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The Concept of Sustainability and Its Relationship to Cities
The Concept of Sustainability
Sustainable development, or sustainability for short, is easily understood at its most basic level. It means simply that in a global context any economic or social development should improve, not harm, the environment. This concept guides our book and, as is shown below, has developed from a global political process over the last three decades of the twentieth century into one that now touches every part of society.
Nevertheless, sustainability is one of the most diversely applied concepts among academics and professionals discussing the future. It has cut across all disciplines and professions and has developed many complexities.
In whatever way sustainability is defined and analyzed, it is important to see that its roots did not come so much from academic discussion as from a global political process.
Sustainability and Global Politics
The first elements of sustainability emerged in the global arena at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. At this conference, 113 nations pledged to begin cleaning up the environment and, most importantly, to begin the process of tackling environmental issues on a global scale. The problems of air pollution, water pollution, and chemical contamination do not recognize borders. It was acknowledged, for example, that it is not possible for DDT or PCBs or radioactive materials to be released anywhere without it affecting everyone. Natural resource depletion was also discussed since awareness had grown that depletion of forests, groundwater, soils, and fishstocks has impact across national boundaries.
Concern about the global environment was very high. Evidence was presented at Stockholm that the scale of the human economy was now significant relative to the natural environment. For example, the flow of human energy (mostly in settlements) was now roughly equal to the flow of solar energy through ecosystems, with inevitable impacts from the wastes (Newman, 1974).
This sense of limits was not new for many nations. In the nineteenth century a similar sense of limits drove Americans to set aside the first national parks as they realized that their apparently limitless new frontier had reached the West Coast. George Marsh's book Man and Nature: Or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, first published in 1864, analyzed the environmental impacts of U.S. urban and rural development. One hundred years later this sense of limits had become a global phenomenon as the last frontier lands were being developed.
The effects of human activity on this biosphere were also beginning to impact human welfare negatively. The specter of Malthus was raised as a global phenomenon but focused on the rapidly growing areas of the Third World, where it was thought that much of the world's future growth and impact would occur (e.g., Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 1977).
This environmental sensitivity is, however, only one aspect of sustainability. The Third World was not so impressed by this new environmental globalism. The new agenda was rapidly turning to one of antigrowth as environmentalists saw the rapacious consumption of natural resources as inevitably linked to economic development. Third World nations saw the agenda as just another way to prevent them from attaining their development goals. The 1 billion people living in abject poverty, with not even enough food to eat, did seem to have some legitimate claim on more of the world's resources. Thus the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983 to try to resolve this fundamental conflict. In 1987 the Commission published Our Common Future, or the Brundtland Report, which launched into common parlance the phrase sustainable development. This was then given form, as shown below, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Sustainability was presented as an agenda to simultaneously solve the global environmental problem and to facilitate the economic development of the poor, particularly those in the Third World. Whereas in 1972 the environment had been placed on the global political agenda, in 1992 the environment was placed on the global economic agenda. Thus the principles of sustainability can be distilled into four broad policies that have since become the basis for much global action.
Principles of Global Sustainability
The following four principles are derived from the Brundtland Report and are the fundamental approaches to global sustainability that must apply simultaneously to any approach to the future.
1. The elimination of poverty, especially in the Third World, is necessary not just on human grounds but as an environmental issue.
The Brundtland Report presented evidence from around the globe that poverty is one factor degrading the environment because populations grow rapidly when they are based on subsistence agriculture or fishing or plant collection. In the past, the population of subsistence communities was controlled by high death rates, but the globalization of health care has meant that there is no way forward to a new equilibrium but to reduce birth rates. This seems only to occur sustainably when families want fewer children, not more, and in subsistence economies children are a source of wealth and security (United Nations, 1987).
Where economic and social development do not occur and populations continue growing, the environment inevitably suffers. This feeds back in a poverty cycle—for example, much of the Rwanda tragedy in the mid 1990s has been traced to this process (UN Centre for Human Settlements, 1997). Grassroots economic and social development (particularly women's rights) are necessary to break this cycle (United Nations, 1987). The alternative is a constant degradation of the "commons" as more forest is cleared, more soil is overgrazed, more fisheries are destocked (Hardin, 1968). Thus Third World economic and social development are precursors to global sustainability.
2. The First World must reduce its consumption of resources and production of wastes.
The average American (or Australian) consumes natural resources at a rate 50 times that of the average Indian, and the poorest groups in abject poverty across the world consume 500 times less. Raising the standard of living of the global poor from 1/500th to 1/50th would not be a huge extra strain on resources. The primary responsibility for reducing impact on global resources lies in the rich part of the world.
Such a goal cannot be achieved without economic and social change. For example, industry cannot continue with 1980s machinery; it must develop new technology for replacing CFCs, for using less energy, and for switching to new renewable fuels and more efficient materials. Such change requires economic and social development. Cities will not be less energy-intensive if they are frozen in their sprawling 1980s structures, and they can rebuild in more compact, transit-oriented forms only if they are growing economically and socially. Thus First World economic and social development are precursors to global sustainability, but they must be much less resource-intensive in the future.
3. Global cooperation on environmental issues is no longer a soft option.
Hazardous wastes, greenhouse gases, CFCs, and the loss of biological diversity are examples of environmental problems that will not be solved if some nations decide to hide from the necessary changes. The spread of international best practice on these issues is not a management fad, nor a conspiracy for world domination from certain industries or advanced nations—it is essential for the future of the world. Thus a global orientation is a precursor to understanding sustainability.
4. Change toward sustainability can occur only with community-based approaches that take local cultures seriously.
Most of the debate on sustainability has been through UN conferences and high-level international meetings. However, it is recognized that this can only create the right signals for change, it cannot force the kinds of changes discussed above. These will come only when local communities determine how to resolve their economic and environmental conflicts in ways that create simultaneous improvement of both. Thus an orientation to local cultures and community development is a precursor to implementing sustainability.
