Sustainability: Planning's Redemption or Curse?

Sustainability is often defined as a balance of the three E's: the environment, the economy, and social equity. But as planners embrace the concept, the sustainability "balance" heavily favors one E: the economy. Michael Gunder warns that planners risk sacrificing the environment and social equity in the name of sustainable economic development.

 Michael GunderFor many, the planning profession lost direction, credibility and apparent societal value during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Recently, this loss has been partially offset by an increased concern about planning for the environment. For both planners and many members of wider society, 'sustainability' has become the defining term to denote these wider environmental concerns and their appropriate responses. The striving for sustainability is now a defining principle of good planning practice. It provides an ideal for which to aim towards, even if its achievement, not to mention any universally shared and concise definition of how to achieve it, consistently appears to be located somewhere over the horizon.

More importantly, this ideal of a sustainable future, understandably, has wide public support. In a recent article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, I argue that sustainability could well be planning's saving grace. It replaces the discipline's traditional role of protecting the societal common good with an even wider role of helping to save the planet for future generations – a role most planners and members of society, in principle, would want to readily support. Yet, in the same article, I argue that sustainability could also be planning's road to perdition, especially without careful reflection on the part of the profession and its practitioners as to how and in whose interests sustainability is deployed.

The Deceptive Use of "Sustainability" for Non-Sustainable Ends

Driven by concerns of the adverse impacts of global warming, the government of the United Kingdom recently appears to have jumped strongly on the sustainability bandwagon, as have many American states. Even the U.S. President in his recent State of the Union Address appeared to be shifting his perspective. This is to be cordially welcomed, but with care, for sustainability is a term that can be used to achieve non-sustainable political ends.

The Three E's of Sustainability: Environment, Social Equity, and Economy (Source: Wikipedia)

Sustainability, even if a fuzzy, ill-defined, concept, has now reached the near-universal status of being a desired concept of 'good'. Indeed, its very fuzziness allows multiple actors to have diverse and even conflicting interpretations of what sustainability means. Yet even in their disagreement all can agree that sustainability is, in itself, a good thing. Moreover, sustainability, in its perceived goodness, transfers its positive value of 'good' to other words or concepts when joined to them. Sustainable cities, sustainable communities, sustainable regeneration, sustainable practices, and sustainable transport, to mention a few examples, all bask in sustainability's reflective goodness. Consequently, sustainable development has arguably emerged as the dominant interpretation of how to achieve sustainability. This is through its triple-bottom-line approach of equally promoting and weighing, in a balanced manner, economic growth, environmental protection, and concern for social equity.

Economic Growth Policies Ignore Environment and Equity

Yet I argue that the dominant focus of sustainable development, at least as stated in the published policies and plans of many institutions of government, is more concerned with sustainable growth than ecologically sustainable measures, such as averting global warming, limiting resource depletion and loss of biodiversity. Further, social issues are rarely given significant concern in what is theoretically supposed to be an equal balancing of the three dimensions: environmental, economic and social. This produces a very different policy response than the traditional planning policy of looking after the disadvantaged in pursuit of the wider public good.

In framing this argument, I explored case studies of Toronto, Canada; South East England; and Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. In each case, sustainable development arguments were used by governments to justify policies that were not necessarily environmentally sustainable, or even socially just. Rather they were policies to help position these metropolitan and regional areas to catalyze growth and increase global economic competitiveness. In each case, rather than attempting to nurture prospects for changing consumptive and productive behaviors in a manner consistent with the local and global carrying capacity (i.e. ecological sustainability), the sustainable development rationale was used by planning institutions to justify actions primarily supporting the entrepreneurial interests of each region. These were pro-market interventions that diluted the concept of sustainability to literally that of 'business as usual'.

This interpretation of sustainable development and the institutional support it receives comprises a new rationale, value, and, above all, clout for the planning profession. But it also risks maintaining existing social and environmental injustices, as well as producing new kinds of disparity and ecological squalor. These are injuries that arise from the developed world's continuing market imperative of growth and the perceived needs of competitive globalization. Further, it appears to make some environmentally committed planners, at least in the case studies examined, to appear to act as naive dopes in the interest of their institution's wider support of big business.

