Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sustaining Vagueness: Planning and Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development is the central pillar of the new National Planning Policy Framework. Judging from the positive various commentaries from business leaders, planners, conservation organisations and just about anyone else asked on recent news programmes, everyone is happy with this focus. Groups normally at loggerheads with each other seem content that the new document suits their purposes. How can this be?
The document itself does not really help much in explaining this strange contentment. The Ministerial foreword states that ‘Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations’, whilst ‘Development means growth’ and ‘Sustainable development is about change for the better…’ Any clearer now about what the term means?
On page two the five guiding principles of sustainable development found within the UK Sustainable Development Strategy Securing the Future are reiterated. They are ‘living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly’. Any clearer now?

Paragraph 7 on the same page states that there are three dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. The economic role focuses on building a strong, responsive and competitive economy which will ensure that land of the right type in the right places if available at the right time to support growth and innovation. The social role is to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities by providing housing to support the needs of the current and future generations. Is it a bit clearer now – is that what you thought sustainable development meant?
I will look at the planning document in more detail in another blog but one of the key problems and the reason why everyone seems so happy is that the term ‘sustainable development’ is so vague and flexible that everyone reads into the term what they want to. An excellent article by Robert Kates, Thomas Parris and Anthony Leiserowitz (2005) discusses this problem in detail. Since the initial brief definition by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, the term sustainable development has become hijacked, interpreted, reinterpreted and so imprecise that anyone or any group dealing with the environment can shape the term to mean whatever they hope it means. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as: ‘ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

This definition has what Kates et al. call a ‘creative ambiguity’, a great term for vagueness. Kates et al., identify that there are three distinct things that can be developed within the term; people, economy and society. Each has a different time scale associated with its development and each places a different emphasis, depending on who is talking, on the ‘sustainable’ part or ’development’ part of 'sustianbel development'.

Kates et al. also suggest that ‘sustainable development’ can be defined in terms of what each group seeks to achieve. There are goals – what we seek to achieve. There are indicators – what we use to measure the achievement of these goals. There are the values that underlie these goals and then there is what we actually do, the practice of sustainable development. I may be na├»ve but my guess is that business groups and environmental organisations may share the term ‘sustainable development’ but the goals and values that drive them are different as are the indicators they would use to assess the success of sustainable development. The use of such a creatively ambiguous term as ‘sustainable development’ may be politically useful to achieve consensus but will become a minefield for implementation.

Some useful texts on sustianble development are below:

The origin of the term can be found in the Brundtland Commission report 'Our Common Future':

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