A Formative Moment
Society finds itself in the midst of a formative step in forging approaches to sustainability. Many approaches have been tried, from those of the first-generation environmental movement of the 1960s to those of the post-1992 Rio period. They continue to be developed for businesses, organizations, municipalities, and communities. As a result, an ever-expanding set of bewidering options confronts anyone seeking to begin or enhance their sustainability initiative. This creates the challenge of choosing the "right" approach. On which basis is one to choose? These approaches differ in many respects, but one useful way of evaluating their efficacy is according to the definition of sustainability used and the role that the resulting understanding plays in success. This post explores the role that the definition of sustainability plays in an approach and then develops the implications for urban sustainability planning practice.
Need for an Operational Definition
An operational definition of sustainability is critical for success. Yet, many sustainability approaches and frameworks address the definitional challenge insufficiently, typically in one of five ways. /1/
- Using the seminal, and succinct, but general Brundtland definition, "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." /1a/
- Using the Brundtland definition and illustrating it with the three "E"s, spheres, pillars, etc. of environment, economy, and equity, and relying on some concept of balance between the three or the intersection of the three dimensions.
- Other related, but not sustainability frameworks, such as smart growth, ecological urbanism, etc.
- Giving up and saying that sustainable development cannot be defined, but it is still worth pursuing and you'll/we'll know it when we see it.
- Asserting that a definition is unnecessary as long as we act in ways that reduce environmental impacts, are "green" or otherwise "ecological," or reduce economic consumption or production.
Insufficient definition undermines an effective response. Without an operational definition, it is difficult to formulate and pursue an effective and successful program. In addition, the lack of an operational definition makes common understanding difficult, and that undermines collaboration, common purpose, and common progress. The Brundtland definition is a good starting point, but it needs to be extended in ways that clarify the end game, specify a method, and drive the on-going process of innovation to sustainability.
Choosing a Sustainability Approach and Framework
As a result, the key questions practitioners can ask themselves in assessing approaches or frameworks for possible adoption is which definition the approach uses, which method is specified, and whether it drives on-going innovation that will ultimately achieve sustainability. Does the definition clearly distinguish the sustainable from the unsustainable? Can the definition be used to make definitive policy, planning, and investment decisions? Will it drive the ongoing innovation required to achieve sustainability success?
One approach that scores high marks in affirmative answers to these questions is the The Natural Step. It is rooted in a principle-based definition of sustainabilitythat was developed by a group of over 100 scientists in 1988-89 and effectively "operationalizes" the Brundtland definition. It includes a Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development for acting effectively in complex systems and an ABCD Strategic Planning Process to quickly produce a strategic action plan that begins the on-going process of innovation by "picking" the high-value/low-cost "low hanging fruit," typically energy and material efficiency improvements.
The iterative consensus process of scientist review and comment distilled the definition into the minimum set of four non-overlapping principles that constitute the "systems" conditions for a sustainable society in the biosphere. This scientific definition and associated whole-systems, strategic sustainability planning method have been used since 1990 by many businesses and communities to powerful advantage and substantial progress towards creating sustainable organizations and communities.
A Powerful Principle-Based Definition Provides Deep Understanding and Adaptive Response Capacity
Formulated as principles for achieving sustainability, they are as follows. "To become a sustainable society we must . . .
- eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels);
- eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT);
- eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and fisheries, and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and
- eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on)." /1b/
This same set of sustainability principles applies to businesses, organizations, or communities. Part of the power of this principle-based definition of sustainability is that it is not prescriptive in a deterministic way. It does not dictate particular technology, behavior, patterns, etc., which may be powerful responses at a particular time, but may need to be revised or replaced as conditions change. Instead, it defines the terrain of sustainability in terms of performance parameters of a sustainable society--the maintenance of which produce a systems condition of sustainability vs. unsustainability.
Using them delivers a deep understanding and provides a flexible, adaptive capacity to design responses appropriate for the time and conditions. As conditions change, so too can the response be renewed and redesigned. It builds on humanity's core skill set--design intelligence. The way society achieves and maintains sustainability can take many different forms as long as the sustainability principles are met. Simply put, sustainability lies within the area these principles delimit, while unsustainability lies in the terrain outside these principles where sustainability is violated. In this respect, the principles raise an innovation challenge and measurable benchmark for society as the key requirement and method of accomplishing sustainability. Business--or planning--as usual will no longer suffice.
Effectively Linking Sustainability to the Economy - A New Platform for Prosperity
In the context of accelerating socioeconomic and environmental trends that are deepening society's unsustainability, how can society achieve these principles? Afterall, in the context of the win-lose framing, reducing environmental degradation would necessarily require reducing economic productivity and prosperity. This might work for the richest 20 percent of humanity, but likely not for the rest.
