I think we can still have a conversation about having a sustainable future and employing sustainable development practices without using the word “sustainability”. The word is unfortunately a distraction to some and there’s emotional baggage associated with it. – American Planning Association president Mitchell Silver, Sustainable Cities Collective interview
The Sustainable Cities Collective recently interviewed APA president Mitchell Silver about the future of the planning sector. When asked about the APA report “Planning in America: Perceptions and Priorities,” Silver shared the top five priorities communicated by the public:
He pointed out that topics such as transportation and walkability ended up near the bottom of the list, and he also suggested not to use the word “sustainability” because “it means different things to different people.” Should we abandon the usage of the word “sustainability” in the field of planning?
Ultimately, what I took from Silver’s suggestion is that we have to communicate using language that the people we’re communicating with can understand. It’s simply the first rule of presentation: know your audience. If we know that our audiences will interpret our messages in ways different from what we intend, it’s our responsibility to change our language. I wholeheartedly agree that the word “sustainability” has many different meanings to different people. To some, the word simply means reducing environmental impacts; to some others, it means a UN/ICLEI-orchestrated plot to take away our freedoms. To people like me, sustainability is an emergent system property that can only be understood after you define both the system and the time horizon of interest.
In the case of planning, I believe that every one of the top five public priorities is relevant to sustainability. Could any neighborhood, town, or city remain stable with a dearth of jobs? Or with a crime problem, or a lack of good schools, or undrinkable water? I don’t think so. We don’t have to use the word “sustainability” to communicate that to others — in fact, I can see how using the word could cause confusion and even opposition. People have proposed words as replacements for “sustainability” — “resilience” and “thrivability” being two — and while I resonate with the motivations behind these replacement words, no word representing a general concept has the communication power of context-specific, jargon-free language.
Let’s use the languages of our audiences, rather than the lingo that we admire.
Photo “Cyber Surfers: Pirates on the Internet” by ShardsOfBlue, on Flickr.