Livable Communities: A Shared Goal

On the face of it, the intersections between the sustainability movement and the community development movement are not too hard to identify. We know that low-income communities bear the bulk of environmental degradation, and that remediating brownfields promotes both environmental quality and reinvestment. The increasingly popular fight against “urban sprawl,” recently joined by Vice President Al Gore, highlights further shared goals, including compact development and public transit that gives the poor better access to jobs while cutting down air pollution and road building.

But beyond a list of shared concerns, community development and sustainable development are also in a similar place as movements. Community development corporations (CDCs) have been increasingly looking “beyond bricks” for sometime, acknowledging that they need to do more than build housing in order to revitalize communities. They have expanded into economic development, asset building, civil society, safety, education, and job training, and have been exploring how to reconnect to organizing work. They have been trying to become forces for comprehensive change.

The environmental movement, though a far more diverse “movement” than CDCs, has been making a similar shift toward comprehensiveness. Thanks in large part to the persistence of environmental justice activists, urban concerns have surfaced on the agendas of major environmental organizations from the Audubon Society to the National Resources Defense Council. Major environmental publications such as Sierra and Worldwatch  have published articles about sustainable cities. The EPA is placing less emphasis on “sector-based” pollution prevention (water, air, soil) and moving toward “Community Based Pollution Prevention,” an approach that looks at whole communities and the complex interactions within them. The Nature Conservancy, once focused exclusively on preserving habitat by buying up land, has created the Center for Compatible Economic Development, in the recognition that just buying land isn’t going to be a viable strategy if the people around the land have no sustainable way to make a living. They are learning to think in terms of human communities as well as ecosystems.

Their quest for comprehensiveness makes the two movements sound surprisingly alike: their goals are livable communities that are economical, sustainable, just, and healthy for all those involved. They are both discovering a need to balance regional-level understanding and place-based specificity. They are both struggling to define themselves usefully – to figure out the difference between comprehensive and catch-all.

“Sustainable development” advocates have been particularly struggling with this last issue. From the definitions scattered throughout this issue, it’s clear that only a just, livable society counts as a sustainable one. And yet, as the term has become rapidly popular and increasingly encompassing, it has been accused of becoming either a meaningless catch-all, or, as Peter Marcuse charges, a slogan that distracts from issues of power, wealth redistribution, and justice (Planners Network, May 1998).

Part of the problem here, as Alice Shabecoff points out, is that housers and environmentalists share a history of mutual distrust and isolation, which has made their particular insights slow to filter to each other. Shabecoff identifies this as one of the hurdles that must be crossed to expand and replicate the inspiring “green” jobs enterprises she describes.

Crossing that hurdle may also help address the larger concerns of critics like Marcuse, filling critical gaps for both movements. CDCs have a sophisticated big-picture understanding of the impacts of poverty and racism, as well as the government programs that address them – an understanding essential to creating livable communities for all incomes. Larger environmental groups often have the luxury of seeing the big picture of regional development patterns and planning opportunities, but CDCs have the technical know-how, local expertise, and community connections to make some of these grand schemes reality. Environmentalists have specific expertise that can fill some gaps for community builders – energy efficiency techniques to cut utility bills, clean fuel technologies to cut down childhood asthma rates, knowledge about the toxics that are contaminating abandoned lots.

In one way or another, all the articles in this issue are about different ways and different projects in which people are breaking through the isolation and piecing together insights to make a more truly comprehensive picture.

While significant differences in approach and priorities still exist, as the goals of both the sustainability movement and the CDC movement become more comprehensive, it would be a shame to constantly reinvent the wheel for lack of dialogue and networking. The necessary bridge-building work is starting to happen, and we encourage more people to join in.

Copyright 1999

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