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Sustainability as a Solution for Future Generations’ Needs

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Sustainability as a Solution for Future Generations’ Needs essay
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In the Brundtland Report, also known as ‘Our Common Future’, published by the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, the – now ubiquitous – the idea of sustainability was introduced and ever since it has piqued the interest of many. It was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Often when one hears the term, they immediately think of environmental sustainability. In reality, however, it reaches far beyond environmental impacts and into social and economic impacts also, making sustainability a multidisciplinary concept; one which concerns a multitude of stakeholders from a wide range of disciplines. (Saha and Patterson, 2008)

Sustainability has also been defined as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged”. (Merriam-Webster, 2018) It should be noted that there is a multitude of definitions for sustainability and it is a much-debated term due to it being so broad and meaning something different to each person. Sustainability is much more than a lifestyle or, a conceptual or technical notion, it is about making real places for real people for the future. It can be used as an umbrella term for “smart growth, livable communities, healthy communities, sustainable communities, and New Urbanism”. (Saha and Patterson, 2008) However, the essay will not deal with the semantics, instead, it will discuss how planners are in a unique position to address real-world sustainability issues due to the long-established principle of their discipline with the aid of three primary readings – Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? by Scott Campbell, Cities, Changes & Conflict by Nancy Kleniewski and Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning by Paul Davidoff – and the Irish Planning Institutes definitions of ‘What is Planning?’ and ‘What Do Planners Do?’. Many of the earth’s resources are being used at a rate where they are nearing depletion such as non-renewable energies or land, while others are being used at a rate where they are unable to replenish themselves. Obesity, climate change, an aging population, recession, globalization – all very real challenges facing society today. In brief, the world is at a point at which the way things are being done is no longer a sustainable option, and something has got to give.

Society is facing many challenges and opportunities, so it is vital we face them head on and with expertise. Even though aspects of climatology, geopolitics, medicine and so on have changed, the principles of planning as a discipline have remained strong throughout the years and have always been rooted in the idea of sustainability. This puts the profession of planning in a unique position to address and tackle real-world sustainability issues. Planners lend themselves seamlessly to achieving a sustainable world as they “take an integrated, long-term view about the future of places and [have] a deep concern for fairness and equity” and they are responsible for “[setting] out a framework of spatial ethics within which the challenge of achieving sustainable futures for different places can be addressed”. (Irish Planning Institute, 2013) As the planner has a responsibility in creating an overall vision for a community and the physical places in which the community resides by examining their needs and determining how its resources are most effectively used, planners, have a unique opportunity through the creation and adoption of comprehensive plans, policies, and initiatives, to integrate sustainable practices and coordinate between various stakeholders. (Hurley, 2009) As previously mentioned, sustainability has always been at the core of planning.

The words or terminologies may vary throughout the centuries and the arenas in which planners’ work are intrinsically transforming and in flux but the fundamental beliefs and what planners strive for remain at the very core of the profession. In Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities?, Campbell (1996) attempts to analyze and deepen our understanding of the divergent priorities of planning using a simple triangular model. Each point in the triangle signifies an aspect of sustainability; economic growth, social equity and environmental preservation. Although this triangle exists in various forms such as Patrick Geddes’ place-folk-work triangle or that of Frederic Le Play’s travaille-Famille-lieu. This very basic trichotomy in its many forms strives to achieve the goal of sustainability by managing their complex interdependencies. Environmental sustainability is when the earth’s resources are used at a quantum rate where they can naturally replenish themselves. The city for an environmental planner is a “consumer of resources and producer of wastes” (Campbell, 2006, p. 298) Economic sustainability, on a simplistic level, is when communities are in a position to maintain their independence financially.

For an economic development planner, cities are seen as places of production and consumption, competing against other cities for industry and markets. Social sustainability, finally, is when universal basic human rights and needs are attainable by all in order for people to live harmoniously in a just society. The view of the social, or “equity planner” as Campbell refers to them, is that the conflict is self-contained as the various social groups within the city are in competition with each other for opportunities, resources, and services. “And though sustainable development aspires to offer an alluring, holistic way of evading these conflicts, they cannot be shaken off so easily”. (Campbell, 1996, p.296)

As Campbell explains, however, achieving equilibrium is almost impossible as if one corner thrives, it is often to the detriment of the other two. He suggests that planners become mediators, drawing on their procedural and substantive skills, to guide the debate and reconcile these three conflicting interests. He also takes quite a negative stance towards planners, alluding that they are “drastically limited” by fiscal and professional constraints and that most planners live to serve the pockets and interests of bureaucracies and their clients. He then contradicts himself further by saying that planners do in fact focus on things such as providing better social housing and preserving green spaces, and he suggests perhaps that if their focus wasn’t as narrow, it would be more effective in achieving sustainability. “Fairness” and “equity” are both included in the Irish Planning Institute’s definition of planning reminding us that the profession is strongly linked to values and ethics so although planners in local governments can often be constrained by finances, they make their judgements on the basis of the common good, an ambitious notion which has its roots two thousand years ago in the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato.

The common good suggests that planners work in a manner which is beneficial to the majority of stakeholders. In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was a significant catalyst for utopian experimentation. The rapid urbanization and capitalism during this time, particularly across Europe and the United States of America, came with unprecedented challenges such as the degradation in the quality of life within communities due to longer working hours, insufficient pay, overcrowding and poor living conditions. In response to this, industrialists such as Charles Fourier, Titus Salt, and the Lever Brothers identified the hardships of their employees and decided to create new communities to reform their lives with better living conditions, access to services and facilities and an overall better quality of life for all. As well as improving the relations between society and the economy, other utopian visionaries strived to improve the relations between humans and the environment. (Kleniewski, 2006) One such visionary was Ebenezer Howard, whose Garden City was one of the most influential planning models produced in the twentieth century.

