Sustainable Development and Social Justice: Conflicting Urgencies and the Search for Common Ground in Urban and Regional Planning (Michigan Journal of Sustainability, Vol 1, 2013)
The Planner's Triangle Revisited: Sustainability and the Evolution of a Planning Ideal That Can't Stand Still, Journal of the American Planning Association, 82-4, 388-397, 2016.
Green Cities, Growing
Cities, Just Cities?
Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development
©Journal of the American Planning Association (Summer, 1996).
Urban and Regional Planning Program
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of Michigan
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AbstractIn the coming years planners face tough decisions about where they stand on protecting the green city, promoting the economically growing city, and advocating social justice. Conflicts among these goals are not superficial ones arising simply from personal preferences. Nor are they merely conceptual, among the abstract notions of ecological, economic, and political logic, nor a temporary problem caused by the untimely confluence of environmental awareness and economic recession. Rather, these conflicts go to the historic core of planning, and are a leitmotif in the contemporary battles in both our cities and rural areas, whether over solid waste incinerators or growth controls, the spotted owls or nuclear power. And though sustainable development aspires to offer an alluring, holistic way of evading these conflicts, they cannot be shaken off so easily.
Nothing inherent in the discipline steers planners either toward environmental protection or toward economic development -- or toward a third goal of planning: social equity. Instead, planners work within the tension generated among these three fundamental aims, which, collectively, I call the "planner's triangle," with sustainable development located at its center. This center cannot be reached directly, but only approximately and indirectly, through a sustained period of confronting and resolving the triangle's conflicts. To do so, planners have to redefine sustainability, since its current formulation romanticizes our sustainable past and is too vaguely holistic. Planners would benefit both from integrating social theory with environmental thinking and from combining their substantive skills with techniques for community conflict resolution, to confront economic and environmental injustice.
This paper uses a simple triangular model to understand the divergent priorities of planning. My argument is that the differences are partly due to misunderstandings arising from the disparate languages of environmental, economic, and political thought, but that translating across disciplines alone is not enough to eliminate these genuine clashes of interest. The socially constructed view of nature put forward here challenges the view of these conflicts as a classic battle of "man versus nature" or its current variation, "jobs versus the environment." The triangular model is then used to question whether sustainable development, the current object of planning's fascination, is a useful model to guide planning practice. I argue that the current concept of sustainability, though a laudable holistic vision, is vulnerable to the same criticism of vague idealism made thirty years ago against comprehensive planning. In this case, the idealistic fascination often builds upon a romanticized view of pre-industrial, indigenous, sustainable cultures -- inspiring visions but also of limited modern applicability. Nevertheless, sustainability, if redefined and incorporated into a broader understanding of political conflicts in industrial society, can become a powerful and useful organizing principle for planning. In fact, the idea will be particularly effective if, instead of merely evoking a misty-eyed vision of a peaceful ecotopia, it acts as a lightening rod to focus conflicting economic, environmental, and social interests. The more it stirs up conflict and sharpens the debate, the more effective the idea of sustainability will be in the long run.
The paper concludes by considering the implications
of this viewpoint for planning. The triangle shows not only the conflicts, but
also the potential complementarity of interests. The former are unavoidable and
require planners to act as mediators, but the latter area is where planners can
be especially creative in building coalitions between once-separated interest
groups, such as labor and environmentalists, or community groups and business.
To this end, planners need to combine both their procedural and their substantive
skills and thus become central players in the battle over growth, the environment,
and social justice.
Similarly, though planners often see themselves as the defenders of the poor and of socio-economic equality, their actions over the profession's history have often belied that self-image (Harvey 1985). Planners' efforts with downtown redevelopment, freeway planning, public-private partnerships, enterprise zones, smokestack-chasing and other economic development strategies don't easily add up to equity planning. At best, the planner has taken an ambivalent stance between the goals of economic growth and economic justice.
In short, the planner must reconcile not two, but at least three conflicting interests: to "grow" the economy, distribute this growth fairly, and in the process not degrade the ecosystem. To classify contemporary battles over environmental racism, pollution-producing jobs, growth control, etc., as simply clashes between economic growth and environmental protection misses the third issue, of social justice. The "jobs versus environment" dichotomy (e.g., the spotted owl versus Pacific Northwest timber jobs) crudely collapses under the "economy" banner the often differing interests of workers, corporations, community members, and the national public. The intent of this paper's title is to focus planning not only for "green cities and growing cities," but also for "just cities."
In an ideal world, planners would
strive to achieve a balance of all three goals. In practice, however, professional
and fiscal constraints drastically limit the leeway of most planners. Serving
the broader public interest by holistically harmonizing growth, preservation,
and equality remains the ideal; the reality of practice restricts planners to
serving the narrower interests of their clients, authorities and bureaucracies
(Marcuse 1976), despite efforts to work outside those limitations (Hoffman 1989).
In the end, planners usually represent one particular goal -- planning perhaps
for increased property tax revenues, or more open space preservation, or better
housing for the poor -- while neglecting the other two. Where each planner stands
in the triangle depicted in figure 1 defines such professional bias. One may see
illustrated in the figure the gap between the call for integrative, sustainable
development planning (the center of the triangle) and the current fragmentation
of professional practice (the edges). This point is developed later.
