In Search of a Sustainability Tool Kit for Planners

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Nicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

I recently had the chance to actively participate in a couple of events at the 2010 Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association Conference (OAPA), including a Sustainability Workshop expertly facilitated by our friends at Cogan Owens Cogan and on the panel session “Attracting Green Industry,” skillfully moderated by Ryan Givens of Cardno WRG.

At the Sustainability Workshop, planners were asked to discuss questions concerning APA views on sustainability, which included comparing the currently adopted Brundtland definition of sustainable development – “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – to the planning field.  Many shared a  common frustration that the definition doesn’t provide guidance on implementation.  I agree,  it’s tough to capture a call to direct action in a single phrase, so thank goodness there are tools out there to guide us!  Take The Oregon Natural Step Network’s work on broadening this definition to the community scale and the accompanying long list of helpful implementation resources.

Portland's Urban Growth Boundary in Clackamas, Oregon

One border of Portland's Urban Growth Boundary, via Architect Magazine

Since Oregon prides itself on its open space and natural resources, another interesting challenge participants wrestled with was how to reconcile sustainability “needs” across rural and urban areas. When it comes to the Brundtland definition, I contemplate where we should focus more attention on sustainability to best benefit the whole region.  In his keynote presentation  “How Green is My Region?,” Peter Katz suggested that cities are the most sustainable establishments on Earth.  I struggle with this notion for obvious reasons, but agree that when it comes to “containing the damage (of human development),” cities provide the necessary density.  With this is mind, would it be best to prioritize urban density or continue promoting urban agriculture?  Does it make sense to add pressure to the urban growth boundary or make room for that sort of stewardship inside?

Portland's Urban Growth Boundary in Cornelius, Oregon

Living on the edge in Cornelius, OR via the Oregonian

In nature, the most complex systems lie at the margins and transitional zones, and in this case, the most complex and conflicted area is the urban/rural interface.  That may be where challenges become opportunities to accelerate progress toward sustainability for both zones.  To promote better coordination, a good next step would be for the APA Sustainable Community Planning Interest Group to synthesize existing sustainability guides to craft a single executive memorandum that uses the Brundtland definition to further define sustainability for planners. It would help bridge any knowledge gaps between the adopted Brundtland definition and APA’s sustainability and climate change policy guides, and aid in unifying the sustainability “needs” of urban and rural communities.

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