Module I – What is Sustainability?

What is Sustainability?

The term sustainability has become part of our standard vernacular over the past few decades.  Despite the widespread use of the term, its meaning continues to evolve, and is subject to interpretation.  The diverse use of the term, makes it difficult to define, but as with all growing fields, the boundaries of its definition are created by its application, and refined by its observation.  Philosopher Paul Thompson has identified the fundamental attributes of a sustainable activity as encompassing functional integrity and resource sufficiency.  Functional integrity is the ability of something to regenerate itself over time.  Resource sufficiency involves a balance in the levels of creation and consumption of a resource measured over time.  These two paradigms frame most of the empirical and research-oriented conversations of sustainability.  A third component of the conversation prescribed by Thompson is the “non-substantive” paradigm.  This area of sustainability drives much of the current rhetoric, and collective motivation on the topic.  Architect and planning professor Steven Moore describes this paradigm as the “story line” aspect of sustainability, which is how our society can overcome past mistakes, and embrace a common future.  While the non-substantive paradigm can be somewhat vague, it is particularly important for driving social sustainability agendas, and serves as a platform for widespread discussion on sustainability.

The Emergence of Sustainability Planning

The concept of sustainability has been pursued over the past several decades in an array of disciplines ranging from agriculture to architecture.  The seminal 1987 report published by the United Nations Brundtland Commission titled Our Common Future represents the first attempt to synthesize the varying definitions into concise representation of what constitutes sustainable development.  The widely accepted definition of sustainable development prescribed by the Bruntland Report holds that it must “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  This definition serves as the foundation and catalyst for much of the sustainability planning taking place in our cities today.  It has been only recently (within the past 10 to 15 years) that sustainability has gained mainstream traction in the urban planning field.

Sustainability expert Timothy Beatley notes that “much of the new emphasis on cities reflects the notion that they are our best hope for a more sustainable future.”  Generally speaking, sustainability planning is comprised of three primary categories, otherwise known as the “Three Es” of sustainability; ecological/environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and equity (social) sustainability.  These components inform most of the sustainability planning documents that exist today.  The types of these planning documents is discussed in “Sustainable Plans and Policies” section.