Sorting Through What Sustainability Means

It’s interesting how language shifts slightly over time to reflect new ways of thinking. I recall a few years ago reading that some people interpreted “smart growth” to mean government telling people what they could and could not do with their land. As a result, there seems to have been something of an effort to re-name the smart growth movement. I hear the term “sustainability” much more now, and my sense is that it has a broad scope that includes smart growth under its wing.

That’s good, in that the movement has found a name that resonates in a positive way with people. But the risk of the term “sustainability” continues to be that it’s too broad, and people can’t figure out exactly what it is. Is it mainly about becoming more green? Does it entail increased affordability in housing or in the types of retail stores we have in our neighborhoods? I read of a town in England that has a checklist for developers to measure how sustainable their project is, and one criterion is the degree of public participation. So there’s a lot of different ideas mashed into sustainability, and it can be tricky trying to sort through them.

Another source of confusion is the relationship between “density” and “regionalism.” At a recent workshop I attended on this subject, people were trying to have a conversation about the role of density in achieving regional equity. It was a good discussion, but I got the feeling that some people weren’t seeing the connection. (I was one of the people who was confused.) People know what density means in their immediate environment – they know when a house or office building is at a scale that is appropriate for their street or neighborhood. They can tell when their community has about as many cars as it can handle. But it’s tougher to draw a link between these in-your-face facts and the density in a distant place, especially when one place is urban and the other suburban.

What sort of language would help people sort through these complexities? Certainly one answer is to use visuals to show examples of how density can enhance a place, rather than turn it ugly. Density has to be shown to work in different contexts, that it can “step down” from large buildings to small and blend in with an adjacent natural or low-density environment. Julie Campoli and Alex McLean’s book Visualizing Density is an excellent primer in this regard.

While making the connection between density and regional equity is challenging, drawing a line from density to sustainability should be easier. We now have concrete tools at our disposal, such as the standards established by the LEED program, that show how building denser saves energy, leaves more room for open space, and helps us live better. Since we have these specific examples to point to, it should be easier for us to help people understand what these somewhat cryptic terms actually refer to.

Sustainability by itself is a difficult one to unpack, however. It simply refers to so many things that we may never get to a point where the word comes into common use.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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