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.