The Points (Corners) of the Triangle: the Economy, the Environment, and Equity
The environmental planner sees the city as a consumer of resources and a producer of wastes. The city is in competition with nature for scarce resources and land, and always poses a threat to nature. Space is the ecological space of greenways, river basins, ecological niches.
The equity planner sees the city as a location of conflict over the distribution of resources, of services, and of opportunities. The competition is within the city itself, among different social groups. Space is the social space of communities, neighborhood organizations, labor unions: the space of access and segregation.
Certainly there are other
important views of the city, including the architectural, the psychological, and
the circulatory (transportation); and one could conceivably construct a planner's
rectangle, pentagon, or more complex polygons. The triangular shape itself is
not propounded here as the underlying geometric structure of the planner's world.
Rather, it is useful for its conceptual simplicity. More importantly, it emphasizes
the point that a one-dimensional "man versus environment" spectrum misses the
social conflicts in contemporary environmental disputes, such as loggers versus
the Sierra Club, farmers versus suburban developers, or fishermen versus barge
operators (Reisner 1987; Jacobs 1989; McPhee 1989; Tuason 1993).
Is there a single, universal economic-ecological conflict underlying all such disputes faced by planners? I searched for this essential, Platonic notion, but the diversity of examples -- water politics in California, timber versus the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, tropical deforestation in Brazil, park planning in the Adirondacks, greenbelt planning in Britain, to name a few -- suggests otherwise. Perhaps there is an Ur-Konflikt, rooted in the fundamental struggle between human civilization and the threatening wilderness around us, and expressed variously over the centuries. However, the decision must be left to anthropologists as to whether the essence of the spotted owl controversy can be traced back to Neolithic times. A meta-theory tying all these multifarious conflicts to an essential battle of "human versus nature" (and, once tools and weapons were developed and nature was controlled, "human versus human") -- that invites skepticism. In this discussion, the triangle is used simply as a template to recognize and organize the common themes; to examine actual conflicts, individual case studies are used.
economic-ecological conflict has several instructive parallels with the growth-equity
conflict. In the property conflict, industrialists must curb their profit-increasing
tendency to reduce wages, so as to provide labor enough wages to feed, house,
and otherwise "reproduce" itself -- that is, the subsistence wage. In the resource
conflict, the industrialists must curb their profit-increasing tendency to increase
timber yields, so as to ensure that enough of the forest remains to "reproduce"
itself (Clawson 1975; Beltzer and Kroll 1986; Lee, Field, and Burch 1990). This
practice is called "sustained yield," though timber companies and environmentalists
disagree about how far the forest can be exploited and still be "sustainable."
(Of course, other factors also affect wages, such as supply and demand, skill
level, and discrimination, just as lumber demand, labor prices, transportation
costs, tariffs, and other factors affect how much timber is harvested.) In both
cases, industry must leave enough of the exploited resource, be it labor or nature,
so that the resource will continue to deliver in the future. In both cases, how
much is "enough" is also contested.
This development conflict also happens at the local level, as in resource-dependent communities, which commonly find themselves at the bottom of the economy's hierarchy of labor. Miners, lumberjacks, and mill workers see a grim link between environmental preservation and poverty, and commonly mistrust environmentalists as elitists. Poor urban communities are often forced to make the no-win choice between economic survival and environmental quality, as when the only economic opportunities are offered by incinerators, toxic waste sites, landfills, and other noxious land uses that most neighborhoods can afford to oppose and do without (Bryant and Mohai 1992; Bullard 1990, 1993). If some argue that environmental protection is a luxury of the wealthy, then environmental racism lies at the heart of the development conflict. Economic segregation leads to environmental segregation: the former occurs in the transformation of natural resources into consumer products; the latter occurs as the spoils of production are returned to nature. Inequitable development takes place at all stages of the materials cycle.
Consider this conflict from the vantage of equity planning.
Norman Krumholz, as the planning director in Cleveland, faced the choice of either
building regional rail lines or improving local bus lines (Krumholz et al. 1982).
Regional rail lines would encourage the suburban middle class to switch from cars
to mass transit; better local bus service would help the inner-city poor by reducing
their travel and waiting time. One implication of this choice was the tension
between reducing pollution and making transportation access more equitable, an
example of how bias toward social inequity may be embedded in seemingly objective
Conflict and Complementarity in the Triangle
Consider the argument that the best
way to distribute wealth more fairly (i.e., to resolve the property conflict)
is to increase the size of the economy, so that society will have more to redistribute.
Similarly, we can argue that the best way to improve environmental quality (i.e.,
to resolve the resource conflict) is to expand the economy, thereby having more
money with which to buy environmental protection. The former is trickle-down economics;
can we call the latter "trickle-down environmentalism"? One sees this logic in
the conclusion of the Brundtland Report: "If large parts of the developing world
are to avert economic, social, and environmental catastrophes, it is essential
that global economic growth be revitalized." (World Commission on Environment
and Development 1987). However, only if such economic growth is more fairly distributed
will the poor be able to restore and protect their environment, whose devastation
so immediately degrades their quality of life. In other words, the development
conflict can be resolved only if the property conflict is resolved as well. Therefore,
the challenge for planners is to deal with the conflicts between competing interests
by discovering and implementing complementary uses.