Re-Examining the Role of Planners

Planning practitioners need to carefully reflect on their role in fulfilling the political intentions of their institutions. Otherwise, planners may continue to conflate the triple-bottom-line of environment, social equity, and economy together in a manner that risks both the environment and social equity in the name of sustainable wealth creation for the dominant minority profiting from competitive globalization.

Mainstream planning's apparent complicity, if not outright acceptance of this materialist view of sustainability precludes what for this author should be sustainability's correct articulation and planning's role in its achievement. The balance of environment, economy, and social equity is a definition and role of sustainability that would make it planning's and the planet's true saving grace. This is an acceptance of an 'economy of enoughness' (as coined by Bill Rees at the University of British Columbia) where we accept that we should reduce the consumptive habits of the developed world. This requires us to reduce our ecological footprint to that which is sustainable for all global inhabitants – human and other – while ensuring equity in the sharing of this finite carrying capacity.

Planning, I suggest, can have, and should have, a central role in this achievement. But, to begin, we must endeavour to re-align our institutions from their dominant imperative of maximizing territorial wealth creation largely without regard for other concerns, and replace it with the fundamental aim of ecological sustainability. This is a difficult and inherently partisan task, but so be it, if we really desire a sustainable future.

Michael Gunder is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning, University Of Auckland. His research interests lie in planning theory where he deploys post-structuralist critique in the interpretation of planning policy and practice. He is currently President of the New Zealand Planning Institute.

This editorial is based on an article that was originally published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER), Vol. 26, No. 2 (208-221). The full article is available online at Sage Publications.



Venn diagram not adequate to describe sustainability.

Venn diagrams are incorrect to describe the relationships between the environment, society, and the economy.

Sustainability is best visualized as a nested set of hierarchical elements that have decreasing dependence upon outer elements as one goes toward the center. Conversely, the outermost circles are increasingly dependent upon inner circles for existence. There is no equality in these relationships.

That is: the innermost circle is environment, outward to social, and the outermost circle is economy.

For example, it is possible to have a society without an economy, but economies don’t exist without societies; similarly, it is possible (but not desirable) to have a built environment without a society, but societies don’t exist without a built (or natural) environment.

Visualizing sustainability in this way allows us to see the relative importance of each element to the other, and allows us to make judgments on their relative importance when making goals and policy.

That is: these elements have dependencies, so tradeoffs must be analyzed and negotiated carefully. This is important when relaying sustainability goals to different stakeholder groups, as different groups have different interests; having a common knowledge base and acknowledging each other’s differing goals and expectations fosters understanding, acceptance, buy-in and negotiation.

Hope this helps.




Konrad J Perlman
[email protected]
Great article! The issue is defined; but the planners continue to interpret sustainability in the narrow way that the author describes. We are rolling the clock back to the booming 50s, where growth and expansion were catechism and the realization of the American Dream was heavily in play. What happened to planners' devotion to social equity and the environment? I say they are being intimated by the "powers that be" and lousy education. We can't change the self-centered "powers that be"; but certainly can change the planning curriculum which is a bunch of subject courses with no center to draw them together.

We're not a utopia...

Whether if you are a planner or an environmentalist, I think its quite obvious that the U.S. and many other countries are not utopias.

I enjoyed the article and how it focused on environment being the primary item in the solution for sustainability.

However, I think if you are to approach the situation in this manner it is important to discuss how the focus on the environment can effect what happens to the economy and the social equity.

As we all know, the U.S. economy is an aggressive capitalistic market place that primarily offers a select few services and an abundance of goods. To try and change this market type would take more than laws and ordinances. It would take a change in human behavior as we know it.

If we can not change human behavior, then what is another approach? How could we keep our economy relatively stable while taking a strong approach on the need for sustainability?

