What is Sustainability?


The first logical step in a course named “Planning for Sustainability” is to set up the context of what sustainability is – how is it defined, how is it used, how has and how should it evolve over time? These are just some of the questions that come to mind, and throughout my years working in the fields of environmental design and planning, I have yet to come up with an answer to any of them, but am beginning to formulate that the ever-evolving quest for these answers is what makes a good planner in the realm of sustainability. This is because sustainability may have a static definition in the dictionary sense, yet it is the furthest thing from static in practice. As planners we must be able to adapt and respond to the changing world around us, whether it be from an environmental, social, or economic standpoint.

Going back into the history of planning, we see its evolution over time. Daniels’ A Trail Across Time discusses the five eras of sustainability and how it has grown from a necessity and public health issue, such as fighting waterborne diseases and improving sanitation, to city-beautiful movements and planning in a physical sense, to pollution cleanup, wilderness protection, and climate change mitigation. Not only have the topics at hand changed, but also who plans – from non-profits, to grassroots movements, to local, state, and federal governments (Daniels, 2009). In Bullard’s Legacy of American Apartheid and Environmental Racism we see how planning’s legacy regarding certain issues, such as redlining, has decades later manifested in problems like inequality and severe health disparities (Bullard, 1993). These methods of planning have shifted with the political and natural world as we have come to better understand some issues, or simply acknowledge that they exist (while continuing to fight for the acknowledgement of others).

Our physical landscape also evolves with issues and actors, making defining sustainability in a planning context that much more difficult. Bullard highlights the issues with using census tracts or zip codes as a proxy for the self-identified neighborhoods that have existed for generations. Cultures and societies have been built upon commonalities, such as values or schools, and may not follow the rules of geographic boundaries (Bullard, 1993). Natural resources, as well, do not follow preset boundaries, as watersheds, greenhouse gas emissions, and other factors transcend geographical areas and ownership (“Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” 1987) (Bassett, 2013). When a stream flows through ten people’s backyards, who is in charge of its maintenance and what can one do if a neighbor further upstream pollutes it? Similarly, what do we do when cities like San Francisco intend on included private trees in their future iterations of the Urban Forestry Plan? One may argue that doing so protects the environment of the entire city; while others say that it is an infringement on personal property rights and out of line of a government (San Francisco Planning Department, 2014). Without a physical boundary through which to study neighborhoods, how can we measure income, population, health, and other important planning and sustainability issues? Perhaps this is why cities like Curitiba were able to make such strides in their Bus Rapid Transit system under an authoritarian regime (Bassett, 2013). While a controversial idea, a city that does not need to take into account individual property rights or varying political opinions on a topic may be able to get more done than a democratic society, for better or for worse. Obviously, this has many faults, but highlights an important issue raised by the dissonance over what exactly sustainability and planning are and how to address them.

During the first class we were asked to write down our personal definitions of “sustainability.” With a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, different majors and backgrounds, and from various places, the definitions were rightfully riddled with our own biases, however still maintained commonalities. Most contained pieces of the Our Common Future definition of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (“Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” 1987, section IV, para. 1), some with added emphasis on social justice, design, or, personally, the tension between the definition in theory and in practice. While I agree with the Our Common Future definition in an idealistic sense, what does that mean in practice? While many may agree on this definition, the implications of planning in the real world are anything but consensual, with constant political battles and ideologies pushing for their own definition and requisite actions. For example, we see the controversy that has arisen over the United Nation’s Agenda 21, which has been used by some as a basis for sustainable planning, and others as propaganda against land use regulations and a tool for revoking our personal freedoms (Beck, 2014). Rittel and Webber rightfully highlight the “wickedness” of planning problems because unlike a finite science, planning issues have no “right answer,” take years to manifest results, and have endless butterfly effects (i.e. siting an incinerator in a lower-income community may result in high rates of childhood asthma several years later) (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

San Francisco defines “sustainability” in their Sustainability Plan the same as in Our Common Future. However, their plan highlights the need for a definition of sustainability in the practical sense to evolve with issues and places. Written in the 1990s, It discusses goals set for the year 2002, and while many of its concepts are still relevant, it is important for a city to set news goals, report on benchmarks, and create new plans as a city changes (City and County of San Francisco, 1997). San Francisco is incredibly different than it was in the 1990s, with the development of the Central Market, SOMA, and Mission Bay neighborhoods (among many others), as well as the influx of tech commuters who work at Google, Apple, or Tesla and live in city but work in the Peninsula.