Howard envisioned a better environment; a marriage of the town and country. He thought by combining the best elements of each place, he would create an ideal community. Howard’s Garden City had a dense, compact town center complete with all necessary amenities, civic spaces, and services complemented by clusters of smaller polycentric suburban areas. Between these urban areas would be greenbelt and areas of vast open space used for agricultural activities, forestry and so on. The formality of this framework allows for efficient infrastructure to be put in place. If parts of this approach were applied to cities of today, it could help address many of the sustainability issues they face. Ensuring town centers are dense, mixed-use and used to their maximum potential is so important. Agricultural or passive greenbelts are vital in hindering urban sprawl.

Urban vertical gardens, rooftop, and community gardens greening of the public realm, active green spaces – all of these would help enhance the livability of a community. Another influential figure of the twentieth century in the discipline of planning was the architect Le Corbusier. He proposed the idea of a ‘Radiant City’ whose signature was skyscrapers surrounded by open, green space intersected by the highway. “Le Corbusier argued that by increasing the number of people accommodated in a building, the amount of land covered could be reduced and the amount of open space maximized, thus giving the city its green ‘lungs’”. (Kleniewski, 2006) Le Corbusier aimed to achieve efficient land-use by increasing the density of each building and leaving an abundance of open space for recreational or agricultural activities. While none of these utopian visions in itself was the cure to all of the city’s ills, they influenced some of the practice of planners. In reality, however, urban growth and development was the result of a market-driven process, proliferated by cheap energy and the rapid growth of private cars as a symbol of wealth and an affordable means of transport during the first half of the 20th century which lead to inefficient, urban sprawl. (Kleniewski, 2006, p.365)

Urban planning and design adjusted quickly to the demand for car infrastructure required by suburban living and unrestrained land acquisition from agricultural areas, forests and other open spaces that became the norm as extensive road networks were constructed. The availability of the car meant that land-use functions could be separated by single-use zoning, precipitating even lower residential and job densities and making the private car the only rational means of transportation. As a result of this type of “free-enterprise construction”, cities were not only “ugly” but had a damaging impact on public health and the environment. Planners responded to this though, realizing it was not a sustainable way of development. In an American context, urban planners from England who were skilled in the construction of sanitary sewers were imported. Planners also sought to address the aesthetics of the city by thinking about architecture and design in a new way. “The so-called City Beautiful movement endeavored to raise the standards of design in public spaces and to bring art into the consciousness of the ordinary citizen”. (Kleniewski, 2006, p. 367) This movement was adopted by many cities all over the world in the early 1900s. These same reformers also called on planning to advocate for better living conditions particularly for the poor. “The origins of urban planning, then, were prompted by a mix of practical realities about public health and safety, desires for aesthetic surroundings, and aspirations to improve social conditions”. (Kleniewski, 2006, p. 367) In Davidoff’s (1965)

Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning, he critiques much of the mainstream planning practices. He believes that planners can often be quite insular when it comes to making decisions that affect the wider community, particularly public policy or comprehensive plans for a city, for example. He says that “if the planning process is to encourage democratic urban government then it must operate so as to include rather than exclude citizens from participating in the process”. The planning process should be as diverse as possible. He advises on which groups could/should be included in the drafting of community plans such as those who represent special interest groups like low-income families, political parties, and organizations which may be deemed as proponents of a plan such as a neighborhood association resisting a land zoning change or controversial proposal. “The contention aroused by the conflict between the central planning agency and the neighborhood organization may indeed be healthy, leading to a clearer definition of welfare policies and their relation to the rights of individuals or minority groups”. (Davidoff, 1965, p. 334) He also states that “there are many possible roads for a community to travel and many plans should show them”. (p.335)

According to Davidoff, planners have a unique opportunity whether they are positioned in a local authority or working on behalf of a client as a consultant, to shape the world we live in. They have the power to address sustainability issues through the creation of policies and strategies, and collaborating with other municipal staff, NGOs, residents’ associations, businesses, and developers. Davidoff makes a call for more plural planning so that planners are in effect forced to open their eyes to different ways of doing things. Our society is constantly evolving and shifting, and planners need to be responsive and evolve with this and be innovate in doing so.

Planners must adapt to the challenges society is faced with today and be cognizant of the impacts that they can have in terms of becoming more sustainable. “Pluralism and advocacy are means for stimulating consideration of future conditions by all groups in society”. (Davidoff, 1965, p. 334) He states that to be able to “wrestle effectively with the myriad of problems afflicting urban populations”, in other words to balance the three principles of Brundtland’s triangle, there needs to be a departure from the myopic view that equates physical planning with urban planning and widen the scope to include social and economic planning. The latter programs of planning, according to Davidoff, require “the type of long-range thought and information that have been brought forward in the realm of physical planning” (p.336) and for planners to be “committed to both the process of planning and to particular substantive ideas”. (p.337)

According to the Irish Planning Institutes definition, this is exactly what planners of today do. “They integrate the expertise of other built environment professions – and the inputs of various stakeholder groups and organizations – with the best principles of spatial planning and sustainable development in order to achieve workable and enduring solutions to environmental and place-based challenges”. They are also skilled at putting forward “imaginative, practical and sustainable ideas, strategies, master plans and designs at different scales for commercial companies, institutions, civic authorities or community organizations”. (IPI, 2013)

In conclusion, this essay has attempted to discuss, with the aid of several readings, that planners are in a unique position to address real-world sustainability issues due to the long-established roots and approaches of the discipline. The fact that many of the urban utopian thinkers such as Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier had hints of sustainable development in their movement, leads us to believe that planners have always strived for this and have a lot to offer in shaping the future of our cities.

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