Originally published May, 2013
What is “Sustainability?”
Sustainability is a difficult word to define, or more precisely, is difficult to reduce to a single definition. American Heritage defines the term as “capable of being continued without long-term effect on the environment.” This definition certainly does not solidify the linguistic ground beneath our feet. It is a sort of negative definition, partially defined by the absence of “long-term effect.” I don’t know exactly what “long-term effect” means. Everything that exists has a long-term effect on the environment. For that matter, everything that stops existing, or goes extinct has a long-term effect on the environment.
Sustainability as a construct owes a great deal to the Brundt Commission report to the United Nations in 1987, entitled, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. The report establishes three pillars of sustainability: Ecology, Economy and Equity (often referred to as the Three Es). You can also find the three pillars at work in the notion of the triple bottom line business, with the three bottom lines being People, Planet, Profit, as attributed to John Elkington.
The work I do for the nonprofit PLACE promotes the Three Es. We’re community builders, known for developing sustainable places for the arts and economic development. PLACE often uses the shorthand, “we build sustainable communities,” prompting questions like “what is sustainable?” and “what is community?” Even as an organization actively engaged in “sustainability,” we throw the term around as though everyone agrees on its meaning. It’s almost as if the term has come to be defined by its very absence of definition; like Justice Potter Stewarts’ definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
I’ve come to see the lack of a strong definition for the term “sustainable” as a structural impediment to our work as a society to prevent environmental degradation, habitat destruction, pollution of our air and water, mass extinction of species and global climate disruption (and the disruptions in economy and equity that follow). Yet, those of us working on a more sustainable future for society tend to assume that at the very least, we professionals know what we mean by “sustainability,” right? We know it when we see it.
PLACE often uses its own negative definition. Instead of defining “sustainable,” we jump to define the word “unsustainable,” as “that which destroys the very resources on which it depends.” Therefore, we know what is unsustainable and we’re not going to do “that.” But, without a strong, understandable definition for sustainability, and a good story to go with it, we create a crack in the pavement through which opportunistic weeds can grow.
Organic Melt™ ice remover advertises itself as being "environmentally safe" and an "agricultural-based product" using sugar beets. When CBC Marketplace contacted the company, they discovered that only 3% of Organic Melt™ is sugar beets by weight, and the rest is ordinary rock salt — even though the ingredient list puts beets first. It’s hard to see how this product is advancing ecology, let alone equity. As for economy, I’m not sure profiting from your disingenuous eco-claim counts.
There are many such specious claims for the “eco-ness” of products and companies that strain credibility. These sorts of misrepresentations, often referred to as “greenwashing,” make people cynical about sustainability efforts, and by association, sustainability professionals. Do we need new terms that support the work we champion?
In my experience, we need a more inclusive approach to addressing our most pressing challenges. Rilke said, “I live my life in widening circles,” and so must we, if we are to live sustainably. Everything we do touches on something else, and we must consider to the extent possible all of the adjacencies. We must widen the circle. The built environment impacts the natural environment. That is unavoidable. To build and live sustainably, we cannot focus exclusively on being environmentally sustainable— which often grabs all the headlines. Each new place must be seven kinds of sustainable:
Environmental sustainability is the first thing we think of when we think of sustainability. We are not maintaining our environment. Those who study the rate of consumption of the Earth’s natural resources estimate that we are using them up faster than they are being replenished. We’re spending down our reserves. The know-how exists to reverse this trend, but it is not widely distributed; a well-known market failure. We can design buildings that waste far less without costing any more. Yet, only a fraction of buildings are being built to these standards. Sustainable building techniques have been advanced by the network of professionals working with the U.S. Green Building Council, the BREEAM assessment, the International Living Futures Institute, The EPA’s Energy Star Program, and many more. Not only are there serviceable road maps to environmental design, but protocols for the measurement, tracking and evaluation necessary for the ongoing process that is environmentally sustainable buildings.
Often assumed to be mutually exclusive, PLACE believes that a development must be economically sustainable to be sustainable. Indeed, in developed nations, the economy is held up as a sine qua non for everything: “sine qua non, stupid!” Although it is true that sustainable design will improve your long-term operating costs, projects without balanced economic models may find themselves empty, sold, repurposed, or even demolished. In my experience, you’ll know that you’re on the right track when you find that careful mix of uses that improves your project’s sustainability and its economic resilience at the same time. For-profit businesses will play a leading role in the shift to economic sustainability, and so will nonprofits and NGOs.