As the definition, the places planning affects, and the profession change, so does the word itself. The word “green” or “environmental,” has changed to “sustainability” and, more recently we have begun to discuss “resilient” and “regenerative” design. As we discussed this in class, I was reminded of a figure from my undergraduate sustainable design days that tried to graph what these words really mean in practice (found here: http://ivanredi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Trajectory-of-Environmental-Responsibility.jpg). Is this a response to the changing needs and development of the practice or a rebranding whenever one does not seem to push far enough or gathers too much controversy? So this begs the question that is the impetus of this post – if sustainability and planning are such abstract and fluid ideas, why and how do we respond? I challenge Wheeler when he states, “…although some initially expected the subject [sustainability] to be a passing fad, [it] has shown no sign of diminishing…” (Wheeler, 2004, p. 30) I do believe sustainability is something that will not be forgotten anytime soon and I believe its urgency is only growing stronger (despite how “wicked” its issues may be), but with climate change deniers, lack of federal legislation on the topic, and many sustainable strategies still out of reach for every race and economic status, is it really more than just a fad? In order to progress from “fad” to “revolution” sustainability must be accessible to all and an everyday part of policy, design, and planning, and planning as a discipline must be able to adapt to these changes as they occur.

Works Cited

Bassett, T. (2013, November). Top-Down, Bottom-Up. Planning Magazine.

Beck, G. (2014). Agenda 21.Glenn Beck. Retrieved from http://www.glennbeck.com/agenda21/

Bullard, R. D. (1993). Legacy of American Apartheid and Environmental Racism, The. . John’s J. Legal Comment. 9, 445.

City and County of San Francisco. (1997). Sustainable City. Retrieved from http://www.sustainable-city.org

Daniels, Thomas L. (2009). “A Trail Across Time: American Environmental Planning from City Beautiful to Sustainability.” JAPA, Volume 75, Issue 2.

Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,

Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development. Retrieved from http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm

Redi, I. (n.d.). Urban Eco-SystemIvan Redi. Retrieved from http://ivanredi.com/urban-eco-system/

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). 2.3 Planning Problems are Wicked. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-69.

San Francisco Planning Department. (2014). San Francisco Urban Forestry Plan. City and County of San Francisco.

Wheeler, S. (2004). Sustainable Development. In Planning for Sustainability (p. 30). Routledge.

10 thoughts on “What is Sustainability?

  1. jennamhahn

    Your post resonates with me deeply – it almost felt as if I was reading something I could have written. I like your discussion that phases of sustainability have grown from necessity and public health issues. I believe this will be the case today in regards to climate change, with the discussion beginning to broaden outside of just environmental concerns, to better understand the effects climate change will have on livelihoods, disease, equity, trade, immigration, resource wars, etc. Just as zoning was created because cities became so unlivable, I think more aggressive policies will be created in response as the state of the planet gets worse. Too often policies are not made proactively, but rather in reaction to problems. Reasons for this can range from lack of political will, to other pressing issues that effect the present. It often takes things reaching a major event, tipping point, or overwhelming public support until things actually change. Hopefully this new generation of activists and decision-makers can see the danger in this kind of process.

  2. jcollector4

    Sustainability can be manifest in the built environment, individual lifestyle habits, and cultural values – all three of which are informed by policy and institutions. 2014 is a HUGE year for sustainable development with leaders converging around the globe. One that is not getting the press it deserves is the International Symposium on Agroecology. Scientists have written a passionate letter praising the FAO for organizing the symposium. Read the letter here: http://www.iatp.org/files/2014.09.17_AgroecologyFAOLetter.pdf

  3. “Static definition in the dictionary sense, yet it is the furthest thing from static in practice.” — I find this to be a very interesting and important point: just the same way society evolves, the meaning of sustainability must change. If people change the way they live, their environmental, social, and economic impacts will also change and thus the negative effects that sustainable planning must mitigate will be different. Not only is the definition changing, but the way we put it to practice will also change: as new advancements in technology allow it, some resources disappear and some new ones are used.
    Besides the ever-changing nature of sustainability, I think that it is very important to keep in mind the effects of past planning actions and policies have on the present. As you mention, Bullard brings up the inequalities and disparities that exist today as a consequence of the redlining practice even several decades later. This made me realize that, as much as planners must look to the future and finds the next steps to move forward towards more sustainable and equitable communities, they must also not disregard history.