I would like to see some conversation about how a "Natural Capitalism" (there is a book published by Back Bay books titled the same way) can allow for slight changes in the market make up but still have a large impact on sustainable efforts. The idea is that with natural capitalism you can keep many of the principles of the market in place and just change the tools used to create the goods and services.

Manufacturing can still occur but the tools can be changed to make it more environmentally friendly. Development can still occur, but there is a limit on types of development and tools used for it. Services can still be provided; however, the means for doing so and the tools used are different. Waste is still produced but there is a different approach of how to re-use it.

Furthermore, the inventions and processes created to implement such ideas could create a new sector of our economy that would focus primarily on how to make the economy function as an environmental component, which would therefore make it sustainable.

The element of social equity I have not fully thought out. Your thoughts on the issue would be interesting.

Planning's Roll

It replaces the discipline's traditional role of protecting the societal common good with an even wider role of...

I look forward to the vote.

In case anyone missed that. I just shut down the entire argument. Even if it is a good idea to hand over sustainable development to a professional cadre of dedicated and selfless practioners it would never pass democratic muster. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest our republican system of governance has allowed more planner influence than would be allowed in an open system. i present as evidence the near decade old vote in Ventura County that was opposed by every professional planner on record and approved by 3/4th of the voters. This has seen similar confirmation many times since as challenges and modifications have been proposed. Notably was the City of Moorpark clear in their exercising the will of the people by tentatively approving a development ultimately rejecte by near 80% of the voters.

Democracy's Role.

In case anyone missed that. I just shut down the entire argument. Even if it is a good idea to hand over sustainable development to a professional cadre of dedicated and selfless practioners it would never pass democratic muster.

So all those LEED-ND pilot developments being sought now - they are all going to go down in flames in the democratic process? Someone should contact the USGBC to stop the madness.



LEED is not about Sustainable

As we all know LEED is about the energy and environmental aspects of what is being called sustainable practices. My comments focused social contracts portion of the equation. It is profoundly inequitable to impose costs on one segment of society for the greater good without some form of democratic process which is exactly what is being circumvented by the sustainable development forms being implemented.

Crystal balls.

It is profoundly inequitable to impose costs on one segment of society for the greater good without some form of democratic process which is exactly what is being circumvented by the sustainable development forms being implemented.

Interesting Robert.

Can you share with us which of these as-yet-to-be-submitted future plats will be approved by circumventing the public process?

Thank you in advance.




Don't you have anything better to do than twist what other people say? Sad.

Parallel, no twist.

You wrote Robert, just above, that costs would be imposed on one segment of society for the greater good without some form of democratic process.

What else could you mean other than plans would be approved without public review?

Or, alternatively, how do you know that your unspecified social costs (presumably the costs imposed on others by the resultant cleaner air, less heating/cooling emissions from the Leed-ND project) will be imposed by future projects without democratic process?

And why would you presume that I'm deliberately twisting your words?




It is interesting that the author advances the case that sustainability has not been achieved or will not be achieved absent the watchful eye of the Planning Community.

The community that will bring sustainability to a higher plane will be the private sector and the economic development community. Not a band of regulators who are living with 1950's zoning approaches and move slowly given that they have little capital invested in the process.

The private developers of the world are risking their capital and their reputations as they seek to develop in an environment where, as the the author admits, sustainability, is now a household word. Developers, save a few, will seek to create more sustainable projects.

The ally of the developer will be the economic development community, rife with
an understanding and grounding in sustainability. I know at both Economic Development Visions and the Downtown Entrepreneurship Project, my two consulting firms, we approach every project with sustainability in mind. I would say the same for my colleagues. Frankly, it is often the planner, tied to an arcane comprehensive plan or outmoded set of zoning principles who stands in the way of sustainability. I would concur with the author--planners need to get their house in order with respect to this ever-growing(but nebulous)concept.

If there is another community that will be the advancers, if you will, of sustainability it is architects. The New Urbanists are a prime example. I for one, am not waiting for planners to lead me to sustainability, no matter how well intentioned.

Charles D'Aprix (Chuck D'Aprix)
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project Economic Development Visions

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