Academic discussions on the meaning of sustainability need to build from this base of four principles. The definition most people have excerpted from Brundtland is that "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1989, p. 43). Certainly the sustainability agenda is about future generations, but it is not trying to create some infinitely durable means of managing society so that it can be sustained indefinitely. This is particularly important when it comes to discussing sustainable cities, which can become a diversion into ideal city forms or the impossibility of creating eternal cities rather than more real world issues.
The concept of sustainability has emerged from a global political process that has tried to bring together, simultaneously, the most powerful needs of our time: (1) the need for economic development to overcome poverty; (2) the need for environmental protection of air, water, soil, and biodiversity, upon which we all ultimately depend; and (3) the need for social justice and cultural diversity to enable local communities to express their values in solving these issues. Thus in this book, when we refer to sustainability, we mean simply achievement of global environmental gains along with any economic or social development. This concept is pictured in Figure 1.1.
The sustainability movement is first and foremost a global movement that in particular is forcing economists and environmentalists to find mutually beneficial solutions.
The sustainable development process has been proceeding at many different levels:
In academic discussions—for example, how ecological economics can be defined and formulated (Daly and Cobb, 1989)
In laboratories, industry, and management systems as they strive to be innovative within the new parameters of reduced resource use and less waste (e.g., the "clean production" agenda)
Within governments at all levels and in community processes
These approaches are usually called "green economics," "green technology," "green planning," etc. When they are no longer called "green" but are accepted as normal, perhaps it will be possible to say the world is becoming more sustainable. However, sustainability is not likely to be a state that is reached, but one toward which the world must constantly strive. Sustainability is a vision and a process, not an end product.
Global Government Responses to Sustainability
Most countries began to respond to the Brundtland Report in the late 1980s. One of the first responses was Canada's establishment of a Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which began mapping out what the new agenda meant. In Australia, the Ecologically Sustainable Development process was begun in 1990 involving government, industry, conservation groups, unions, social justice groups, and scientists. And in New Zealand, the Resource Management Law Reform process began its reexamination of all aspects of government from an environmental perspective. In the United States, a private-sector organization, the National Commission on the Environment, published a report in 1993 entitled Choosing a Sustainable Future, which states:
The economy and the environment can no longer be seen as separate systems, independent of and even competing with each other. To the contrary, economic and environmental policies are symbiotic and must be molded to strengthen and reinforce each other. (p. 21)
The Clinton administration set up the President's Council on Sustainable Development in 1996 as the first U.S. government response to sustainability.
On a global level, after three years of preparatory meetings involving thousands of the world's scientists and administrators, the UN Conference on Environment and Development was convened in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The "Earth Summit" drew together more heads of government than any other meeting in history, and its final resolutions were signed by 179 nations representing 98 percent of the world—about as global as is ever likely to be possible. The agreed-upon documents were: a statement on sustainability called the Rio Declaration, a 700-page action plan for sustainability called Agenda 21, a Convention on Climate Change, a Convention on Biological Diversity, and a Statement on Forests (Keating, 1993).
Documents are still working their way through governments, industries, and communities. International treaties are being developed each year to put some substance into the global sustainability agenda, including a CFC agreement and the late 1990s climate change agreements. In 1997 the "Rio plus five" Earth Summit was held in New York in order to report on how well nations were progressing on the sustainability agenda.
At the local level, the sustainability agenda began to be taken seriously by more than 2,000 local governments that have implemented Local Agenda 21 Plans, or Sustainability Plans, since the 1992 Rio conference. The stories of hope are rich and diverse when examined at the grassroots level (e.g., Pathways to Sustainability Conference, 1997). The reason for this is that at the local level it is possible for government to more easily make the huge steps in integrating the economic, environmental, and social professions in order to make policy developments that are sustainable. Local governments are also closer to concerned people and more distant from the powerful single-issue lobbies such as the fossil fuel and road lobbies, which are so influential in shaping national priorities. (This is pursued further in Chapter 6.)
The local sustainability agenda and the global sustainability agenda are beginning to make more sense when the focus is shifted away from nation-states to cities and towns. This is the theme of our book, which is partly a plea to do more for sustainability, partly an attempt to help define how we can be more sustainable in our settlements, and partly a celebration of those cities and towns that are showing us what can be achieved.
Application of Sustainability Principles to Cities
The principles of sustainability outlined above can be applied to cities, though guidance on how this can be done was not made clear in Agenda 21 or the other Earth Summit documents. It is probably true to say that the major environmental battles of the past were fought outside cities, but that an awareness of the need to come back to cities is now universally recognized by environmentalists, governments, and industry. The Organization for Economic and Cultural Development (OECD), the European Community, and even the World Bank now have sustainable cities programs. In 1994 the Global Forum on Cities and Sustainable Development heard from fifty cities (Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 1994), and in 1996 the UN sponsored Habitat II, the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, in Istanbul. At the "City Summit," nations reported on progress in achieving sustainability in their cities (UN Centre for Human Settlements, 1996).
Anders (1991), in a global review of the sustainable cities movement, pointed out that "The sustainable cities movement seems united in its perception that the state of the environment demands action and that cities are an appropriate forum in which to act" (p. 17). In fact, others such as Yanarella and Levine (1992) suggest that all sustainability initiatives should be centered around strategies for designing, redesigning, and building sustainable cities. In this global view they suggest that cities shape the world and that we will never begin the sustainability process unless we can relate it to cities.
Excerpted from Sustainability and Cities by Peter Newman, Jeffrey Kenworthy. Copyright © 1999 Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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