Introduction: Cities and Sustainability-Ecology, Economy, and Community

Author:Lynn Scarlett
Position:Visiting Scholar at Resources for the Future, served for eight years at the U.S. Department of the Interior, where she was the Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer from 2005-20
2FALL 2010
citieS anD SuStainability—ecology, economy, anD community
by Lynn Scarlett*
Globally, the 21st century unfolds as the Era of Cities.
The United Nations Population Fund signaled the mile-
stone of 2008 as the first time in history that over half
the world’s population—some 3.3 billion people—were living in
urban areas.1 In the United States and other industrialized nations,
some eighty percent of their populations dwell in cities and their
suburbs. Discussions of sustainability must thus encompass cities
and their economic, social, and environmental conditions.
Renowned city analyst Jane Jacobs, in The Economy of Cit-
ies and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, describes cities as cen-
tral engines of economic development; she lauds their diversity
and dynamism.2 Her purpose was not to highlight the many famil-
iar woes of traffic congestion, squalor and poverty, pollution, or
crime. But, in her praise of cities, Jacobs introduces concepts that
anticipate present discussions of cities and their sustainability. She
discusses social capital, local action, and “biomimicry,” in which
she perceives “nature as a source of inspiration.”3 These concepts
anticipate themes important to current discussions of sustainability.
In 1983 the World Commission on Environment and Devel-
opment, or Brundtland Commission, thrust the concept of sus-
tainable development onto the world stage with its report Our
Common Future.4 Its focus centered on environmental degrada-
tion and its effects on economic and social well-being. The report
defined sustainable development as development that “meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs.”5 A decade later, participants
at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Develop-
ment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, reaffirmed this vision of sustain-
able development, declaring that: “human beings are at the centre
of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a
healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.6
By 2010, the word “sustainability” now often supplants the
antecedent term of “sustai nable developmen t,” subtly signal-
ing that sustainability implies something more than traditional
notions of development, where the focus, however much con-
cepts of environment and society were included, always seemed
to veer toward the achievement of economic prosperity. It is in the
world’s cities that the broad and inclusive concept of sustainabil-
ity has especially taken root. Hundreds of cities—in the United
States and elsewhere—have developed blueprints for sustainabil-
ity that encompass environmental, economic, social, and gover-
nance goals. In the United States, ICLEI-Local Governments for
Sustainability rates city achievements of milestones for numerous
sustainability goals.7 SustainLane ranks cities in sixteen differ-
ent areas for their performance on environmental, transportation,
housing, land use, energy, emergency preparedness, infrastruc-
ture, communications, innovation, and other dimensions.8
* Lynn Scarlett, a Visiting Scholar at Resources for the Future, served for eight
years at the U.S. Department of the Interior, where she was the Deputy Secre-
tary and Chief Operating Officer from 2005-2009.
Reflecting Jan e Jacob’s insights, some of this urban focus
on sustainability translates the concept of biomimicry into prac-
tice.9 Cities are re-examining the urban form, exploring how to
use “nature” to provide basic urban services. Trees, p ermeable
ground surfaces, natural stream channel s, wetlands, and other
natural systems and their components reduce stormwater, absorb
air pollutants, help purify water, and provide shading to reduce
summer air conditioning needs.10
Philadel phia, recognizing these benefit s of biomi micry,
plans to re duce stormwater overflows using trees, open spaces,
and permeable landscapes—a “green legacy for future genera-
tions.”11 The city proposes to transition thirty-four percent of its
lands to permeable surface, which will absorb and reduce run-
off to meet sewage overflow requirements, while also producing
cleaner air; cleaner water; and greenhouse gas reductions.
Some city greening efforts are achieving environmental
results and reducing city costs to provide essential infrast ruc-
ture. For example, “the City of New Y ork invested over $1.5
billion to protect an d restore the Catskill Mount ain watershed
to sustain the city’s water quality, rather than spending up to $9
billion on filtration plants. Usin g ecosystem services concepts,
Seattle reduced the volume of runoff by 98 percent in one neigh-
borhood with extensive use of green infrastructure that cost 2 5
percent less than traditional alternatives.”12
Putting “natu re” within cities adds aesthetic value , but
nature and its compo nents also re duce the urba n environmen-
tal footprint and can reduce costs for energy and other services.
“U.S. Forest Service analyst Greg McPherson has documented
energy conservation benefits from urban tree canopy. Planted as
windbreaks, trees can reduce heat loss for avoided heating costs
of 10 to 12 percent.”13 Tree shading, “according to another For-
est Service study , can save 100 kilowatt-hours” in annual elec-
tricity use.14
Though urban greening is an important tool for sustain -
ability, these effor ts sometimes face impl ementation barri ers.
In t he United States, regulati ons crafted in a context of more
traditional “gray” infrastructure do not always accommodate use
of natural systems and biomimicry. Some times, lack of clearly
developed measures of natural s ystem benefits impede use of
these bio-syste ms. Sometimes hurdles arise from disconnected
agency bureaucracies, fragmented government jurisdictions, and
coordination difficulties.