Environmental conflict should not, therefore, be seen as simply one group representing the interests of nature and another group attacking nature (though it often appears that way). Who is to say that the lumberjack, who spends all his or her days among trees (and whose livelihood depends on those trees), is any less close to nature than the environmentalist taking a weekend walk through the woods? Is the lumberjack able to cut down trees only because s/he is "alienated" from the "true" spirit of nature -- the spirit that the hiker enjoys? In the absence of a forest mythology, neither the tree cutter nor the tree hugger -- nor the third party, the owner/lessee of the forest -- can claim an innate kinship to a tree. This is not to be an apologist for clear-cutting, but rather to say that the merits of cutting vs. preserving trees cannot be decided according to which persons or groups have the "truest" relationship to nature.
The crucial point is that all three groups have an interactive relationship with nature: the differences lie in their conflicting conceptions of nature, their conflicting uses of nature, and how they incorporate nature into their systems of values (be they community, economic or spiritual values). This clash of human values reveals how much the ostensibly separate domains of community development and environmental protection overlap, and suggests that planners should do better in combining social and environmental models. One sees this clash of values in many environmental battles: between the interests of urban residents and those of subsidized irrigation farmers in California water politics; between beach homeowners and coastal managers trying to control erosion; between rich and poor neighborhoods, in the siting of incinerators; between farmers and environmentalists, in restrictions by open space zoning. Even then-President George Bush weighed into such disputes during his 1992 campaign when he commented to a group of loggers that finally people should be valued more than spotted owls (his own take on the interspecies equity issue). Inequity and the imbalance of political power are often issues at the heart of economic-environmental conflicts.
that the terrain of nature is contested need not, however, cast us adrift on a
sea of socially-constructed relativism where "nature" appears as an arbitrary
idea of no substance (Bird 1987; Soja 1989). Rather, we are made to rethink the
idea and to see the appreciation of nature as an historically evolved sensibility.
I suspect that radical environmentalists would criticize this perspective as anthropocentric
environmentalism, and argue instead for an ecocentric world view that puts the
Earth first (Sessions 1992; Parton 1993). It is true that an anthropocentric view,
if distorted, can lead to an arrogant optimism about civilization's ability to
reprogram nature through technologies ranging from huge hydroelectric and nuclear
plants down to genetic engineering. A rigid belief in the anthropocentric labor
theory of value, Marxist or otherwise, can produce a modern-day Narcissus as a
social-constructionist who sees nature as merely reflecting the beauty of the
human aesthetic, and the value of human labor. In this light, a tree is devoid
of value until it either becomes part of a scenic area or is transformed into
lumber. On the other hand, even as radical, ecocentric environmentalists claim
to see "true nature" beyond the city limits, they are blind to how their own world
view and their definition of nature itself are shaped by their socialization.
The choice between an anthropocentric or an ecocentric world view is a false one.
We are all unavoidably anthropocentric; the question is which anthropomorphic
values and priorities we will apply to the natural and the social world around
At first glance, the widespread advocacy of sustainable development is astonishing, given its revolutionary implications for daily life (World Commission 1987; Daly and Cobb 1989; Rees 1989; World Bank, 1989; Goodland 1990; Barrett and Bohlen 1991; Korten 1991; Van der Ryn and Calthorpe 1991). It is getting hard to refrain from sustainable development; arguments against it are inevitably attached to the strawman image of a greedy, myopic industrialist. Who would now dare to speak up in opposition? Two interpretations of the bandwagon for sustainable development suggest themselves. The pessimistic thought is that sustainable development has been stripped of its transformative power and reduced to its lowest common denominator. After all, if both the World Bank and radical ecologists now believe in sustainability, the concept can have no teeth: it is so malleable as to mean many things to many people without requiring commitment to any specific policies. Actions speak louder than words, and though all endorse sustainability, few will actually practice it. Furthermore, any concept fully endorsed by all parties must surely be bypassing the heart of the conflict. Set a goal far enough into the future, and even conflicting interests will seem to converge along parallel lines. The concept certainly appears to violate the Karl Popper's requirement that propositions be falsifiable, for to reject sustainability is to embrace nonsustainability -- and who dares to sketch that future? (Ironically, the nonsustainable scenario is the easiest to define: merely the extrapolation of our current way of life.)
Yet there is also an
optimistic interpretation of the broad embrace given sustainability: the idea
has become hegemonic, an accepted meta-narrative, a given. It has shifted from
being a variable to being the parameter of the debate, almost certain to be integrated
into any future scenario of development. We should therefore neither be surprised
that no definition has been agreed upon, nor fear that this reveals a fundamental
flaw in the concept. In the battle of big public ideas, sustainability has won:
the task of the coming years is simply to work out the details, and to narrow
the gap between its theory and practice.
