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

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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: http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2011/10/metro_approves_urban_growth_bo.html). 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.  http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/my-product/portland-oregon-opportunity-mapping/

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 http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/62635. 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.