Sustainable developments must find a way to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. PLACE is a fiercely nonpartisan organization, and we receive invitations to build our communities from both major parties. We begin each project with a collaborative, community-driven process of development, and that process lays the political groundwork for support from both sides. Despite the current rhetoric, I believe that nearly all of us recognize the need to prevent the wasting of resources, the spoiling of the Earth, and the proliferation of poverty and desperation. We want to be inspired. It is merely the means to move forward about which we argue. Bring your sustainable development to the community in a spirit of high-performance design, strong economic fundamentals, and a collaborative process, and you will find support across party lines, and more importantly, a more balanced and enduring support.
A very small percentage of the population wishes to live in a spirit of long-term sacrifice and deprivation — I’m guessing roughly similar to the number of people who choose to wear hair shirts. People who can afford it tend to seek comfort, safety and convenience. Thus it is that the richest places in the world also consume the most resources. Sustainability cannot disregard psychology. We ignore the need for comfort, ease of use, and pride of ownership at our peril. But can we all live in eco-hedonism? This is a design problem. Our design must incorporate our intent to produce inspiring places for people without wasting anything, and if possible, create abundance. At the very least, we must design our built environments to be psychologically sustainable, or our best efforts will regress into waste and inefficiency.
The built environment is, by definition, built for people. Yet the design of communities is driven by economics, vehicle parking, and many other things to which people often take the back seat. Communities are often designed to isolate people in a misguided attempt to provide privacy. When PLACE was designing its WĀV community in Ventura, California, we asked MIT’s Adele Santos, Lead Designer, to create the opportunity for people to have privacy, but also to foster interaction – the buildings should not get in the way. The end result is a model community for facilitating meaningful connections between community members. The bonds of trust and friendship, and the opportunity to share resources and inspiration may prove to be the most important factor in the sustainability of the community. In my experience, happiness does not come from having things; it comes from being a part of things. Has it not always been this way? Like many of our techniques for sustainability, the importance of meaningful human relationships for a sustainable future is the remembering of forgotten wisdom.
Great design must occupy that improbable intersection between purpose and aesthetics. Ugly places breed ugly habits. Beauty is an even more potent influence, with the capacity to elevate our actions, inspire us and even heal us. If beauty, in its deepest sense, is not a basic human right, than it is certainly a basic human need. While many will cry foul at the idea of including something as subjective as aesthetics in our prerequisites for sustainability, we must make it essential nevertheless, in much the same way as we do ethics in our leadership, or social responsibility in our businesses. It may be difficult to stipulate how aesthetics may manifest, but it must be our goal. Certainly, that which we have undertaken to make beautiful will be cared for and preserved, even as the reality of its beauty nourishes us.
Our cities are changing dramatically, along with our buildings. In turn, our buildings will change our cities. Developments designed to be adaptive will be sustainable in a changing ecosystem. Can components be removed and replaced when necessary, or reconfigured for a different use? Can housing become office, and office become light manufacturing or assembly? Increasingly sophisticated tools for life-cycle analysis can assess the costs and impacts of the manufacture of a product, from its maintenance and useful life through to its eventual demolition or recycling. Soon we may have modeling tools that can look at the labor standards and working conditions of the workers who make the product, and the mining and transport of each of its raw materials. However, the flexibility of the building’s original design may determine its reuse or destruction. I have been involved in the reclamation of schools, warehouses and department stores, all of which had been originally designed for durability and flexibility. Reusing these buildings prevented the release of their embodied carbon, and their transportation to landfills and recycling centers. We probably know we need to be adaptable to survive. We must build our buildings with that in mind.
I acknowledge that these seven ways of looking at sustainability constitute an imperfect lens through which to view a complex subject. Moreover, the limitations of the word “sustainability” are far exceeded by the limitations of sustainability as a concept. Architect William McDonough once clearly summarized this notion when he said “less bad is not good.” Sustainability is not enough. Ultimately, we must work toward development that is beyond sustainable, that seeks not merely to be less damaging, but to repair. PLACE is working on what we call “Restorative Development:” development that seeks to restore vital resources, both human and planetary. Restorative development must ultimately generate more energy than it consumes, be open and affordable to everyone, demonstrate universal design, produce its own food, offer multiple transit options, create places to live, work, create, learn, and play, celebrate its historical and cultural resources, empower people to participate in its creation, use waste as a resource, facilitate interconnectedness, and be healthy, beautiful and inspiring. We must build buildings that give back.
Chris Velasco is Co-founder & Executive Director of PLACE, a community builder specializing in sustainable places for the arts and economic development.