Death to Sustainability!

Got your attention, didn't it?

I think the terms "sustainability" and "smart growth" are fine and we within the profession know more or less what they mean and they generally aren't barriers to communication. Even though our definitions may differ a bit, or we apply the terms differently, we still understand one another. I usually think that efforts to somehow find replacement terms to be more "accurate" or "non-judgemental" or whatever are a waste of time. Better to live with what we have and get on with the work. But now...

Here in NZ the incoming (rightist) government has signalled that sustainability - the concept, not the word - is now out of favour. Since I work for the Ministry for the Environment, and we're all likely to have to justify our existence, I would like to find an alternative to "sustainability" that says pretty much the same thing. I know many of you have had those "we-really-need-to-find-a-better-word" conversations and I'm wondering what you have come up with.

So much of communication is packaging. In NZ we have to now move in the opposite direction of you lucky ducks in the US. We don't want to change what we're doing, but we may be forced to sell it differently, and fast. All suggestions are welcome.




smart GROWTH

In my opinion right-wing could have lesser issues with "smart growth". Since it still incorporates the magic "growth" within it's usage, it allows things to move forward - and still do it smartly. As someone pointed out, the only way to oppose that would be to support dumb growth which noone in their sane mind would want to be associated with.

If sustainability is couched

If sustainability is couched as a no-growth approach, then yes, you could be in trouble. "Smart Growth" might be more appealing to conservative idealists. In addition, you might consider adopting financial terms such as investment, outcomes, value enhancement. Pointing to historical neighborhoods in your own city or town sometimes provides an effective way to demonstrate the value of good design. There is a reason why older, in-town neighborhoods sustain strong property values.

By the way, sustainability is a conservative ethic, which I believe most right leaning folks will understand, if properly informed. Maybe "sustainable growth?"

Danny Pleasant, AICP
Charlotte, NC

Kevin James Marks's picture

Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development makes the most sence to me.

I've disliked 'sustainable' and 'green' for a while now...

I use them when I must, but only after I've specifically linked them to what I would call regenerative design/planning practices. These would be specific and direct things which (at the very least) attempt to restore things that traditional & sometimes even sustainable development remove. Things like rain water infiltration, 'waste' streams and processes as resources, on-site energy production, urban habitat creation, etc.

Sustainability as a general concept

Taking the term sustainability out of the land use context and applying it to things like social equity, business practices, etc., which we have to do, is problematic. The term, as much as many people don't like it,is embedded in the lexicon. So I have two problems: 1. trying to find a non-threatening synonym, and 2. not sending the message that we aren't doing sustainability anymore! You may be surprised to hear this but I think the US is well ahead of NZ in sustainability.

Environmental Stewardship

I know of an environmental department at a "right-leaning" institution of higher education that has successfully implemented "sustainability" type programs, under the term of "environmental stewardship."
This term seems to be appealing to the rural community of ranchers and farmers.

Bio-Essential Communities

The mental leap that seems to be called for blurs the traditional definition of 'community'. When we use the term 'sustainable' we typically view some thing (e.g. a product or building) in relation to it's users and their epochal survival. So why not think of natural and artifical habitats and their inhabitants all together?

When a community is integrally alive and active, it stands a chance of staying healthy indefinitely. By that I mean it's activities and associated paraphernalia are not substantially disruptive of an area's larger life cycles and thus are theoretically less likely subject to certain strains of future unpleasantness.

It becomes a bit of a conundrum as to where that 'community' ends. By blurring the conventional boundaries of 'community' we might begin to consider essential biological continuities beyond the human beings, bricks, and mortar that are merely part of the rich network of life.

One criticism that might be leveled at the term 'sustainability' is that it seems to imply a homeostatic and well-bounded end-state. I suppose on the surface such a static boundedness might seem desirable even supposing it were actually achievable. But isn't an empty mall or abandoned house also 'sustainable' in a negative sense, once it's owned by the public, stripped of valuable materials, and otherwise rendered environmentally and economically benign?

Yet it doesn't seem enough to consider a mouldering heap of construction residue to be either 'essential' in a social sense or much involved with a 'community', sustainable though it may be. Nor does it seem quite right to think of the everlasting (and in a way, 'sustainable') plastic-and-foam-clad house as an essential part of the living 'community' that human beings know in their hearts they are part of.

To me, there's a kind of upgraded, agrarian quality to the concept. Are there other connotations that could be found appealing?


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