Calling All Planners: The Earth is Hiring!

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorNicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

If you’re a planner, then you’re primed to take a leadership role in growing the sustainability prospects of your region. Planners have the skills to turn regional aspirations or stretch goals into a real roadmap, steering us toward some seriously needed change. If you’re like many others and tired of overused green jargon, well, here’s some perspective to hopefully turn this tossed-around term “sustainability” into an actionable goal.

Blah Blah into Ah Hah!

Planning for sustainability is a process by which we reduce and eventually eliminate all long-term negative impacts on the planet. Sustainability is different from green in that the latter defines the incremental environmental strategies used to “do better” and make headway toward the overall goal of sustainability.

In so many ways, people are trying to “do better” (e.g. compost, recycle, walk, etc.). It’s unfortunate that all of those incremental green activities get misconstrued as being “sustainable” because it degrades the term. Yet, at the same time, the term suffers from its root origin – to sustain – as if a zero-sum existence on Earth is good enough. What we really should do is ditch the term “sustainability” and use “natural” instead as suggested by conservationist, Spencer Beebe.

Because, at the heart of this movement, what we’re really trying to achieve is a mutually beneficial existence with nature and each other. Beneficial in that we give back to nature and live to create conditions that enable all life to thrive. This can only be done by considering social and economic impacts in tangent with environmental. Organizational change expert and Brightworks’ collaborator, Darcy Winslow, infuses this overused term with new, inspirational meaning grounded back in nature, when she so elegantly explains: “Sustainability is not a problem, but a condition to be created.”

The Planning Niche

Planners are well positioned to be champions of sustainability because day-to-day they help shape the life conditions and orchestrate the developmental roadmap for the communities they serve. Like the condition of sustainability, the planning lens spans three dimensions – social, economic and environmental. And planners have the ability to institute powerful change. They tackle civic issues with broad-based, crosscutting solutions that largely dictate the welfare of communities and the health of natural systems.

No other profession has its hands firmly in all three pots. Planners approach their work as a civic duty, they are an important community voice and they are entrusted to watch over economic and environmental health. Viewed through this macro lens, the role of planners is to recognize and balance all three spheres.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is about making connections between ideas. What connection isn't being made here? Image courtesy of Systems Thinking International.

Planners are systems thinkers, too, and view change from a short- as well as long-term perspective. They are trained to see causal relationships in space and time. Understanding how a new transportation corridor will impact a neighboring community or whether the location of a new super market will spur economic growth requires an interconnected worldview of how we choose to inhabit the landscape. And discovering the implications of change over various timeframes is a critical skill to make choices that lead to a sustainable future for communities.

A Reawakening

Not surprisingly, planning for sustainability is nothing new for planners. The comprehensive planning process is founded on taking a holistic, long-term, systems perspective to social, economic and environmental dimensions. Comprehensive plans are revisited, refined over time and adaptable to the changing needs and desires of the community it serves.

Planning is the perfect tool to reframe our outlook on life and what we envision for our communities over the long haul. Current themes of resiliency, diversity and adaptability are important considerations for bringing safety, security, jobs and health to communities. These themes are also integral to ecological systems.

If you’re not involved in comprehensive planning, take a leadership role in your own planning sphere of influence. Development regulations, zoning, entitlements, habitat protection, design standards, policy, permitting, community involvement and utilities all impact sustainable development and are enabling factors to realizing comprehensive plans.

We’re closer to nature than we think, so reframing how we interpret the comprehensive planning process is not a stretch. In his book, Ecocities, thought leader Richard Register says we need to plan and design cities for living things, not machines: first the pedestrian, then the bike, bus, and rail and very last, the car. Planning places for people benefits other creatures, too, because we’ll inevitably consume less land area than if we continue to build more roads and set tracks to connect increasingly distanced amenities and jobs.

Step In to the Limelight: Your Role as a Planner

Planning for sustainability is really about solid, effective project management. The skills to comprehensively view a project in space and time and its relationship to the broader community and built environment are integral to the planning profession, as is the civic duty to be wise and efficient with resources. As a planner, hone these skills, reconsider your worldview and sphere of influence and press the refresh button. You can press it here:

Refresh Button

Go ahead, hit refresh. Icon courtesy of No Sweat Public Speaking

Do what you do best as a planner, with this renewed sense of purpose, and your community will thank you. Start by identifying where your work touches people and the natural environment and within this sphere of influence, where community or regional dollars are spent. Map this system and start to identify the connections across all three. You will discover relationships and leverage points where you have the power to make change, influencing all three dimensions of sustainability – social, environmental and economic.

Connect with others in your system to expand the map and use recognized tools like The Natural Step to begin uncovering where you can take action. Talk to citizens about their concerns and provide education wherever possible. Ride any momentum you can to launch an initiative, build community support and, most importantly, grab the attention of elected officials to meaningfully impact planning and policy documents.

One of the most important changes land use planners can make right now is to formally establish how sustainability is incorporated into the comprehensive planning process. This goal will give us the momentum we need to dramatically influence change. Work with your community to debate the purpose of the comprehensive plan and connect with your local elected officials and chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) to share your ideas. The Oregon Chapter is currently tackling this challenge through several initiatives, including the development of an online database to share current best practices. As OAPA’s sustainability coordinator, I would love to hear your ideas and concerns.Planning-Sidebar

It’s time for planners to step up and share the limelight with the green building design community. Take a leadership role in sustainable development now. The Earth is hiring – sustainability planning is in high demand!

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