One of the challenges of the planning industry is that we have tons of acronyms that we practitioners toss around in casual conversation that tend to either confuse or turn off the casual, otherwise-interested observer. By the way, a good team-building event at your next agency or corporate function is to require everyone to donate $5 into a kitty every time they use an acronym without stating its components words ASAP (as soon as possible). You’ll learn a lot about your patterns of speech and be able to enjoy a pretty nice happy hour at your local watering hole with the proceeds. It seems to me that we’re at risk of developing the same dangerous pattern with the words we are now using to describe state-of-the-practice planning. At least those acronyms usually stand for something quite specific. In contrast, the adjectives we sometimes use casually and interchangeably are beginning to sound like the “new and improved” labels printed in brightly colored Starbursts vying for attention on your grocery store shelves.
The challenge we face isn’t really new; words have always been evolving to suit the common vernacular. This how “inflammable” came to mean “flammable” and “literally” came to mean “figuratively” (and when I learned that fact, I was like, literally beside myself…). What can we do to be more precise in our communications? Well first, to paraphrase Yogi Berra: Use your words carefully; someone might actually be reading or listening. Second, don’t be afraid to do a little research; sources like Google, Wikipedia, and the old Merriam-Webster can really be your friend. Even just quickly checking the Google hit counts on something like flammable (five million) versus inflammable (less than one million) can help you spot trends these days.
Sustainability is one of the terms that fascinates me the most. I’ve been fortunate to be associated with a team of really good planners putting together an Informational Report for the Institute of Transportation Engineers on the state-of-the-practice in thinking about Sustainable Transportation systems. The transportation planning and engineering industry has latched on to this important and valuable concept, originated by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, that we should be creating development and infrastructure that meets the needs of the current generation while allowing future generations to meet their needs as well. The primary concept is that the three pillars of sustainability, economy, ecology, and social equity (some prefer the equally alliterative “people, planet, profit”) are often found in tension with each other and need to be balanced. For instance, in the US, we’re not consuming vehicle-miles of travel at the rate we did five years ago; this is a good thing for the environment, but the challenge is how we can sustain that improvement while returning to a healthy economy where those who want jobs can find them.
While on the Montgomery County Planning Board, Wendy Perdue noted in one worksession that terms can be misleading, “It occurs to me that throughout our history we’ve demonstrated that income inequality is pretty darn sustainable; but that doesn’t mean we should support it.” So the goal of sustainability is not to perpetuate the past of least resistance, but instead to seek solutions that improve social, economic, and environmental outcomes on an inter-generational timescale. Several analysis systems, ranging from tools like INVEST or Greenroads for highways to ENVISION for all infrastructure are now available to help qualify the definitions agencies and firms can apply to sustainable projects.
Thinking Globally and Acting Locally
The same concern that sustainability should be equated with the path of least resistance has real global implications as well. Pedro Ortiz of the World Bank was on my ITE meeting panel on sustainable solutions in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this week. Pedro has noted that as we move towards accommodating two billion more urban residents worldwide in the next 20 years, we frankly should be constructing 10 new Manhattan blocks every day to accommodate that growth. However, due to resource and governance limitations, we’re not building high quality compact development, but rather are allowing new slums to expand organically across the landscape. Part of the key in the developing world is to bring the land use to where the rail infrastructure already exists. The same concept can be applied to thinking about North American metropolitan areas to conceive of alternative urban topologies such as how Washington and Baltimore might be organized differently if the primary connective tissue were along freight rail lines.
Scenario planning today is often applied in one of two formats: either as tinkering around the edges with land use that would require some potentially challenging yet feasible policy changes or, alternatively, as considering a reaction to an exogenous variable such as sea-level rise or energy crises. Pedro’s maps suggest a potential future that might be a blend of the two types of scenario planning; not a formal proposal, but an intriguing “what if?”
The Only Constant is Change
One of the frequent lamentations in our ITE Sustainability Task Force has been that one thing that definitely appears sustainable is debate about what sustainability means. This, to me, is part of what makes the concept exciting; there’s no textbook or cookbook answer. Even the developers of the rigorous sustainability ratings and certification systems note that their processes are always evolving as we get better data, improve analytic connections, and learn more about our social, cultural, and natural environment. This one word, sustainability, has generated dozens of rating systems and influenced many more creative ideas for how we might move smarter. What’s yours?
–Dan Hardy, Cities That Work Blog