What’s Wrong With Current Approaches to Urban Sustainability

Post date: Jul 11, 2014 12:25:22 AM

Most cities approach sustainability in the wrong way. During a recent review of sustainability projects, I identified more than 220 district-scale projects in 115 cities across North America, ranging from less than half an acre to 1,150 acres. These projects provided a glimpse of the growing importance of sustainability to municipal business issues. An increasing number of cities use sustainability to protect natural resources, attract investment, and improve brand images. Sustainability represents the competitive advantage of the 21st century city.

Many cities, however, define sustainability in the wrong way. These definitions vary widely. Many equate sustainability with the “green” movement of the 1970s. Green just means “less damaging” than traditional practices, whereas real sustainability zeros out, if not regenerates, the capacity of municipal resources so that outcomes are equal to or greater than inputs. Others think of sustainability solely in relationship to the environment, but sustainability impacts more than just the health of the planet. Only a few correctly define sustainability in terms of John Elkington’s “triple bottom line.”[i] This 1994 concept states that for all business enterprises, true sustainability includes a balance of three bottom-line measures: economic, social, and environmental factors. These three areas all must pencil out for a business to be sustainable. The same principle holds true for municipal corporations.

Even among those who got the definition right, many got the implementation wrong. Most examined available economic, social, and property development models or certification programs that addressed sustainability (I found more than 22) and picked one or more to apply to a disadvantaged district without considering the area’s existing assets and unique features. For those who did not consider an existing model, implementing sustainability devolved into a long, drawn-out exercise. One city found that after three years of planning, a model already existed that outlined the steps to address their key concerns. Whether or not they considered an existing model, many project leaders found themselves with a lot of planning and very little action. Those who managed to execute their plans often fell short of penciling out on all three bottom lines.

When describing the failures of sustainability approaches and efforts, many project participants blamed three barriers:

  • Changes in political leadership. Sustainability requires long-term commitment to complete projects and realize success. If project momentum wanes every two to four years (in accordance with election and funding cycles), then projects are often doomed to failure. In one city, the mayor initiated a district-scale project to address a variety of social, economic, and environmental issues. Four years later, however, a newly elected mayor abruptly defunded the nonprofit organization that organized the neighborhood redevelopment. I found similar situations with six other major projects.
  • Conflicting efforts. By focusing on individual systems or municipal silos, sustainability efforts in one focus area often undermine efforts in another. For example, one city revamped its zoning codes and comprehensive plans to accommodate more sustainable development. Though the comprehensive plan mandated the inclusion of more community gardens in vacant lots, it did not take into account the high levels of soil contamination. Without extensive soil remediation or creative gardening solutions, the city could inadvertently harm the health of its population. If the parks and recreation team, the urban lands commission, landowners, and community representatives had been part of the planning process, they could have identified this issue sooner and adjusted the comprehensive plan to address the reality.
  • Lack of community buy-in and support. City planners often have grand visions for how to redevelop their city, only to find that project abutters and local residents do not share that vision and stop projects in their tracks. Every city I reviewed had at least one story of a project delay or cancellation due to community derailment.

Of the 59 projects I reviewed in more detail, 12 (20.3 percent) were either on hold or in serious decline because of one or more of the issues listed above.

These might sound like different issues, but they all stem from the same source. Sustainability projects succeed when cities shift from individual systems management to big picture systems thinking. Instead of looking just at energy efficiency or job creation or housing or transit, cities with successful sustainable developments use big picture systems thinking to envision the ultimate goal and the plan the interconnected steps needed to achieve that broad goal.

I recommend that city leadership push for big picture systems thinking now. Even if the city is not considering a sustainable development or pursuing certification, now is the time to get different actors—the market, nonprofits, and civil society—and municipal staff used to working together to envision and implement the big picture.

Asking for big picture thinking from detailed oriented managers and technicians might seem like a tall order. Municipalities employ a wealth of internal subject matter experts who often don’t work together. This habit of working in silos brings about limited solutions to complex problems, resulting in projects that tackle the “low hanging fruit” instead of the underlying issues. Cities also contain extensive knowledge and expertise in its market (private sector), nonprofits, and civil society (communities) that often are not included in development. In the 21st century, successful sustainable cities bring ALL of these actors to the table to not just plan and initiate, but manage and govern sustainable development. Cities should take the lead on convening these actors and use its knowledge and authority to bring big picture systems thinking to everyday municipal operations.

Sustainable cities need the market to enable implementation of development. The market constantly innovates and is best suited to adapt to community needs. For example, developers across the country are creating more micro-apartments[ii] to fill the need of growing single-person households (23.7 percent of the population in the 2010 U.S. Census). This demographic includes an increasingly mobile population in search of opportunities, low-income people in need of affordable accommodations, and older people in transition from single family homes. Many of these populations seek homes that provide more services and access to support than can be provided in traditional suburban residential communities. The market sees this and would like to create developments, services, and products to meet diversifying market needs. The city should facilitate these market developments and provide rules and legislation that include the flexibility to innovate.