Yet sustainability can be a helpful concept in that it posits
the long-term planning goal of a social-environmental system in balance. It is
a unifying concept, enormously appealing to the imagination, that brings together
many different environmental concerns under one overarching value. It defines
a set of social priorities and articulates how society values the economy, the
environment, and equity (Paehlke 1994, 360). In theory, it allows us not only
to calculate whether we have attained sustainability, but also to determine how
far away we are (actual measurement, though, is another, harder task). Clearly
it can be argued that, though initially flawed and vague, the concept can be transformed
and refined to be of use to planners.
This point brings us to the practice of looking for sustainable development in preindustrial and nonwestern cultures (a common though not universal practice). Searching for our future in our indigenous past is instructive at both the philosophical and the practical level (Turner 1983; Duerr 1985). Yet it is also problematical, tapping into a myth that our salvation lies in the preindustrial sustainable culture. The international division of labor and trade, the movement of most people away from agriculture into cities, and exponential population growth lead us irrevocably down a unidirectional, not a circular path: the transformation of preindustrial, indigenous settlements into mass urban society is irreversible. Our modern path to sustainability lies forward, not behind us.
The key difference between those indigenous, sustainable communities and ours is that they had no choice but to be sustainable. Bluntly stated, if they cut down too many trees or ruined the soil, they would die out. Modern society has the options presented by trade, long-term storage, and synthetic replacements; if we clear-cut a field, we have subsequent options that our ancestors didn't. In this situation, we must voluntarily choose sustainable practices, since there is no immediate survival or market imperative to do so. Although the long-term effects of a nonsustainable economy are certainly dangerous, the feedback mechanisms are too long-term to prod us in the right direction.
Why do we often romanticize the sustainable past? Some are attracted to the powerful spiritual link between humans and nature that has since been lost. Such romanticists tend however, to overlook the more harsh and unforgiving aspects of being so dependent on the land. Two hundred years ago, Friedrich Schiller (1965, 28) noted the tendency of utopian thinkers to take their dream for the future and posit it as their past, thus giving it legitimacy as a cyclical return to the past. This habit is not unique to ecotopians (Kumar 1991); some religious fundamentalists also justify their utopian urgency by drawing on the myth of a paradise lost. Though Marxists don't glorify the past in the same way, they, too, manage to anticipate a static system of balance and harmony that nonetheless will require a cataclysmic, revolutionary social transformation to reach. All three ideologies posit some basic flaw in society -- be it western materialism, original sin, or capitalism -- whose identification and cure will free us from conflict. Each ideology sees a fundamental alienation as the danger to overcome: alienation from nature, from god, or from work. Each group is so critical of existing society that it would seem a wonder we have made it this far; but this persistence of human society despite the dire prognoses of utopians tells us something.
What is the fall-out from such historical thinking? By neglecting the powerful momentum of modern industrial and postindustrial society, it both points us in the wrong direction and makes it easier to marginalize the proponents of sustainable development. It also carries an anti-urban sentiment that tends to neglect both the centrality and the plight of megacities. Modern humans are unique among species in their propensity to deal with nature's threats, not only through flight and burrowing and biological adaptation, nor simply through spiritual understanding, but also through massive population growth, complex social division of labor, and the fundamental, external transformation of their once-natural environment (the building of cities). Certainly the fixation on growth, industry, and competition has degraded the environment. Yet one cannot undo urban-industrial society. Rather, one must continue to innovate through to the other side of industrialization, to reach a more sustainable economy.
The cyclical historical view of some environmentalists also hinders a critical understanding of equity, since that view attributes to the environment a natural state of equality rudely upset by modern society. Yet nature is inherently neither equal nor unequal, and at times can be downright brutal. The human observer projects a sense of social equity onto nature, through a confusion, noted by Schiller, of the idealized future with myths about our natural past. To gain a sense of historical legitimacy, we project our socially constructed sense of equality onto the past, creating revisionist history in which nature is fair and compassionate. Society's path to equality is perceived not as an uncertain progress from barbarism to justice, but rather as a return to an original state of harmony as laid out in nature. In this thinking, belief in an ecological balance and a social balance, entwined in the pre-industrial world, conjures up an eco-Garden of Eden "lost" by modern society.
It will be more useful to let go of this mythic belief in our involuntary diaspora from a pre-industrial, ecotopian Eden. The conflation of ecological diasporas and utopias constrains our search for creative, urban solutions to social-environmental conflict. By relinquishing it, we will understand that notions of equity were not lying patiently in wait in nature, to be first discovered by indigenous peoples, then lost by colonialists, and finally rediscovered by modern society in the late twentieth century. This is certainly not to say that nature can teach us nothing. The laws of nature are not the same thing, however, as natural law, nor does ecological equilibrium necessarily generate normative principles of equity. Though we turn to nature to understand the context, dynamics, and effects of the economic-environmental conflict, we must turn to social norms to decide what balance is fair and just.
How, then, do we define what is fair? I propose viewing social justice as the striving towards a more equal distribution of resources among social groups across the space of cities and of nations -- a definition of "fair" distribution. It should be noted that societies view themselves "fair" if the procedures of allocation treat people equally, even if the substantive outcome is unbalanced. (One would hope that equal treatment is but the first step towards narrowing material inequality.) The environmental movement expands the space for this "equity" in two ways: (1) intergenerationally (present versus future generations) and (2) across species (as in animal rights, deep ecology, and legal "standing" for trees). The two added dimensions of equity remain essentially abstractions, however, since no one from the future or from other species can speak up for their "fair share" of resources. Selfless advocates (or selfish ventriloquists) "speak for them."
