplinary approach has mainly been utilized, which, while encouraging collaboration, still sets up barriers between disciplines. The transdisciplinary approach could represent the evolution of how we think about urban sustainability policy, as it stresses that problems be the drivers of knowledge rather than disciplines. I believe this train of thought became especially apparent as we presented our ‘grab bag’ ideas for the question of how to move cities beyond pilots and into action.

In response to this ‘grab bag,’ the class provided a range of projects, approaches and case studies to highlight how cities are truly moving past the pilot phase of sustainability projects and onto real, viable action. These concepts very much link up to cities taking a more transdisciplinary approach to solve a sustainability issue. Many of the examples demonstrated how a city or group innovated to approach a problem or push forth a sustainable solution, rather than simply convening a working group to examine ‘best practices’ and conduct yet another pilot. In my frustration around the overreliance of cities on pilot programs rather than actionable items, I believe I was (unknowingly) also speaking to this tension between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to sustainability solutions. Cities that look towards a transdiciplinary approach as a driver for urban sustainability policy may ultimately come out with more innovative, long-lasting solutions. It would be great for people to post their grab bag solutions, and respond to where they believe their approach falls on the Hybridization spectrum.


Zero Waste and Zero Energy Systems


This week’s discussion became what will be the “new” normal on Thursday’s as we draw burning sustainability questions each week from the grab bag. The conversation was informative, dynamic and I look forward to hear what other questions come out of the activity. Lili posed this question to the class: What are the impacts and outcomes of zero waste and zero energy systems, along with specific examples?

Various examples were given ranging from governmental actions, to local businesses and community actions. One intriguing part of the conversation was a suggestion that demanded a complete reversal of business as usual by redefining ownership. How can we achieve zero waste if we continue to view goods as throwaway commodities? The answer given by the Ellen MacArthur was to change the economy into a circular economy. Do you believe this will be a feasible solution? How willing are industries to change to this model, and what will this change likely look like? Another interesting example given—the life cycle assessment—turned our conversation on it’s head, with the assumption that nothing is truly zero waste, a point that has left me scratching my head.

 My example for a zero waste system is a company called TerraCycle, which started in 2002 by Tom Szaky. The company’s social purpose is to eliminate the idea of waste. The company, based out of New Jersey, collects items that are difficult to recycle and repurposes the raw materials into new, innovative products. The company offers programs called Brigades to collect hard to recycle products such as food wrappers, old garments, laptops and e-waste and many other products. Most of the brigades offer points to redeem for charitable donations.

Companies like TerraCycle are part of a large collection of social entrepreneurs who start small. Many have failed to make enough money to keep the business running; however, TerraCycle has grown quite significantly since it’s initial compost collecting model. Last month Progressive Waste Solutions, North America’s largest waste management company acquired 20% interest in the company. The sense of purpose for social entrepreneurs must be extremely strong and powerful in order for the company to be successful. Zero waste mitigation strategies can start small, and gain momentum; however, the product and the mission must be smart and enticing for customers.

The theme from the discussion seemed to imply that small-scale governments were more successful in implementing zero waste strategy. We heard from various cases in Italy, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States, and the common thread was the scales of these projects were relatively small. The programs were focused on local based efforts in which centered communities were being targeted and helped by initiatives. What would a national strategy to provide zero waste look like? Please contribute your zero waste examples here along with thoughts on the larger question of a national zero waste strategy. 

Problematizing Resiliency and Carrying Capacity


This week’s discussion centered on two major themes: resiliency and carrying capacity.  Several issues were brought up as we compared the two concepts.  For some, the concept of resilience has attractive qualities that provide hope in our ability and that of the environment to adapt to the eminent impacts of climate change and other environmental hazards; however, several questions were raised:

  • What does resiliency mean within sustainable development and how can it be applied in practice?
  • How does it relate to the concept of justice? Things can be resilient in ways it doesn’t promote justice, so is resilience a distraction?

Another area of discussion we centered on was about our capacity to model societies and predict their ability to adapt or not adapt to climate change and its environmental impacts.  Our ecosystems are very complex, making any modeling questionable in its ability to predict how resiliency of species and plants will carry out.  Moreover, it raises the question about our role as humans within the ecosystem and our ability to mitigate and/or control environmental issues that can arise.  Folks raised the issue of how much can human actions even be modeled, given our societal dynamics and political complexities.  Questions were further raised about humans’ capacity to learn and adapt and how their socioeconomic condition impacts their ability to do so.  As one student pointed out:  If we are unable to predict or model the complex processes and responses of living things and humans within our ecosystems, how does that impact sustainable planning or planning in general?

The discussion of carrying capacity brought up other questions about:

  • How do we talk about sustainability and economy? Are there limitations to this framework?
  • Can people just live regionally?  Can they be sustainable within their area?

Eder centered the discussion about carrying capacity at a very human scale when he shared about his father’s fishing business in Chile.  He asked, “We have a carrying capacity, but someone is taking more. How much fish corresponds to me as a small fisherman, compared to industries that take more?”  The issue of global and social equity complicates the notion of carrying capacity, challenging us to rethink how this concept is applied and what it overlooks.

The last key point we reflected upon in relation to carrying capacity was the issue of further development to raise the standard of living for people.  Increasing the standard of living within our capitalist system ultimately means higher consumption and depletion of environmental resources.  So how do we tackle this conundrum? Do we follow Reese’s recommendation that development only be advanced in the developing world and halted for the developed countries?  Can a higher quality of life go hand in hand with sustainability? Why or why not?