In This Issue
Urbanization & Engineering
December 1, 1999 Volume 29 Issue 4

Sustainable Communities

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Jonathan Lash

There are political challenges to be met regarding the connection between urbanization and our desire for sustainable communities.

If you’ve read the program for today’s symposium, you’ll notice that I’m a lapsed litigator and a recovering regulator, which raises the question of what I’m doing in this group of engineers. Let me suggest that it may have something to do with the perception that, before the engineering challenges of urbanization can be met, there are political challenges to be met regarding the connection between urbanization and our desire for sustainable communities. That’s what I’d like to address today.

The genius of our political system has always been seen as its protection of individual rights and liberties. Our economic system has prevailed virtually globally because it is so effective at responding to individual wants and needs. Our culture glorifies individual achievement, from the cowboy, who was so much a part of the iconography of my own childhood, to today’s sports heroes. And yet most of the problems that concern people now are related to community. Indeed, I think that addressing those concerns is a fundamental challenge that we face as Americans.

I’ll come back to that challenge later, but first I want to start with five premises from which the whole notion of the importance of sustainability comes. The first premise is that human well-being depends on the stability and productivity of interrelated natural systems, most importantly, the biosphere and the climate. The second premise is that, for the first time in human history, human activities are beginning to affect the stability and productivity of those natural systems.

Let me explain this second premise further. Human beings, in our miraculous performance of the last half century, producing enough food for a doubling of population, have extended agriculture across the face of the Earth to many places where it had never existed before. The United States has far more forest cover than it did 100 years ago. For example, in Vermont, where I lived for eight years, the land that was 80 percent open 100 years ago is now more than two-thirds forested. But if you look at the globe, 80 percent of the original forest has been cut since the beginning of human clearing of land. And although the world is now about 50 percent as forested as it was before human clearing, the 80 percent figure is critical, because second-growth forests are not the same as original forests in terms of their biological productivity, their diversity of species, and their resilience in the face of stress.

If you project current trends, by the time our grandchildren are talking about the issues we’re talking about now, human use will have extended across the face of the Earth. Indeed, it is already true that there is nowhere on land, in the oceans, or in the atmosphere where you do not find the traces of human activity.

The climate, too, is being chemically destabilized. Whatever you may believe about global warming, it is beyond argument that human activity has sharply increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, most importantly carbon dioxide, and that the chemistry of the atmosphere has historically had a sharp impact on climate. Indeed, projections are that during the century we’re about to enter, if present trends continue, we will see sharp increases in temperature and sharp changes in precipitation patterns globally, and we are likely to see a greater number of intense storm events of all kinds, intense droughts of all kinds, and intense weather of all kinds.

The drivers of these changes are not mysterious; they are rapidly growing population and rapidly growing consumption. That’s the third premise underlying the notion of sustainability. The first is that we’re dependent on physical systems, the second is that we’re affecting those physical systems, and the third is that the drivers are population and consumption. Indeed, our wonderfully productive and successful economy makes tremendous demands on natural systems -- about 300 kilograms of material per $100 of gross domestic product.

Premise number four is that population will continue to expand for decades, regardless of policy, because most of the world’s population is young. And premise number five is that economic growth will continue. It must continue -- it is both politically and morally necessary that we continue to improve lives and expand opportunity.

A Solution for Sustainability

If you roughly accept those five premises, then there is a tension that we need to address. That tension is at the heart of the concept of sustainable development, and can be stated as such: Rather than choosing one or the other -- reducing economic well-being in order to protect physical systems, or destroying physical systems in order to promote economic well-being -- we need to find the solution that improves economic well-being in ways that protect physical systems. This isn’t such an extraordinary premise in a society as technologically capable as this one, where we know more than enough about how to substitute information and knowledge for materials in the economic system. And that is the essence of the notion of sustainable development -- that better lives and improved opportunity can be made available to more people with far less impact on the Earth by reducing throughput and increasing equity, and that knowledge is a key.

With those premises in mind, and that notion of sustainable development, let’s look at urbanization. Globally, we are in the midst of a massive shift from a slow, fragmented, rural world to a fast, connected, urban world. Twenty-five years ago the world was two-thirds rural; 25 years from now it will be more than two-thirds urban, with the largest populations of the world living in megacities of over 10 million, mostly in countries we now call developing countries. The process of urbanization is growing the architecture for the global human economy. Decisions about the nature and process of urban life, or failures to decide, will shape outcomes beyond individual cities.

The Cost of Commuting

In the United States, the march of strip development, subdivisions, and greenfield industrial development outward from a dense core of cities is creating the irony of urbanization by dispersion. Indeed, one symptom of that process is how important a question getting there has become in our lives. I saw a few months ago a federal study that suggested that, in this region, two weeks are lost for the average worker per year waiting in traffic, at a cost of $1,055 per worker (Texas Transportation Institute, 1998). Just imagine for a moment what would happen if the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new clean-air plan that was going to impose a cost of $1,055 per year per worker. There would be outrage across the land, yet we are doing it to ourselves in the way we are growing our urban areas.