The answer lies in recalibrating the economy so that it operates at least within the four minimum performance parameters of a sustainable society in the biosphere. Doing so creates a win-win relationship between the environment and the economy--a relationship essential for on-going economic success and real wealth production.
In addition, society needs to simultaneously accomplish two other critical objectives, and quickly, before the window of opportunity for success closes and current trends overwhelm our capacity to respond./1c/ First, society must at least stop, if not reverse climate change by limiting average global warming to 1 degree C, or as close to that objective as possible (or 2 degrees maximum warming). Either of these options will involve an approximately 200-year mitigation period because of the long lag times and slow responsiveness of the climate system. Doing so will require limiting peak global GHG emissions by about 2017 and reducing them to zero by 2050./2/ If limiting peak GHG emissions occurs after 2017, accomplishing the 1-degree-C warming trajectory will require reaching zero emissions earlier than 2050 (note: having recently exceeded 400 ppm of carbonin the atmosphere, society is at the edge or beyond the parameters of the mitigation scenario, and must shorten period when zero GHG emissions are reached).
Second, while recalibrating the economy, society must also increase the productivity and distributive mechanisms of the global economy to create the capacity to fully meet the needs (physical, intellectual, and spiritual) of 9+ billion people by 2050 or sooner. /3/ (Even if mitigation cannot be fully successful because we have passed key system thresholds, pursuing this mitigation program and incorporating adaptive measures required anyway during the 100-200 year mitigation period, but potentially on a permanent basis, is still the smartest response.)
By what method can meeting these performance objectives be accomplished? Doing so will require decoupling the economy from the environment so as to eliminate pollution and environmental destruction./4/ Doing so requires understanding sustainability as fundamentally an economic challenge and value, not environmental./5/ As such, sustainability becomes a new platform for prosperity (possibly the only one remaining). With that platform, eliminating negative environmental impacts, even shifting to the creation of positive "restorative" environmental “enhancing” impacts becomes the design parameters that, if used to drive on-going innovation across all of the economy’s sectors (products, services, tools, processes, policy) and society’s institutions, will produce sustainability success, that is, the re-creation and maintenance of a sustainable society in the biosphere.
The Planning Profession's Role?
Will normal planning practice, or what we might term "good planning," achieve a sustainable society, or at least make the maximum silo contribution of the profession? Or will more than "planning as usual" be required (see Sustainable Land Use Planning). If the latter, how would planning practice need to change? This post takes the position that more than "good" planning will be required for sustainability success; and it also argues that part of that change will be an expanded role for planning. As the planning profession and departments embrace the sustainability challenge, the points above regarding assessing, using, and extending sustainability approaches and frameworks are germane.
Fortunately, emerging practice (see also regenerative planning pioneers) has already adopted the "end-game" goal of net zero, even net positive (restorative) impact. However, that "net zero" needs to be defined in alignment with the sustainability principles stated above, and implemented so the built environment (new and existing) meets the associated performance requirements of a sustainable society at each spatial scale (e.g., communities, cities, regions, and rural places. Because the built environment drives a huge proportion of un-sustainability in the economy, the newly emerging practice of "regenerative urban planning, design, and development" would substantially advance (possibly be the critical driver of) the invention of the new, circular, ecological "regenerative" economy of a sustainable (or "regenerative") society in the biosphere and the transition to it. /7/ Some leading edge approaches have even gone beyond "functional" sustainability to full, "generative" sustainability that connects the needed functions of sustainability to the heart and soul of society in ways that generate higher, reinforcing value than is possible with a purely functional approach.
In relationship to the transformative challenge of sustainability, the planning profession can play two lead roles in contributing to society achieving sustainability success./6/ First, achieving the sustainability performance noted above in the existing and new built environment for which the profession has regulatory authority. Second, taking a new integrative leadership role to drive the sustainability transition across all of society’s sectors, institutions, and practices. This new role arises from the profession’s core methodological competence in integrative design and planning process, and also from its regulatory role in and professional responsibility for general or comprehensive planning. It also arises from the planning profession's historic mission -- public health and well being as it relates broadly to planning, design, development, management, and "regeneration" of society's settlement patterns (communities, from rural to urban to regional).
Reformulated Existing Role - Regenerative Planning and Design
In terms of the first role related to the planning profession's traditional land use practice, the planning profession needs to fully embrace and develop the quickly emerging and coalescing practice of what we can label “regenerative planning, design, and development," or "regenerative place making" of the built environment. Various components have been developing over the past 20+ years in the planning, architecture, and landscape architectural professions under the generic "green" label and within the more descriptive theme of urban ecology (green building, green roofs, green walls, passive house, creek day lighting, green storm water infrastructure, smart growth, etc.). From a larger perspective, this coalescence and focus around the theme of regenerative planning, design and place making can be seen as the next step in the evolution of green or "sustainable" urbanism arising from Rio92. /7a/
A New Integrative Leadership Role
In terms of the second role, Planning must use its position as the only profession and societal institution assigned the responsibility for the overall health and well being of society to take on a new role and develop a new set of planning practices./8/ The planning profession's core competence in integrative planning and design process and the integrative, whole-systems challenge of sustainability suggests a need to invent a new integrative leadership role to drive the transformation to sustainability success across society. This can be seen as the ultimate “calling” of the profession, and possibly the ace up society’s sleeve needed to achieve local-global sustainability success in the short time remaining before accelerating trends and accumulating impacts foreclose the possibility of a successful response.
