'Sustainability' and other fuzzy, turn-off words

Surveys show that when planners talk about transportation issues and smart growth, many audiences tune out. The key is to tie these concerns with the top issue today: rebuilding the economy.

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Jim O'Halloran of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association moderates at a planning meeting.

Surveys show that when planners talk about transportation issues and smart growth, many audiences tune out. The key is to tie these concerns with the top issue today: rebuilding the economy.

Anyone who has ever watched an episode of The West Wing or followed the national network’s television coverage on election night has a general idea of how common the use of polls has become to the policy formulation process in our country. Our leaders and public officials have turned to the tools of marketers to help decipher which direction the figurative winds are blowing before they step into the fray. So why wouldn’t planning and smart growth advocates do the same?

Last fall, Smart Growth America (SGA) did just that. It’s a coalition representing nearly 40 national organizations and many state and local groups that share an interest in “creating and maintaining great neighborhoods in which to live and work,” in building coalitions to “bring smart growth practices to more communities nationwide.” SGA commissioned a national survey intended to gain a better understanding about the role of sustainable communities in our nation’s economic recovery.
The poll was designed by Collective Strength, Inc., reviewed by Harris Interactive, and was made possible through funding from the Ford Foundation. Collective Strength is based in Austin, Texas and is led by Robin Rather, who has spent much of the last year crisscrossing the country talking to professional planners and smart growth advocates about the results of the survey.

“One of the main findings of the poll was just how fuzzed up the terms ‘sustainability,’ ‘livability,’ and ‘smart growth’ are for most Americans,” Rather said in a recent interview. “There is no center of gravity — no two people thought of these terms in significant ways. And that’s very frightening given how much these terms are discussed in planning circles.” Most Americans, she added, “have no idea what the ‘triple bottom line’ is or what it means to them.”

To help clarify this issue, the survey used a clear and easy-to-understand definition: “A sustainable community is an urban, suburban, or rural community that has more housing and transportation choices, is closer to jobs, shops, or schools, is more energy independent, and helps protect clean air and water.”

In fact, 79 percent of the respondents indicated their "support" for sustainability when defined in this way, with only 5 percent saying they were "opposed" and 16 percent "still not sure." When asked to rate the “importance of officials working to create sustainable communities,” 57 percent scored the topic as an 8 or higher on a 10-point scale.

Rather’s conclusion: “if you define sustainability in terms people can understand, you can connect with people. They begin to warm up to what it looks like.”

And it’s important, she told a recent national planning audience, “to understand the emotion of the age. Right now is a time of tremendous insecurity for a lot of people — political, economic, natural disasters. People crave for and there is a deep need for positive messages about going forward.” In Rather’s eyes, planners and others need to find ways to tie the old ways of thinking about topics such as transportation and land use to the “next-generation goals” about jobs and the economy.

For example, the survey revealed an “enthusiasm gap” when transportation is presented as a stand-alone issue. The ideas of “expanding the network to handle the growing population” or “investing in projects with the greatest payback” simply did not resonate with survey participants. Note the link when jobs and the economy are included: 75 percent of respondents agreed that “infrastructure spending on roads, trains, and buses creates jobs and helps the economy get stronger.” Rather commented that “most people think housing and transportation need to be redefined because they don’t work for most people. If they are defined properly, the principles of sustainability and livability are quite popular.”

The survey also helps to reveal how sentiments are shifting when it comes to housing and walkability. Fifty-eight percent of the survey respondents reported that having “places to eat a meal or buy basic goods within walking distance” will have a strong impact on where they decide to live. Additionally, 68 percent agreed that they would accept a 5 percent or greater reduction in the square footage of their future housing if their new house was more walkable to shops and meals. And 82 percent agreed with the statement that “most Americans spend more than 50 percent of their household expenses on housing and transportation costs and that is too much.” Overall, 60 percent of respondents acknowledged how their tradeoffs in housing type and location might contribute to lower transportation costs, less time spent driving around, and creating a more enjoyable lifestyle.

The connections have been drawn — making our communities more sustainable means generating more jobs, lowering housing and transportation costs, and using our limited public funds more wisely. The importance of this work is bolstered by Smart Growth America’s statement that “82 percent of Americans believe that rebuilding the economy is the most important issue for our generation.” These are the types of projects America’s professional planners work on every day.

However, Rather offers some pointed advice to the professional planning community: “If you continue to talk about ‘quality of life,’ the messaging will kill you. Most people are really with us, but we need to pivot our communications strategy.” She’d have planners stop using terms like “green,” “livable,” and “sustainable” and instead focus on the effects planning can have on economics.

“People are tired of all the gloom and doom — people need a positive path to follow. As a country, if we can think about how we plan our communities to move forward, I think about how much comfort there is in that,” Rather added.

The question now is whether America’s planners are listening.

This article comes to Crosscut by way of Citiwire.net, a service producing articles and studies about urban issues.


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