This expansion of socio-spatial "equity"
to include future generations and other species not only makes the concept more
complex; it also creates the possibility for contradictions among the different
calls for "fairness." Slowing worldwide industrial expansion may preserve more
of the world's resources for the future (thereby increasing intergenerational
equity), but it may also undermine the efforts of the underdeveloped world to
approach the living standards of the west (thereby lowering international equity).
Battles over Native American fishing practices, the spotted owl, and restrictive
farmland preservation each thrust together several divergent notions of "fairness."
It is through resolving the three sorts of conflicts on the planner's triangle
that society iteratively forms its definition of what is fair.
On the path towards a sustainable future, the steps are often too vague, as with sweeping calls for a "spiritual transformation" as the prerequisite for environmental transformation. Sometimes the call for sustainable development seems to serve as a vehicle for sermonizing about the moral and spiritual corruption of the industrial world (undeniable). Who would not want to believe in a holistic blending of economic and ecological values in each of our planners, who would then go out into the world and, on each project, internally and seamlessly merge the interests of jobs and nature, as well as of social justice? That is, the call to planners would be to stand at every moment at the center of the triangle.
But this aim is too reminiscent of our naive belief during the 1950s and 1960s in comprehensive planning for a single "public interest," before the incrementalists and advocacy planners pulled the rug out from under us (Lindblom 1959; Altshuler 1965; Davidoff 1965; Fainstein and Fainstein 1971). I suspect that planners' criticisms of the sustainable development movement in the coming years will parallel the critique of comprehensive planning 30 years ago: The incrementalists will argue that one cannot achieve a sustainable society in a single grand leap, for it requires too much social and ecological information and is too risky. The advocacy planners will argue that no common social interest in sustainable development exists, and that bureaucratic planners will invariably create a sustainable development scheme that neglects the interests both of the poor and of nature. To both groups of critics, the prospect of integrating economic, environmental and equity interests will seem forced and artificial. States will require communities to prepare "Sustainable Development Master Plans," which will prove to be glib wish lists of goals and suspiciously vague implementation steps. To achieve consensus for the plan, language will be reduced to the lowest common denominator, and the pleasing plans will gather dust.
An alternative is to let holistic sustainable development be a long-range goal; it is a worthy one, for planners do need a vision of a more sustainable urban society. But during the coming years, planners will confront deep-seated conflicts among economic, social and environmental interests that cannot be wished away through admittedly appealing images of a community in harmony with nature. One is no more likely to abolish the economic-environmental conflict completely by achieving sustainable bliss than one is to eliminate completely the boundaries between the city and the wilderness, between the public and private spheres, between the haves and have-nots. Nevertheless, one can diffuse the conflict, and find ways to avert its more destructive fall-out.
concern about the ramifications of a sustainable future is one that is
often expressed: steady-state, no-growth economics would be likely to relegate
much of the developing world -- and the poor within the industrialized world --
to a state of persistent poverty. The advocates of sustainable development rightly
reject as flawed the premise of conventional economics that only a growth economy
can achieve social redistribution. And growth economics has, indeed, also exacerbated
the environment's degradation. However, it is wishful thinking to assume that
a sustainable economy will automatically ensure a socially just distribution of
resources. The vision of no-growth (commonly though not universally assumed to
characterize sustainable development) raises powerful fears, and planners should
be savvy to such fears. Otherwise, they will understand neither the potential
dangers of steady-state economics nor the nature of the opposition to sustainable
Second, we should broaden the idea of "sustainability." If "crisis" is defined as the inability of a system to reproduce itself, then sustainability is the opposite: the long-term ability of a system to reproduce. This criterion applies not only to natural ecosystems, but to economic and political systems as well. By this definition, western society already does much to sustain itself: economic policy and corporate strategies (e.g., investment, training, monetary policy) strive to reproduce the macro- and micro-economies. Similarly, governments, parties, labor unions, and other political agents strive to reproduce their institutions and interests. Society's shortcoming is that as it strives to sustain its political and economic systems, it often neglects to sustain the ecological system. The goal for planning is therefore a broader agenda: to sustain, simultaneously and in balance, these three sometimes competing, sometimes complementary systems.
Third, it will be helpful to distinguish initially between two levels of sustainability: specific versus general (or local versus global). One might fairly easily imagine and achieve sustainability in a single sector and/or locality, for example, converting a Pacific Northwest community to sustained-yield timber practices. Recycling, solar power, cogeneration, and conservation can lower consumption of nonsustainable resources. To achieve complete sustainability across all sectors and/or all places, however, requires such complex restructuring and redistribution that the only feasible path to global sustainability is likely to be a long, incremental accumulation of local and industry-specific advances.