These hurdles point to the centrality of two other concepts
Jane Jacobs introduced in her discussions of cities, “social capital
and local action. In short, people matter. Early literature on sus-
tainability emphasized the three-pronged goals of sustainability—
social, economic, and environmental benefits. But more recent
discussions (and practice) of sustainability describe people both as
beneficiaries of sustainability and as practitioners, innovators, and
decision makers. Local communities, through direct engagement
in articulating their concerns and priorities, are critical to helping
define what is desirable and what is doable. Local people have
“local knowledge”—the knowledge of time, situation, and experi-
ence. Such local knowledge helps ensure that urban innovations to
enhance environmental, social, and economic benefits reflect local
priorities, cultures, and circumstances.
Nearly four decades ago, British economist E.F. Schumacher
critiqued economic development practice in his work, Small Is
Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.15 Looking at less-
developed economies, he argued that technologies appropriate to
circumstance that reflect the capacities and resources available to
local communities were more likely to be used and sustained than
(often) large-scale technologies designed in industrialized nations.16
While “small” may not always be preferab le, Schumach-
er’s important insight was in his focus on economic a nd social
decision processes that directly engaged those affected by deci-
sions. This same ins ight has inc reasingly emerged globally in
collaborative conservation initiatives.17 Such initiatives, often
self-generated through local action, bring local people together,
sometim es w ith varying needs and interes ts a nd v alues, to
explore join tly how to ad dress problems of water quality, bio -
diversity, forest health, and economic o pportunity and h ow to
sustain local traditions and cultures.
But city sustainability efforts, too, are increasingly viewing
sustainability as both about outcomes and about governing and
social processes. Strengthening citizen engagement in decision
making is not new—indeed, concepts of “participatory democracy”
have a long pedigree. However, over the past two decades, applica-
tion of the concept has gained momentum. Two decades ago, when
the City of Seattle proposed to address the city’s waste management
needs by designating sites for as many as four incinerators, city
officials faced an upheaval from multiple neighborhood groups.18
In a departure from its initial top-down decision process, the city
changed gears, formed citizen task forces, and used their delibera-
tions as the basis for overhauling its waste management vision for
the city.19 Waste reduction and recycling became the centerpieces
of the city’s waste management plans.
Seattle implemented this new vision through use of pay-as-you-
throw fees that rewarded recycling and waste reduction. The city’s
use of these market incentives in its fee structure reflected another
emergent phenomenon in sustainability efforts—the use of market-
based policy tools that align personal and economic decisions with
environmental and other goals. Drawing upon this concept, for exam-
ple, Bellevue, Washington began charging stormwater fees based on
amount of impermeable surface, which directly relates to amount of
stormwater runoff generated. Such fees created, in effect, incentives for
land managers and developers to retain or create permeable surfaces.
These city experiences are precursors to key themes unfold-
ing across the sustainability policy landscape. First is the grow-
ing addition of market-based tools to the policy tool kit. Second
is the importance of public engagement in decision-making.
Today, as cities re-examine how to address city infrastruc-
ture, waste management, climate change adaptation, transporta-
tion, and other challenges, whether in developed or developing
countries, the need for governing processes that engage citizens
is well-recognize d. How to fulfill that need, however, often
remains an elusive part of the sustainability equation.
The governanc e challenge is how to breathe meaning into
participation, beyond providing for reactive comments to pre-set
policy optio ns and plans. This challenge, as much as the chal-
lenges of technological and service innovations, now ani mates
the sustainability dialogue.
Endnotes: Introduction: Cities and Sustainability—Ecology,
Economy, and Community
1 See generally U.n. population FunD, State oF worlD population 2007:
unleaShing the potential oF urban growth 1, u.n. Doc. E/31,000/2007,
U.N. Sales No. E.07.III.H.1 (2007), available at
2 See generally Jane JacobS, the economy oF citieS (1969); Jane JacobS, cit-
ieS anD the wealth oF nationS (1984).
3 Gert-Jan Hospers, Jane Jacobs: Her Life and Work, 14 eur. plan. StuD.
723, 732 (2006).
4 the worlD commiSSion on environment anD Development, our common
Future (1987).
5 Id. at 8.
6 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Rio de Janeiro, Braz.,
June 3-14, 1992, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, U.N. Doc. A/
CONF.151/26/Rev.1 (Vol. I), Annex I (Aug. 12, 1992), available at http://www.
7 The STAR Rating System, iclei-local governmentS For SuStainability,
overview/rating-system/the-star-rating-system (last visited Nov. 3, 2010).
8 Overall Rankings, SuStainlane,
ings/overall-rankings (last visited Nov. 3, 2010).
9 For a discussion of the concept of biomimicry, see generally Janine benyuS,
biomimicry: innovation inSpireD by nature (1997).
10 See generally Lynn Scarlett, Green, Clean, and Dollar Smart: Ecosystem
Restoration in Cities and Countryside, environmental DeFenSe FunD (Feb. 2010),,_Clean_and_Dollar_Smart.pdf.
11 waterSheD inFormation center, philaDelphia water Department, oFFice
oF waterSheDS, (last visited Nov. 4, 2010).
12 Lynn Scarlett, Cleaner, Safer, Cheaper, 27 envtl. Forum 34 (2010).
13 Id. at 36.
14 Id.
15 See generally e.F. Schumacher, Small iS beautiFul: economicS aS iF
people mattereD (1973).
16 Id.
17 See e.g., tomaS KoontZ, et al., collaborative environmental manage-
ment: what roleS For government? (2004).
18 See generally Dewitt John, civic environmentaliSm: alternativeS to
regulation in StateS anD communitieS (1993).
19 Id.