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Incorporating Sustainability Into Community Development

Sustainability must become a primary goal of public policy if we want to ensure the long-term health of communities.
February 5, 2007, 7am PST | Edward J. Jepson, Jr., Ph.D., AICP
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Despite its ubiquity in the community development literature, the concept of sustainability continues to be marginal in its impact on local public policies and programs. Few communities have incorporated sustainability in the management of their affairs. Such avoidance seems at least partly rooted in the perception among people and government officials that sustainability is not practical, that it is utopian by nature and, therefore, not really very meaningful. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

The basic idea is really a simple one: sustainable development is about continuity. At the local level, it is about residents looking ahead not just twenty years, or even fifty years, but a hundred years or more and finding their community still functioning, still thriving.

Now more than ever, the future of cities and towns and villages must be something that is deliberately created through public choice. It can no longer be left so much to the forces of the market. That's because the only signal that the market heeds is price. But that signal isn't enough to protect our future. There are many other signals that must be heard and heeded.

Why isn't price enough? Because the future depends on the protection of the commons, those public spaces, amenities and resources that are being polluted, depleted and degraded. It is the forests, soil, air and the water on which all of our lives depend. Commons fall outside the forces of the market. The services they provide cannot be boxed and sold and the costs of their loss and depletion are being left off the corporate balance sheets. Because of that, their protection can only be found in the realms of individual decisions -- what each of us decides to do on our own -- and public policy -- what all of us decide to do as citizens, collectively.

Achieving sustainability requires a more sophisticated view of the commons, one that extends beyond the world of natural processes and into the social. It should include not only forests and farmland, but also the public squares, the city parks, the paths and corridors, and the buildings that give our communities character and identity.

At the community level, the best way to protect the commons is for each community to strive for resilience. Drawn from system theory, resilience is the ability of an organic system, or ecosystem, to survive and recover from change and disturbances. Successful management of changes and disturbances by ecosystems requires that they be detected and responded to appropriately. A successful system effectively collects information about the characteristics of its external support environment -- from which it derives resources and deposits waste -- in the form of signals. Some signals tell the system to keep doing what it's doing. Other signals tell the system to change -- that something is getting out of balance. In such cases, a system must change its behavior or risk failing.

Human civilization is a system, as are the communities of which civilization is comprised. The internal activity of a civilization or community is relative to the external support environment, i.e., nature. To be resilient -- that is, to be sustainable -- they, too, must be able to detect and correctly interpret signals about conditions and respond appropriately.

There are many clear negative signals that society is receiving in the form of depleted resources, worsening pollution, disappearing species, and increasing social conflict. This degradation is being caused by the collective behavior of all communities everywhere. And while no single community can force the kind of unified response that is necessary to fully address the problem, it can recognize its existence as a system unto itself and take as much control of its own destiny as possible.

How would this be done? By staking a claim on its surrounding region and taking responsibility for protecting and building the assets and capacities that are contained within that region. By viewing local farmlands, forests and rivers as indispensable for their productive and replenishment capacities, as well as their contribution to beauty and sense of place. By encouraging locally owned manufacturing enterprises that utilize local resources and diminish dependence on external resources. By replacing oil and coal, which have to be imported, with wind and solar power, which are generated locally. By seeding and nourishing local talent. By viewing taxes as an opportunity to build local inherent capacities for productive activity and satisfying living. By adhering to a foundational viewpoint of, the less we need to go elsewhere for anything -- resources, diversions, products, ideas -- the better.

At the base of all of this is the single most important requirement for sustainable development: faith. To pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps, to chart new directions, to feel confidence in taking the new directions that are needed under sustainability requires that people believe in themselves, in their fellow citizens, and in their institutions.

This is very different from religious faith, because this kind of faith is built on experience of having directly witnessed the doing of what was "right". What is "right" for each of us is that which is consistent with our values. The values of sustainability derive from reason. If this, then that. Under sustainability, logic and reason are used to determine what is appropriate to be done and (perhaps more importantly) not done.

Faith that we are doing the right thin in terms of public policies can only emerge from a process that involves the residents of a community. The properties of healthy and successful systems -- which are self-organized, diverse, and feature spontaneous interaction -- demonstrate that sustainability is reached by getting as many people together and collecting as many ideas as possible. This happens at community meetings in which the participants are involved in a process of discovery through the honest and respectful exchange of information, knowledge, and experiences. Rooted in the transactive and progressive models of planning, this collective sifting results in the best ideas finding their way through.

The number of people involved in such a process will be directly related to the extent to which they feel emotionally connected to the community. Thus, protection of the unique attributes of place -- which are the basis of emotional connection -- becomes essential. They must also be convinced that their involvement will matter. This, in turn, requires faith in the institution of government because it is government that is responsible for the formulation of appropriate response through the development, enactment and application of public policies. If such policies are rooted in a collective, collaborative process of idea exchange and sifting, they will, by definition, be reasonable. Reasonable policies will lead to faith in government which, in turn, will encourage even more citizen involvement (in sustainability parlance, a "positive feedback loop"). Conversely, policies rooted in closed meetings and controlled discussions (whether reasonable or not!) will reduce faith in government and lead to less citizen involvement.

Unfortunately, there is no prescription that can be given as to what specific actions a particular community can or should take at any given point in time to help ensure its resilience. It all depends on the state of local knowledge and the amount of faith that residents have in themselves, each other and their institutions. When these conditions are present, the reasoned debate and the high-order collaboration that is necessary to achieve the protection of the commons will occur.

Dr. Edward J. Jepson, Jr. is an assistant professor in the Master of Science in Planning (MSP) program of the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. His primary academic and research focus is on evaluating the community development-sustainability link, and encouraging the integration of sustainability principles into the practice of community planning. He is also interested in economic development theory and practice, the theory and history of planning, the dynamics of human settlement development, and the regulatory and other land use management dimensions of planning.

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