What this incremental, iterative approach means is that
planners will find their vision of a sustainable city developed best at the conclusion
of contested negotiations over land use, transportation, housing, and economic
development policies, not as the premise for beginning the effort. To first spend
years in the hermetic isolation of universities and environmental groups, perfecting
the theory of sustainable development, before testing it in community development
is backwards. That approach sees sustainable development as an ideal society outside
the conflicts of the planner's triangle, or as the tranquil "eye of the hurricane"
at the triangle's center. As with the ideal comprehensive plan, it is presumed
that the objective, technocratic merits of a perfected sustainable development
scheme will ensure society's acceptance. But one cannot reach the sustainable
center of the planner's triangle in a single, holistic leap to a pre-ordained
However, conflict resolution is no panacea. Sometimes conflicting demands express fundamental conflicts of interest. The either-or nature of the technology or ecology may preclude a win-win outcome, as in an all-or-nothing dispute over a proposed hydroelectric project (Reisner 1987) -- you either build it or you don't. An overwhelming imbalance of power between the opposing groups also can thwart resolution (Crowfoot and Wondolleck 1990, 4). A powerful party can simply refuse to participate. It is also hard to negotiate a comprehensive resolution for a large number of parties.
Planners are likely to have the best success in using conflict
resolution when there is a specific, concise dispute (rather than an amorphous
ideological clash); all interested parties agree to participate (and don't bypass
the process through the courts); each party feels on equal ground; there are a
variety of possible compromises and innovative solutions; both parties prefer
a solution to an impasse; and a skilled third-party negotiator facilitates. The
best resolution strategies seem to include two areas of compromise and balance:
the procedural (each party is represented and willing to compromise); and the
substantive (the solution is a compromise, such as multiple land uses or a reduced
The planner therefore needs to act as a translator, assisting each group to understand the priorities and reasoning of the others. Economic, ecological and social thought may at a certain level be incommensurable, yet a level may still be found where all three may be brought together. To offer an analogy, a Kenyan Gikuyu text cannot be fully converted into English without losing something in translation; a good translation, nevertheless, is the best possible way to bridge two systems of expression that will never be one, and it is preferable to incomprehension.
The danger of translation is that one language will dominate the debate and thus define the terms of the solution. It is essential to exert equal effort to translate in each direction, to prevent one linguistic culture from dominating the other (as English has done in neo-colonial Africa). Another lesson from the neocolonial linguistic experience is that it is crucial for each social group to express itself in its own language before any translation. The challenge for planners is to write the best translations among the languages of the economic, the ecological, and the social views, and to avoid a quasi-colonial dominance by the economic lingua franca, by creating equal two-way translations.
For example, planners need better tools to understand their cities and regions not just as economic systems, or static inventories of natural resources, but also as environmental systems that are part of regional and global networks trading goods, information, resources and pollution. At the conceptual level, translating the economic vocabulary of global cities, the spatial division of labor, regional restructuring, and technoburbs/edge cities into environmental language would be a worthy start; at the same time, of course, the vocabulary of biodiversity, landscape linkages, and carrying capacity should be translated to be understandable by economic interests.
This bilingual translation should extend to the empirical level. I envision extending the concept of the "trade balance" to include an "environmental balance," which covers not just commodities, but also natural resources and pollution. Planners should improve their data collection and integration to support the environmental trade balance. They should apply economic-ecological bilingualism not only to the content of data, but also to the spatial framework of the data, by rethinking the geographic boundaries of planning and analysis. Bioregionalists advocate having the spatial scale for planning reflect the scale of natural phenomena (e.g., the extent of a river basin, vegetation zones, or the dispersion range of metropolitan air pollution); economic planners call for a spatial scale to match the social phenomena (e.g., highway networks, municipal boundaries, labor market areas, new industrial districts). The solution is to integrate these two scales and overlay the economic and ecological geographies of planning. The current merging of environmental Raster (grid-based) and infrastructural vector-based data in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) recognizes the need for multiple layers of planning boundaries (Wiggins 1993).
Translation can thus be a powerful planner's
skill, and interdisciplinary planning education already provides some multilingualism.
Moreover, the idea of sustainability lends itself nicely to the meeting on common
ground of competing value systems. Yet translation has its limits. Linguistic
differences often represent real, intractable differences in values. An environmental
dispute may arise not from a misunderstanding alone; both sides may clearly understand
that their vested interests fundamentally clash, no matter how expressed. At this
point, translation must give way to other strategies. The difficulties are exacerbated
when one party has greater power, and so shapes the language of the debate as
well as prevailing in its outcome. In short, translation, like conflict negotiation,
reveals both the promises and the limitations of communication-based conflict
The other traditional strategy is to develop market mechanisms
to link economic and environmental priorities. Prices are made the commonality
that bridges the gap between the otherwise noncommensurables of trees and timber,
open space and real estate. The market place is chosen as the arena where society
balances its competing values. This economistic approach to the environment reduces
pollution to what the economist Edwin Mills (1978, 15) called "a problem in resource
allocation." This approach can decide conflicts along the economic-environmental
axis (the resource conflict), but often neglects equity. However, the market does
seem to be dealing better with environmental externalities than it did ten or
twenty years ago. Internalizing externalities, at the least, raises the issues
of social justice and equity: e.g., who will pay for cleaning up abandoned industrial
sites or compensate for the loss of fishing revenues due to oil spills. The recent
establishment of a pollution credit market in the South Coast Air Quality Management
District, for example, is a step in the right direction -- despite criticism that
the pollution credits were initially given away for free (Robinson, 1993).
