In this post I will write about the notion “Sustainable development”, its definition, how to achieve it and try to show how difficult it is to establish a correct definition of what sustainability means. Nowadays, it seems like everything needs to be sustainable and urban planning is not an exception. But what do we mean when we say “sustainable development”? As you will see there is not yet a clear image of what it means.

Understanding sustainability
The most common and classical definition of “sustainability” was born back in 1987 in the Brundtland Commission report. Sustainability was defined as ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’ (WCED 1987:43). It brought together three different aspects of the notion; social, environmental and economic sustainability (Hopwood et al 2005:39).

This triangular concept is often referred as the P3 concept where the three P stand for people, planet and profits. Social refers to health, elimination of poverty, social justice and equity for example. Economy refers to wealth and jobs and environmental refers to biodiversity and reducing the consumption of natural resources (Kemp & Martens 2007: 6).

The notion “Sustainability” is a broad and vague notion with many meanings which allow different interpretations (Neuman 2005:17). The OECD found over a hundred different definitions of sustainability (De Roo & Porter 2007:8). Depending on who is using the notion it can get a different meaning due to the context it is being used in. Due to this there isn’t one single accepted image of its meaning. It becomes a fuzzy word, which no one can specify (De Roo & Porter 2007:2). The meaning of it can, in worst case, become meaningless (Hopwood et al 2005:40). Therefor it can be seen as a belief system rather than a reflection of the reality. We must remember that reality is subjective, a construction who we compose by ourself (De Roo & Porter 2007:9).

According to Kemp and Martens (2007) sustainable development emerge from social consensus. Together people create a consensus of what is sustainable and what is not and this will differ between countries and cultures. Therefor sustainability can’t be objective knowledge nor and a goal we can reach with specific criteria (Kemp & Martens 2007:7). It is just a fuzzy concept and the politicians decide its meaning (Kemp & Martens 2007:6).

But according to The World Conservation Union sustainable development can be measured through carrying capacity, which is both time and place specific. Their definition of sustainable development is “improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supportive ecosystems” (Neuman 2005:17).

Let´s say it would be possible to define sustainable development , it would still exclude some group of people. It would be impossible to include everyones views in the definition. By keeping the definition of it open it help communities at local levels to understand the local problems instead of having a general worldwide definition (Kemp & Martens 2007: 7).

As you can see it is hard to reach a joint knowledge of what sustainability means since the notion can be interpreted in different ways and this changes through time.

How to achieve sustainability
Through local plans, like Agenda 21 initiatives, we need to change our behaviour regarding transport and traffic to get one step closer to sustainability. (De Roo & Porter 2007:6)

Another way is to wipe out the poverty and not just because of the social aspect but also for the environmental aspect. The resources need to be distributed more equal between the rich and the poor parts of the world (Kemp & Martens 2007:6-7).

Some literature establish that a sustainable city has a specific urban form, such as the compact city, which is seen as the most sustainable urban form. A compact city means less private car dependance due to the shorter distances which decrease the emissions, encourage more people to walk and cycle, makes the public transportation more competitive etc. The compact city solve the problem with urban sprawl and traffic congestion. But this is far from accepted by everyone. Some say this is more based on beliefs rather than science and that it is too complex to state that an urban form solve the sustainability problems (De Roo & Porter 2007:7, 9).

UN point out that the phrase “think global, act local” is of importance in order to reach sustainability. It is on the local level (actions and initiatives) must be taken to be able to reach a sustainable society (De Roo & Porter 2007:8). By letting people on local level gather and have a dialogue different groups in the society interact with each other. This will open up new thoughts which may lead to new and different solutions (Meadowcroft 2007:312).

Some say that sustainable development can only be achieved through more economic growth, not less, where the market and the business are the two factors that drive the society towards sustainability. New technology and economic growth will solve the problems, not laws and regulations. Instead it is the power of the consumers that will put pressure on the market though their shopping habits and demand for more environmental friendly products. They are the force who will convert the market and society into green capitalism and sustainable development (Hopwood et al 2005: 42-43).

As you might have noticed it is hard to define sustainability and because of that it is also hard to reach it since there are so many different definitions. This post was about to show how complex the meaning of sustainability is.

Tobias Engelin Edvinsson

De Roo, G. & Porter, G. (2007). The End has no Merit, i De Roo, G., Porter, G. (eds.), Fuzzy planning. The Role of Actors in a Fuzzy Governance Environment. Ashgate: Aldershot, 1– 18.

Hopwood, B., Mellor, M., & O’Brien, G. (2005). Sustainable Development: Mapping Different Approaches. Sustainable Development 13, pp.38-52.

Kemp, R., Martens, P. (2007). Sustainable development: how to manage something that is subjective and never can be achieved? Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 3, 5–14.

Neuman, M. (2005). The compact city fallacy, Journal of Planning Education and Research 25, 11-26.

Meadowcroft, J. (2007). Who is in Charge here? Governance for Sustainable Development in a Complex World. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 9, 299–314.

World Commission on Environment and Development, (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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