A Quickening Response--The Need for Effective Definition
Only time will tell, but the growing acknowledgement throughout society of the sustainability challenge and the needed strategic response bodes well. Promising developments for Planning include the National APA's Sustaining Places Initiative (March 2010), the APA Sustainable Communities Interest Group (2009), which became a new Division in November 2012 (join it!), and a growing State APA Chapter response. That response includes five states with Sustainability Committees (California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey) and two states with deep sustainability already embedded within State Chapter activity (Oregon and Washington).
The challenge we face now is developing a powerful enough strategic alignment of understanding to creatively inform the multiple individual responses within a closing window of opportunity so that we reverse course and create a transition path to an opening window of prosperity, and ultimate sustainability success.
The sustainability approach and framework that each actor chooses to use will play a decisive role in a successful response. Choosing an approach and framework that uses an operational and powerful definition of sustainability to direct, focus, and drive success is critical. The planning profession, along with other sustainability actors, face this challenge.
/1/ See for instance the American Planning Association Planning Advisory Service Report (PAS Report No. 565), “Assessing Sustainability: A Guide for Local Governments.” It presents an exhaustive review of indicators and the definitions upon which they were based. You can find a summary and review here.
/1a/ United Nations. 1987."Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development." General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987.
/1b/ In addition to being developed through a collaborative iterative process involving over 100 scientists and becoming the core of The Natural Step, whole systems and strategic approach to sustainable development, a modified version of these principles are the basis for the American Planning Association's APA Sustainabiilty Policy Guide.
/1c/ The literature on this point is substantial. See Thomas Friedman (Hot, Flat, Crowded), Lester Brown (Plan B), The World Watch Institute's State of the World 2012, and Meadows et. al., in Beyond the Limits, in particular.
/2/ IPPC, Fourth Assessment Reports <<add most recent, fall 2013>>. Also, World Watch Institute, State of the World 2009 - Into a Warming World.
'/3/ This point logically follows given the dynamic nature of population growth and the economy's capacity to meet human needs, and the four minimum system conditions of a sustainable society in the biosphere and the associated four minimum sustainability principles for creating a sustainable society, firm, community or other subsystem of human society. It is also a more general formulation of core messages Buckminster Fuller developed in a lifetime of work (design science). It was the central theme of his Utopia or Oblivion.
/4/ See sources in note No. 1.
/5/ This is an embedded but little appreciated concept in the sustainability literature and frameworks, but one I have been working on over the years, particularly related to a deepening understanding of strategic sustainability, an overlapping practice advanced by The Natural Step, The Society for Organizational Learning, and powerful engagement processes of the International Institute for Public Participation. It is one of the key embedded principles of systems transformation required to drive the transition. See the Natural Steps introduction to strategic sustainability, and also The Necessary Revolutionby Peter Senge, et.al.
/6/ I have been intrigued with this idea for a number of years. It follows logically from an effective response to sustainability requiring more than business as usual. As such, the implication is that we need to do what we already do differently, and that we likely need to be doing new things and taking on new roles and practice that must be invented. See these posts for details and additional resources: Mobilizing Sustainability.
/7/ See the literature and a basic text on ecological economics, which aligns the market economy with the regenerative life support principles and facts of the regenerative life support machine and economy better known as the biosphere.
/7a/ See Beatley, Timothy, Green Urbanism: Learning From European Cities, Island Press, 2000, particularly Chapter 1, Introduction, Chapter 13, The Promise of Green Urbanism, and Appendix B, Aalbourg Charter of European Cities and Towns--Towards Sustainability. Also see the Introduction to Danilo Palazzo and Frederick Steiner, Urban Ecological Design, Island Press, 2012.
/8/ This idea follows logically as described in note No. 6. It has been floating around in the literature and practice of the profession in many guises for years. But it has not been explicitly developed and fully embraced. See a recent advancement of the concept by APA CEO Paul Farmer's et. als'., position paper), responding to the full challenge of planning and sustainability: Reinventing Planning--A New Governance Paradigm for Managing Human Settlements (A Position Paper developing themes from the Draft Vancouver Declaration for debate leading into the World Planners Congress, Vancouver 17-20 June 2006).