  4. frobertsgregory

    I like how you discuss that sustainability has to account for an ever changing and evolving physical (and social) landscape. I think the ideas behind sustainability are here to stay, but the terminology might change as we become more sophisticated in expressing our ideas. The word sustainability has been arguably co-opted by business interests and used to promote green-washing, so inevitably activists and grassroots communities will find new ways to express themselves once their words and ideas are used against them, But the core of the concept will remain unchanged and will be recycled as time goes on. I also like how you shed light on the issue of who and whom gets to create boundaries, whether they are political or geographical. Similar to Bullard, I also think it is more important to understand how communities define themselves or perform their own boundary work at different scales. I also agree that environmental regulation and environmental equity seems to perform better at a federal level. Centralization of power and capital (when placed in the right hands) can do wonders for sustainable development. I would like to see more examples of sustainable environmental planning that is implemented at the local level with limited financial backing. How do we balance decentralization of environmental decision making with centralized environmental decision making?

    Finally, you state that “In order to progress from “fad” to “revolution” sustainability must be accessible to all.” I am unsure how to make sustainability accessible at multiple levels when some people might not desire to opt in to sustainability. This assumes a one size fit all approach, when we know that sustainability means different things to different people. My postmodern perspective makes me skeptical of anything that can make life better for “all”……

    • Great comment, but I want to respond to the idea of “all.” I strongly believe sustainability cannot be one size fits all, but it should also be accessible to everyone. The key word being accessible, which would address inequity globally. This can be different at every level, as large corporations will define sustainable actions differently than the US middle class which will also be different than disadvantaged persons in the Global South. Sustainability is somewhat stuck in a bourgeoisie phase and won’t really be a revolution until it is integrated into every day practice – and therefore accessible to “all.”

  5. caitlintouchberry

    I greatly appreciate this post from its historical step through the definitions of sustainability to its questioning of the tensions between the theory and practice of sustainability. I would like to present a management model in response to the main question posed in the post, of how to respond to sustainability, as it is such an abstract idea. It is the concept of adaptive management often used in Natural Resource Management. When presented with problems that require evolving definitions, I am often reminded of this framework. Adaptive management is an iterative process involving planning, acting, monitoring, and evaluating. It ensures reevaluation of the direction of an operation on a constant basis, which is important when every action matters and has potentially unpredictable consequences. In this way, it may provide some insight of how to respond to the “wicked” problems of sustainability.

  6. jessicalanguyen

    To your point about making sustainability accessible to all and integrated into policies and plans, I think this is one scenario in which having a broad definition of sustainability (like the Brundtland Commission’s) can be beneficial. As demonstrated in our class discussions and Wheeler’s article, everyone approaches sustainability from a different angle. Some focus conserving or preserving natural resources, while others focus on human needs. Sustainability encompasses many disciplines, and keeping a broad definition invites more parties with different perspectives to engage in the issues and solutions.

  7. aldotudela7

    Great post! I loved how you identify sustainability as being ill-defined, and how this is something natural and maybe even useful. I completely agree. Although I do find value in having a definition to plan around that particular subject, there are examples of how can planning tackle sustainability by solving other problems. Examples of this are Curitiba’s BRT, as you mention, as well Bogota’s Transmilenio, Mexico City’s Ecobici and Peru’s ELIS hoousing. This “bottom-up” approach to planning provides a useful tool to acknowledge that there is synergy among urban problems and sustainability issues. In practice, this means that projects that designed to tackle sustainability issues may take a while to define. However, if we can promote transportation, housing, land use problems, that contribute to common sustainable goals, it might be easier and less time-consuming. We do need to look at project’s externalities though. As you mention, some project may seem to have a beneficial objective but affect third parties in a negative way. But this is something that in my view, planners can spend more time thinking instead of trying to define a broad and vague term as sustainability.

  8. I appreciate the questions and points you posed. Your last thought about sustainability being accessible to everyone really resonates with me. In thinking about Daniel’s reading on ‘who’ has and ‘who’ is doing the planning, I wonder how we might shift from current methods back to having more community non-profit and grassroots organizations be genuinely involved in the planning process (along with planners and developers). The current community outreach approach is often either non-existent, ornamental or incredibly limited. If the system shifted so that plans were developed by consensus (or at least through a genuinely spread responsibility among stakeholder organizations and groups) perhaps sustainability could be more accessible to everyone. I wonder what kind of catalyst could move us in this direction. I also wonder what consequences may stem from an approach like this (e.g. would adaptability in the planning field become even more difficult?).

  9. niavila

    Your emphasis on sustainability as dynamic and the need for adaptability is crucial. Also, thanks for sharing the figure on the trajectory of environmental responsibility. I never thought of energy efficiency as a “degenerative” effort in terms of the graph. It means that our current practices are so far from where we need to be. It emphasizes the unparalleled efforts that are needed to achieve a sustainable society.

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