The role of the planner in all four of these approaches is to arrange the procedures for making decisions, not to set the substance of the actual outcomes. In some cases, the overall structure for decision-making already exists (the market and the political system). In other cases, however, the planner must help shape that structure (a mediation forum; a common language), which, done successfully, gives the process credibility. The actual environmental outcomes nevertheless remain unknowable: you don't know in advance if the environment will actually be improved. For example, environmentalists and developers heralded the Coachella Valley Fringe-Toed Lizard Habitat Conservation Plan as a model process to balance the interests of development and conservation; yet the actual outcome may not adequately protect the endangered lizard (Beatley 1992, 15-16). Similarly, although the New Jersey State Development Plan was praised for its innovative cross-acceptance procedure, the plan itself arguably has not altered the state's urban sprawl.
The final issue
that arises is whether the planner should play the role of neutral moderator,
or of advocate representing a single party; this has been a long-standing debate
in the field. Each strategy has its virtues.
Nevertheless, land-use planning arguably
remains the most powerful tool available to planners, who should not worry too
much if it does not manage all problems. The trick in resolving environmental
conflicts through land-use planning is to reconcile the conflicting territorial
logics of human and of natural habitats. Standard real estate development reduces
open space to fragmented, static, green islands -- exactly what the landscape
ecologists deplore as unable to preserve biodiversity. Wildlife roam and migrate,
and require large expanses of connected landscape (Hudson 1991). So both the ecological
and the economic systems require the interconnectivity of a critical mass of land
to be sustainable. Though we live in a three-dimensional world, land is a limited
resource with essentially two dimensions (always excepting air and burrowing/mining
spaces). The requirement of land's spatial interconnectivity is thus hard to achieve
for both systems in one region: the continuity of one system invariably fragments
continuity of the other. So the guiding challenge for land-use planning is to
achieve simultaneously spatial/territorial integrity for both systems. Furthermore,
a sustainable development that aspires to social justice must also find ways to
avoid the land-use manifestations of uneven development: housing segregation,
unequal property-tax funding of public schools, jobs-housing imbalance, the spatial
imbalance of economic opportunity, and unequal access to open space and recreation.
The bioregional vision
certainly has its shortcomings, including the same fuzzy, utopian thinking found
in other writing about sustainable development. Its ecological determinism also
puts too much faith in the regional "spatial fix": no geographic scale can, in
itself, eliminate all conflict, for not all conflict is geographic. Finally, the
call for regional self-reliance -- a common feature of sustainable development
concepts (Korten 1991, 184) -- might relegate the regional economy to underdevelopment
in an otherwise nationally and internationally interdependent world. Yet it can
be effective to visualize sustainable regions within an interdependent world full
of trade, migration, information flows and capital flows, and to know the difference
between healthy interdependence and parasitic dependence, that is,
dependence on other regions' resources that is equivalent to depletion. Interdependence
does not always imply an imbalance of power, nor does self-sufficiency guarantee
equality. Finally, the bioregional perspective can provide a foundation for understanding
conflicts among a region's interconnected economic, social and ecological networks.
The role of the planner in all these
substantive strategies (land use, bioregionalism, technological improvement) is
to design outcomes, with less emphasis on the means of achieving them. The environmental
ramifications of the solutions are known or at least estimated, but the political
means to achieve legitimacy are not. There also is a trade-off between comprehensiveness
(bioregions) and short-term achievability (individual technological improvements).
In the end, however, the planner must also deal with conflicts where one or more parties have no interest in resolution. One nonresolution tactic is the NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard, response: a crude marriage of local initiative and the age-old externalizing of pollution. This "take it elsewhere" strategy makes no overall claim to resolve conflict, though it can be a productive form of resistance rather than just irrational parochialism (Lake 1993). Nor does eco-terrorism consider balance. Instead, it replaces the defensive stance of NIMBY with offensive, confrontational, symbolic action. Resolution is also avoided out of cavalier confidence that one's own side can manage the opposition through victory, not compromise ("My side will win, so why compromise?"). Finally, an "I don't care" stance avoids the conflict altogether. Unfortunately, this ostensible escapism often masks a more pernicious NIMBY or "my side will win" hostility, just below the surface.
But the planners' position at the forefront of change is not assured, especially if the lead is taken up by other professions or at the federal, not the local, level. The lively debate on whether gasoline consumption can best be reduced through higher-density land uses (Newman and Kenworthy 1989) or through energy taxes (Gordon and Richardson 1990) not only reflected an ideological battle over interpreting research results and the merits of planning intervention, but also demonstrated how local planning can be made either central or marginal to resolving environmental-economic conflicts. To hold a central place in the debate about sustainable development, planners must exploit those areas of conflict where they have the greatest leverage and expertise.
Certainly planners already have experience with both the dispute over economic growth versus equity and that over economic growth versus environmental protection. Yet it is the development conflict is where the real action for planners will be: seeking to resolve both environmental and economic equity issues at once. Here is where the profession can best make its unique contribution. An obvious start would be for community development planners and environmental planners to collaborate more (an alliance that an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo found explosive enough for the agency to consider defusing it) (Higgins 1994). One possible joint task is to expand current public-private partnership efforts to improve environmental health in the inner city. This urban-based effort would help planners bypass the danger of environmental elitism that besets many suburban, white-oriented environmental organizations.
