Unpacking sustainability

I have been muling over Campbell’s triangle of conflicting goals for planning. I find it appealing for its incisiveness, but my research for the final project leads me to argue that it is not as comprehensive and nuanced as it needs to be in order to be useful, especially in terms of environmental goals. In the four years since Campbell’s article was originally published, a surprising amount has changed in our modern context. Cities continue to grow and anthropogenic impact on the environment continues to cause climate change and loss of biodiversity. Urban planning must focus on not merely persistence, but resiliency in the face of events that could overwhelm a city’s support system. I propose that sustainability is not merely an ideal, but the baseline of environmental planning goals and the new ideal is resilient development. Our group will be exploring the concept of resiliency further in our presentation. For now, I wanted to unpack what is meant by environmental planning goals in light of a concept from this week’s readings: livability.

Peter Evans contextualizes sustainability and livability as goals in the political mobilization of communities. He cites how the two come in conflict for poorer communities which often have to use their limited social capital to prioritize issues of immediate livability. The irony is that mobilization of the middle-class often coalesces around pro-sustainability issues so poorer communities could gain support for their communities needs if they align them with larger goals of sustainability.

One approach to sustainability that I think could help resolve the essential conflict between politics of sustainability and livability is the concept of bicultural diversity. Biocultural diversity conceptualizes nature as a construction of human interaction with the environment. This perspective is meant to help sensitize planners and governing bodies to the ways in which communities value and use their land.

Typically sustainability is thought of in terms of ecological services and the monetary value of sustainable design. With an understanding of how people shape the places where they live, work, and recreate, sustainability gains nuance. Evans sites the story of poor communities that inhabited an ecologically sensitive area in Sao Paulo as an example of the conflict between livability and sustainability. A biocultural diversity perspective would address the vulnerability of the natural resources while seeking to understand and work with the relationship of the existing communities to the land. Biocultural diversity could provide the foundation for imaginative solutions to conflicting needs and values. Without such creativity and openness, sustainability is in danger of developing the connotation of being a middle and upper class privilege, when in fact the principles of justices extend to environmental concerns as well.

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