Sustainability: Who Benefits?

by Richard Milgrom

The term “sustainability” has become problematic. Some now argue that it is so overused as to be useless, co-opted by many for self-centered agendas. The four main articles in this issue of Planners Network attempt to come to grips with the term. All four recognize that it is necessary to address both physical and social sustainability.

Peter Marcuse raises some broad questions about the term “sustainability,” suggesting that it may be better described as a constraint than a goal. He also addresses the social costs of sustainability. The article makes a good introduction to the more specific issues raised in the other three pieces. Versions of these were presented at the Canadian Institute of Planners conference in July 1997 and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Conference in November 1997. They represent an interdisciplinary work-in-progress between Sandra Rodriguez, Sherilyn MacGregor and me. All three of us found that our work at York University in Toronto was touching on the issue of sustainability, but we were dissatisfied with the way the subject was being discussed.

We were willing to accept that the term “sustainability,” although flawed, was here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. We recognize that we need to work with this term but position ourselves within the debates. One part of this has been to try to decide which nouns we were comfortable using in conjunction with “sustainable.”

“Sustainable development” as defined by the Brundtland Commission Report may be the most commonly quoted definition: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is somewhat vague. Who defines needs? It is, however, so well known that undergraduate students in Environmental Studies at York University can almost be expected to parrot it back in unison when lecturers ask for a definition. Other parts of the report are less frequently cited, however, and it is with the sections of the report that recommend rapid economic growth and greater technological transfer that most concerns have been raised, leading some critics to suggest that “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, and that economic growth cannot be sustained within a finite natural environment. Most practicing planners and local governments regard development and growth as synonymous, so for us the term is not acceptable.

Similarly, “sustainable communities” is problematic. For many, the term community is exclusionary. “Commitment to an idea of community tends to value and enforce homogeneity,” says Iris Marion Young. Architects, planners and, most notably, developers tend to use the term community to refer to places rather than people, and sustainable communities in this case are too focused on the physical relationships at the expense of the social. “Sustainable cities” presents a similar problem in that it tends to focus too much attention on the physical form of human settlement, but it also tends to obscure the relationships between cities and their hinterlands (whether local or global). Thus, the implication is that the sustainable city is self- sufficient.

For now we have settled on the term “sustainable societies.” For us, societies imply both physical and social structures, and also encompass a diversity of populations and communities. By now, most planners are probably familiar with a family of diagrams that purport to show the need to “balance” the ecological, economic and social spheres of human life. Our concern is with the gaps, or at least the underdeveloped analysis, in the rapidly expanding literature about sustainability. We are particularly concerned with the emphasis that is usually placed on the economic and ecological spheres, while the social sphere receives little more than lip service. The economic and ecological aspects are more easily quantifiable and a concentrated effort to address social equity would require major political changes in terms of power and privilege. The three spheres analogy obscures the fact that all three aspects take place in one sphere, the biosphere. We contend that if these were approached in a truly holistic manner, the planning and design of sustainable societies would be an emancipatory project.

Paying lip service to social equity means rarely raising the issues of gender, race and class inequities. These issues are addressed in this issue of Planners Network. Sherilyn MacGregor presents a feminist critique of sustainability. Sandra Rodriguez discusses issues of environmental justice and environmental racism. And I call for participatory planning and design processes in the production of sustainable societies. We hope our contributions further the discussions on sustainability.

-Richard Milgrom