If planners move in this direction, they will join the growing environmental justice movement, which emerged in the early 1980s and combined minority community organizing with environmental concerns (Higgins 1994). The movement tries to reduce environmental hazards that directly affect poor residents, who are the least able to fight pollution, be it the direct result of discriminatory siting decisions or the indirect result of housing and employment discrimination. The poor, being the least able to move away, are especially tied to place and therefore to the assistance or neglect of local planners. Understandably, local civil rights leaders have been preoccupied for so long with seeking economic opportunity and social justice that they have paid less attention to inequities in the local environment. The challenge for poor communities is now to expand their work on the property conflict to address the development conflict as well, that is, to challenge the false choice of jobs over the environment. An urban vision of sustainable development, infused with a belief in social and environmental justice, can guide these efforts.
Yet even with the rising acceptance of sustainable development,
planners will not always be able, on their own, to represent and balance social,
economic and environmental interests simultaneously. The professional allegiances,
skills, and bureaucracies of the profession are too constraining to allow that.
Pretending at all times to be at the center of the planner's triangle will only
make sustainability a hollow term. Instead, the trick will be for individual planners
to identify their specific loyalties and roles in these conflicts accurately:
that is, to orient themselves in the triangle. Planners will have to decide whether
they want to remain outside the conflict and act as mediators, or jump into the
fray and promote their own visions of ecological-economic development, sustainable
or otherwise. Both planning behaviors are needed.
The author thanks Elizabeth Mueller, Susan
Fainstein, Diane Massell, Jonathan Feldman, Karen Lowry, Jessica Sanchez, Harvey
Jacobs, Michael Greenberg, Renée Sieber, Robert Higgins, the Project on
Regional and Industrial Economics (PRIE) Seminar, and three anonymous reviewers
for their comments.
A curious comparison to this equity-environment-economy triangle is the view of
Arne Naess (1993), the radical environmentalist who gave Deep Ecology its name
in the 1970s, that the three crucial postwar political movements were the social
justice, radical environmental, and peace movements, whose goals might overlap
but could be made identical.
2. Perhaps one can explain the lack of a universal conflict in the following way: if our ideas of the economy, equity, and the environment are socially/culturally constructed, and if cultural society is local as well as global, then our ideas are locally distinct rather than universally uniform.
3. For planners, if one is simply "planning for place," then the dispute about suburban housing versus wetlands does indeed reflect a conflict between an economic and an environmental use of a specific piece of land. But if one sees this conflict in light of "planning for people," then the decision lies between differing social groups (e.g., environmentalists, fishermen, developers) and between their competing attempts to incorporate the piece of land into their system and worldview. (This classic planning distinction between planning for people or for place begs the question: is there a third option, "planning for nonpeople, i.e., nature?")
4. Schiller, using Kant's logic, recognized 200 years ago this human habit of positing the future on the past: "He thus artificially retraces his childhood in his maturity, forms for himself a state of Nature in idea, which is not indeed given him by experience but is the necessary result of his rationality, borrows in this ideal state an ultimate aim which he never knew in his actual state of Nature, and a choice of which he was capable, and proceeds now exactly as though he were starting afresh. . . ."
5. Some radical ecologists take this lost world a step further and see it not as a garden, but as wilderness (e.g., Parton 1993).
6. I use the term diaspora to mean the involuntary dispersal of a people from their native home, driven out by a greater power (Hall 1992). The curious nature of the diaspora implied by the environmental worldview is that it is ambiguously voluntary: western positivistic thinking is the villain that we developed, but that eventually enslaved us. Then, too, diasporas invariably combine dislocations across both time and space, but the mythic "homeland" of this environmental diaspora is only from an historical era, but no specific place.
7. The reverse may also not be automatic. David Johns (1992, 63), in advocating a broad interspecies equity, reminds us that not all forms of equity go hand-in-hand: "The nature of the linkages between various forms of domination is certainly not settled, but deep ecology may be distinct in believing that the resolution of equity issues among humans will not automatically result in an end to human destruction of the biosphere. One can envision a society without class distinctions, without patriarchy, and with cultural autonomy, that still attempts to manage the rest of nature in utilitarian fashion with resulting deterioration of the biosphere. . . . But the end of domination in human relations is not enough to protect the larger biotic community. Only behavior shaped by a biocentric view can do that."
8. The ambiguity of the term sustainable development is therefore not coincidental, given that reasonable people differ on which corner of the triangle is to be "sustained": a fixed level of natural resources? current environmental quality? current ecosystems? a hypothetical pre-industrial environmental state? the current material standards of living? long-term economic growth? political democracy?
9. These issues of language and translation were raised by Ngûgi wa Thiong-o and Stuart Hall in separate distinguished lectures at the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Cultures, Rutgers University (March 31 and April 15, 1993).
10. Conservationists have in fact installed underpasses and overpasses so that vulnerable migrating species can get around highways.
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