In the developing world, urban areas are being formed not by plan but by accretion, as the turbulent currents of demographic and economic change swirl and drop their burden of people -- people who seek something better than rural impoverishment, at least the possibility of occasional employment, and the dream of access to education and services. It may begin as a sudden bloom of squatter shacks outside of Bangkok or it may, as in Mexico City, be a process where squatter settlements climb further and further up the sides of mountains 10 miles outside the center of the city. This is a different kind of sprawl -- first they build it, then they improvise crude services, then they bring utilities, and then they eventually demand the full range of services from the city, as the city spreads miles beyond them.

In China, urban areas are growing 10 times as fast as the population at large. Indeed, in several cities the rate is 20 times as fast. Despite the close regulation of human movement, illegal immigration to cities is one of the largest forces operating on the Chinese economy; again, because people are drawn by at least the hope of economic improvement.

Cities offer the possibility of huge economic energy and efficient delivery of services -- but they also concentrate misery and intense pollution. For example, with urbanization there is a trend toward motorization. There are now 700 million vehicles in the world. This number is growing much faster than population, is concentrated in cities, and will soon reach 1 billion. Looking at China again, the government has launched an individual mobility strategy as an important part of their next five-year plan. It will result in a skyrocketing of automobile manufacturing, traffic, and pollution. If you have been in Beijing, you know that this last problem is an intense one. Premier Zhu Rongji recently said that, according to their estimates, the average person in Beijing loses five years of life as a consequence of vehicle-related pollution (Zhu, 1998). In most of the world, most of the air pollution in cities is the result of vehicles. Even in the developed world’s wealthy cities, growing numbers of vehicles are overcoming the progress made in controlling pollution, and rates of health-threatening pollution are either remaining stable or growing again.

Cities are growing because they are powerful economic engines. But people’s dreams of a good life are woven of many strands -- family, neighborhood, access to school and store -- and beyond that, a set of amenities they want to have available -- jogging, biking, walking, paddling, rock climbing. People expect those amenities in a just-in-time form. They don’t want to travel three hours for the opportunity; they want it to be part of their life in a city.

The most important cause of injury and death among children in the United States is not murder or cancer or lung disease. It is accident, and accident is related to design. Accident has something to do with the livability of the places that we are creating, which brings me back to the underlying question I wanted to address, which is about politics. What can create the political support to change the direction of these trends?

My experience has been that one of the most intense forms of political change occurring now, one that is often below the radar of national politics, is taking place in cities and communities, because people understand that their problems are problems of community. This is true in the United States and globally, because people identify community as the level at which they can define and implement their aspirations.

The President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), which I cochaired for six years, included CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, members of the President’s cabinet, and leaders of environmental, tribal, labor, and civil rights organizations, all of whom participated in meetings held around the country. We started with a notion of approaching sustainable development through a set of global issues -- resource and pollution issues -- and ended up focusing more and more on communities as the place where the fundamental decisions that determine sustainability would be made.

The concept of sustainable communities is not simply a question of engineering choices, but is rather first about enabling people to coalesce around dreams. When the PCSD looked at communities seeking sustainability, we found seven things that seemed to mark those that have been most successful:

  1. It is important that sustainability efforts serve, invest in, and respect people, recognizing that the crisis is one of vision and commitment, and that everything depends on empowered people and successful coalitions of common purpose.
  2. It is essential to respect and invest in places, because place is the key to community, a unique and irreplaceable social asset.
  3. It is essential to align with or create market forces for sustainability. Community sustainability is not an alternative to economic development, it is an advanced form of economic development and must succeed within the reality of our market.
  4. It is essential to leverage ecological and social as well as economic assets of communities. Think of it this way: When you are thinking of moving into a new community, what do you look at? Is it solely a set of economic considerations?
  5. It is essential to address issues of race and class to embrace the reality that we are an astonishingly diverse community, and to realize the potential strength that diversity can offer.
  6. It is essential to build regional alliances. Sprawl has created interjurisdictional interdependence.
  7. Successful alliances are locally created, led, and driven. They cannot be created from outside but they can be supported and catalyzed from outside.

Let me conclude with something I wrote with David Buzzelli of the Dow Chemical Company, then cochair of the PCSD, that I fervently believe in:

The politics of mistrust are the greatest obstacle to the process of innovation and change that we all believe is necessary to achieve the goals we share. We believe that consensus will move America forward both faster and farther than confrontation. Moreover, we believe that consensus is the public’s job, not the government’s. Government is important in implementing what people agree on, but we all need to do the hard work of listening, learning, and finding common ground. Communities are the right place to start (PCSD, 1996).


PCSD. 1996. Sustainable America: A New Consensus for the Prosperity, Opportunity and a Healthy Environment for the Future. Online:
Publications/TF_Reports/amer-top.html [8 October 1999].

Texas Transportation Institute. 1998. Urban Roadway Congestion Annual Report, 1998. College Station, Tex.: Texas A&M University.

Zhu, R. 1998. Personal communication with author, at meeting of China Council of International Cooperation on Environment and Development, Beijing, 18 November.

About the Author:Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute. This article is a revised version of the talk he gave 5 October during the 1999 NAE Annual Meeting symposium, Facing Urbanization: The Engineering Challenges.