The pace of APA's sustainability initiatives is quickening. In Fall 2009, the APA officially endorsed the Sustainable Community Plannng (SCP) Interest Group (see also the Ning Site) and the group launched itself publicly at the New Orleans National Conference in April 2010 (interest group formed in fall 2009). The initiative comes at a time of potential sea change for the APA regarding sustainability and the role of the planning profession in society. This sea-change moment is not unrelated to the critical, make-or-break juncture in world history that humanity finds itself facing at the beginning of the 21st century--the challenge of wrestling global sustainability from the increasingly irreversible and unsustainable effects of business as usual in all spheres of global society.
The APA has noted this critical moment with its own Sustaining Places Initiative (March 2010), its founding presence in the Global Planners Network (2006), and in collaborative work on the challenge for planning to reinvent itself, both nationally and internationally, to be a leading force for the sustainability transformation in the 21st century. This reinvention effort is similar to planning's genesis in the city beautiful movement as a response to early 20th century industrial challenges and subsequently, to the evolving challenges of post-industrial capitalism later in the century.
Since April 2010, the APA-SCP has gathered momentum with an email list already in the thousands, an organizing committee, etc. They see themselves as an advocacy campaign focused on moving a "deep" understanding of the sustainability imperative to the forefront of APA thinking and practice. Skim through the following links for a briefing and to get involved.
Go to their social networking spaces and get a sense of the dialogue and participants.
Based on their written material and social network sites, the group has a refreshing, energetic, youthful feel, embracing all contributions to a deeper more effective approach to sustainable community planning. It's amazing what the main streaming of a concept can do in a few short years compared to the late 1990s when I participated in an APA panel at the 1999 Seattle APA National Conference and contributed to some early work on the APA Sustainabiilty Policy Guide.
The challenge the group faces--as does any sustainability actor--is acquiring a powerful strategic sustainability planning approach that is effective at achieving sustainability in complex systems. Such an approach is needed to distinguish the sustainable from the unsustainable and the high-value from low-value initiatives and investments. Such distinctions form the basis for setting up contingent scenarios of the most promising future moves in a dynamic fluid environment, much like the game of chess. It is also needed to transform disparate, disconnected tactical sustainability initiatives into a powerful, on-going, self-funded, expanding, strategic approach of continual innovation and accelerating sustainability transformation at all levels of social organization, from community to global.
[It should be noted that time is of the essence in the face of accelerating socioeconomic-ecological trends that will soon approach or have already passed thresholds for biospheric change that are irreversible, will likely cause dramatic systems disequilibrium leading to substantial deterioration in life support capacity, and potentially will cause biospheric systems collapse at some point.]
One effective approach is The Natural Step (TNS)--a powerful innovation in planning methodology designed for working effectively in complex systems generally, and for achieving sustainability in particular. For that reason, it should be of special interest to planners and the planning profession given the comprehensive, complex, systems challenges they/it routinely face(s). Developed 20 years ago by a Swedish oncologist, Karl-Henrik Robert, and a team of 50 scientists, a scientific consensus was forged regarding the conditions for sustainability. Those conditions have been incorporated into a powerful strategic sustainability planning methodology that some businesses and municipalities around the world have used with success, often dramatic and transformational. In 2010, at this critical, make-or-break juncture in world history, the insights and benefits of The Natural Step’s powerful strategic sustainability planning methodology may be especially salient.
That cancer was likely incurable "downstream" after a patient incurred it, with the only cure being prevention far "upstream" in the chain of cause and effect was the epiphany that sparked Mr. Robert's innovative response. Planners are intimately familiar with the simple and familiar logic behind this epiphany--an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In fact, that very logic is found in many reasoned assessments of climate change (the front line of the larger sustainability challenge), such as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Prevention is much less expensive and wiser than a cure after the fact, and highly preferable to adaptation once afflicted, particularly in the case of cancer, or similarly, unsustainability.
Of particular interest to the planning profession may be TNS-Canada's innovative work in Integrated Community Sustainability Planning (ICSP) over the past six years in response to federal legislation. They have been developing and leading transformative change and engagement programs based on TNS's strategic sustainability planning methodology to help communities and their leaders advance the practice of sustainability. One distinctive aspect of TNS (and ICSP), is that it is not characterized by a variety of discrete actions in diverse sectors, but rather by finding integrative approaches that produce multiple impacts and benefits within a strategy of on-going strategic innovation to the point of success. With the lessons learned over the past six years, TNS-Canada feels that what makes for effective community sustainability planning is beginning to emerge, and the course is a vehicle for transmitting those lessons more broadly.
Of course, this challenge of forging an approach for effective sustainability planning in complex systems--such as communities and regions--is not unique to the APA-SCP, but faced by the planning profession and any actor embracing the sustainability challenge. The land use planning profession faces the challenge, both in current practice and in reinventing planning to deal effectively with the global-local nature of the sustainability challenge. The core conundrum is that the theoretical and practice domain of the planning profession is the physical/spatial settlement dimension of society, place, community, etc. To be practical and make problems managable in the face of larger political and societal forces that shape place, and that often operate outside the control of planning and planners, planning practice often defines a field of action and goals that exclude these larger forces. This will be a problem when it comes to adding community (and by implication, local-global societal) sustainability to planning's many existing objectives. The key societal forces shaping "place" sustainability are socioeconomic in nature, situated, in the first instance, outside of the spatial realm, but interact with it.
Thus, the sustainability challenge society faces is beyond “place” but affects it, and in turn, the nature of place(s) at any point in time affects the local, and systems-level, sustainability challenge. This linkage between place, the larger forces, and subsystem/system sustainability is the nexus for planners and planning to go to work with new multi-dimensional, multi-sector, multi-tasking, whole-systems resolutions that will not only create great places locally (the main charge of the planning profession), but drive the larger system towards sustainability too (an absolute requirement for sustainable communities). To fast-track employing a powerful strategic sustainability approach, the planning profession, through the APA, could partner with TNS-USA to develop a wide range of training and practice applications of a strategic sustainability approach to land use, community planning, etc., and doing so would accelerate a variety of APA's sustainability planning initiatives to make "great places happen."
As part of the larger "reinvention" challenge the profession faces (see APA CEO Paul Farmer's et. al, position paper), responding to the full challenge of planning and sustainability--that of place and the larger forces at play--somehow needs to be reframed as legitimately within planning’s professional domain (or at least the domain of one of society's institutions). Planning, due to its interdisciplinary, comprehensive, and potentially integrative nature, is well situated to be that institution for society. At least championing and leading an effective response to the full sustainability challenge needs to be reframed as legitimately within planning’s domain, and not simply left to the political realm, which does not seem inclined to touch it effectively (let alone embrace it for the seeds of political renewal that lie within it--but that's another story), or left to the uncoordinated net additive result of disparate expert initiatives: energy experts, climate experts, food experts, water experts, etc. We've already seen where both of these approaches to the issue have gotten us over the past 50 years--to the brink of unsustainability. Business as usual will no longer cut it, and in fact is often unwittingly viewed as without negative risks and consequences, somehow blissfully eternally prosperous (the flawed logic of a type II error if there ever was one). Driving continual innovation towards sustainability transformation is now the "name of the game", the "order of the day," the task before us.
So, it is towards this challenge that the APA-SCP and the planning profession more generally march. The APA-SCP, along with other APA sustainability initiatives, could push the growing momentum for sustainability past the social tipping point where it becomes ubiquitous and produces the effective response we need in the few short years we have left to sow and grow the necessary seeds of economic and institutional transformation for sustainability success.