Sustainable cities leverage nonprofits to fill the gaps that the market won’t touch due to fiscal viability. Nonprofits serve on the front lines, delivering services and meeting the unprofitable needs of disadvantaged and underrepresented populations. If these needs go unmet, cities ultimately pay the price through escalating social services demands, unemployment, crime rates, and other degenerative costs. For example, nonprofits offer job training programs. When these programs are aligned with the workforce opportunities within districts and leverage the resources available through local educational institutions, municipal dollars that support the nonprofit stay within the community to create local jobs and opportunities. In addition, the training participants transfer more quickly into living wage jobs since the nonprofit is working directly with local employers and the city’s economic development team to ensure that they are training the right folks for the right jobs. Integrating the advantages of nonprofits into municipal processes further makes the city economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

Civil society brings local knowledge to sustainability issues, without which, city departments operate within a vacuum. Local citizens provide on-the-ground insights that provide empirical quantitative and qualitative data that the city’s staff can use in its assessment of issues. Civil society also can reveal issues that aren’t being addressed and show successes that might not pop up in traditional surveys or focus group. By being a part of the planning process, they ensure that projects don’t get derailed after millions of dollars have been invested. For example, Seattle’s monorail project was voted into being by local citizens. Despite ten years of planning and purchasing property to build the line, citizens were not part of the ongoing discussions and did not understand how debt servicing worked. Local leaders—acting in the best interests of their constituents—were outraged at the costs. The referendum process put the monorail project to another public vote, which resulted in its dismantling[iii]. Actions like these can be avoided by including civil society in regular conversations with the city. They can help build buy in for projects that address critical issues and identify unforeseen community pitfalls that might hinder a project’s success. Integrating civil society into municipal processes builds trust and social capital that will support ongoing maintenance and governance of sustainability issues for decades to come.

Three components of sustainability

As the convener of these key actors, the city sets policies and aligns municipal resources to meet wide-reaching goals. Cities build competitive advantage by serving as a convener and catalyst for creating self-sustaining developments while helping other actors navigate local, state, and federal policies. This moves the role of the city from manager of resources to driver of systems thinking.

Portland, Oregon moved consciousness within the city from the parcel-level planning to big picture systems thinking by elevating project awareness and achieving small successes to improve acceptance of cross-departmental collaboration. A leading city official reported that the efforts led to an unprecedented level of openness and iterative thinking by departments, which made successful urban revitalizations like the Pearl District[iv] come to life without relying on a sustainability model or framework. The leadership shifted development from city planning departments to district actors—the market, nonprofits, and civil society—that drove innovation in everything from small community projects to large-scale developments. The city shifted its role from central planner to central convener: it now focuses its efforts on providing policies, assisting with policy navigation, and aggregating resources for district-led initiatives. The city provides a platform along which to help the neighborhood align with city goals. This frees the city from management-heavy activities while improving the outcomes from projects. Neighborhoods, as a result, are more actively engaged in resolving their own issues, including creating jobs and finding funding sources for projects. The next step for Portland is to formalize this role to continue participation by the market, nonprofits, and civil society. Legislating joint accountability for project and program success makes triple bottom line sustainability work for Portland.

To shift the way cities approach and think about sustainability, they should:

  • Identify priority issues and focus areas, and then require three- to five-year strategic plans to address issues and outline how teams will collaborate to meet goals.
  • Build a collaborative program that engages city staff and actors to evaluate the different sustainability frameworks and determine which one best fits their unique situations and addresses their focus areas.
  • Engage action groups that collaboratively advise on the issues that confront the different districts and neighborhoods around the city so that nonprofits, businesses, and residents can bring their unique knowledge and expertise to city governance and leadership.
  • Formalize representation and leadership in neighborhoods and special districts to make doing business with the city a regular part of day-to-day activities. Make it their charge to promote resolution of issues while keeping new development from pricing tenants out of their homes. This will require everyone to get creative about how to introduce new development without forcing existing residents and tenants out of an area.
  • Insist that project outcomes support themselves in terms of financial, environmental, and social needs. Self-sustainability should be present at all levels of city governance.
  • Enact changes through rules and laws so that sustainability becomes an integral part of the municipal process and ensures ongoing governance of project and program goals.

Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” To move cities away from degenerative systems that require increasing amounts of inputs just to maintain them, city leadership needs to shift its consciousness about sustainability from individual systems management to big picture systems thinking. Cities survive through good governance and shrewd management. Cities grow and thrive thanks to successful coordination and collaboration with all who live, work, play, and learn within its borders. Only through triple bottom line metrics and convening market, nonprofit, and civil society actors can municipal approaches to sustainability be truly sustainable[v].

  1. [i] See http://www.sustainability.com/ or http://www.johnelkington.com/ for more information
  2. [ii] More about micro-apartments movement can be found in the following USA Today article: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/30/tiny-apartments-apodments-catch-on-us-cities/2580179/
  3. [iii] This brief editorial discusses aftermath of the monorail dismantling: http://www.seattlepi.com/local/opinion/article/Seattle-Monorail-Close-the-books-1199354.php
  4. [iv] http://explorethepearl.com/
  5. [v] For a more detailed discussion on shifting mindsets about sustainability, please see Bill Reed’s paper “Shifting Our Mental Model—‘Sustainability’ to Regeneration” at http://www.integrativedesign.net/images/ShiftingOurMentalModel.pdf

This post is also available on Northeastern University's RE:Connect blog. The views, conclusions, and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Northeastern University or any of its affiliates or assigns.

City as convener image