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Solimar Research

CCAPA Session: Measuring the Unmeasurable

Josh Stephens on
Sep 12, 2011

As the implementation of SB 375 approaches and the Pacific Ocean rises ever higher, one of the greatest technical challenges facing planners is that of defining and measuring "sustainability." Judging by this morning's session "Translating Sustainability into Practice: Tools for Measuring Community Sustainability" at the California American Planning Association conference, that task is going to be about as easy as creating cold fusion. 

That's ironic, since cold fusion would solve a heck of a lot of our sustainability problems. 

The session's premise is that, in essence, everyone wants to be sustainable, but, even if people know it when they see it, they are woefully under-equipped to measure it. What, then, to make of such a nebulous, all-encompassing concept such as sustainability?  

Presenters Matthew Burris and Jason Pack described their experience writing a report for the Urban Land Institute's Orange County chapter. They put the problem poetically, citing the Iroquois tradition of considering the next seven generations in any major decision. How, they asked, could you fit seven generations into a zoning code?  They started with 255 definitions of sustainability, as collected on the blog Computing for Sustainability. For ULI, they whittled those down to a few categories of criteria, with 3-4 criteria per category. The categories include things like environment, socioeconomics, resources, and economics. In other words, just about everything that could possibly comprise the public realm.  

After some more whittling down, they presented their criteria to ULI. The response: "deep fear." 

It seems that folks at ULI who previously supported Burris' and Pack's project had a change of heart when confronted with concrete recommendations for how cities address sustainability. Pack described the response as, "One of the most surreal experiences of my professional life." The takeaway, they said, was not a revolutionary new way of measuring sustainability. Instead, it was the realization that entrenched business practices might not embrace sustainability, despite the best of intentions. 

Walker Wells of Global Green USA presented an alternative scenario. He suggested that competing definitions and microscopic measures of sustainabilty are beside the point. He proposed that, for a city, sustainability entails a framework, with three componennts: 1) a long-term vision; 2) an evaluation tool; 3) a management tool, such as a dedicated office of sustainability. To heck with the 250-plus definitions, Wells said. What cities need is an official with an office and real power. 

Wells then introduced the Star Community Index, being developed by ICLEI. Scheduled for launch next year after four years of development, STAR is a "LEED for cities," according to Wells. It lists a range of criteria -- not unlike the ones that Burris and Pack developed for ULI-Orange County -- and offers cities a guide for implementing a range of sustainability strategies according to their own needs. Wells said that the premise of the Star index is that cities should not fixate on "lofty goals" because, of course, "there's no way to measure them." 

Cities are supposed to pursue lofty goals, but they can only implement the strategies that they can measure. And those strategies are most measurable when they're discrete. You can see where this is headed. 

It seems to me that the good news -- which none of the presenters mentioned -- is that most of components of this nebulous world of sustainability are complementary. Improving public health, reducing vehicle miles traveled, and increasing walkability rarely rely on separate actions. Fixating over hundreds of definitions and minute measurements misses the point that, in many cases, just making cities nicer -- if you'll pardon the technical term -- accomplishes a slew of goals.

Sustainabilty may, therefore, be more art than science. Or, perhaps, more common sense than cold fusion.