The concept of sustainability has matured in the past decade, but its current (multiple) foundations were developed in the 1990s. I think in order for the movement or the academic study to grow and further mature, it would be helpful to re-examine these earlier guiding thoughts.
Jeb Brugmann’s paper “Is There a Method in Our Measurement? The use of indicators in local sustainable development planning” in Local Environment from 1997 is a great example of early study on achieving sustainability. His paper further galvanized my thoughts toward rejecting how we talk about sustainability in a way that focuses on outcomes. This kind of thinking has since pervaded much of the sustainability community. Further, one of the worst problems is we have siloed the interests, work, and knowledge of sustainability to a small portion of the population.
The ability for a community to be environmentally sustainable is comparable for it to be economically sustainable. All the information isn’t known to all the actors, rational decisions are often not made, and even if they were, a complex social organization forms its foundation. Indicators seek to rectify this reality by creating measurement of parts of the system. Again, economics provides an excellent model for environmental. Everybody involved in an economic system has deep motivation for participating in their most rational way. Further, everybody, no matter their interest level or political leanings or education level participates in economic systems. We have developed an extremely large body of knowledge around economic systems, and we have thousands of people each day actively examining existing and/or creating new indicators that measure, literally, everything. Any yet, our economic system–in generational terms–is broken.
Perhaps this is a critique of our economic system rather than the indicators, but my point is that even in a mature field with multiple formal and informal actors all working each day for their own motivation we have a system that often works against itself.
Indicators are an examination of outcomes. And like with economic sustainability, environmental sustainability has too many outcomes. Brugmann discusses this in regard to Seattle; that what was being measured needed broad agreement–which involves multiple discussions and a lot of time, that they developed an initial 100 indicators then shortened to 28.
But these were coming from 500 goals and policies. Which themselves were paired down in not only a political process but in capacity of human organizations to take in information and have the time to integrate it.
We could go crazy with indicators. The measurement of things is infinite. The analysis and dissemination of the results of the measurements requires not only time but to be part of any leadership agenda. Is this even possible?
I think indicators are a good place to start a conversation. However, they focus on outcomes rather than inputs. Environmental sustainability is often about consumption and is fully determined by the availability of inputs; we can’t consume what isn’t available.
Indicators have been a defacto way to argue for new reduction in consumption patterns. For example, the LEED certification process, now required in many municipalities for new buildings, is completely about indicators–measurements of a building’s impact. To reduce consumption is to restrict behavior–to say we shouldn’t or should do something, and because we live in a democratic adult world, the level of reduction often up for discussion. As if it was a choice!
The problem with sustainability is we don’t have a choice. The environment will change whether we measure its change or not. Children don’t stop growing when you stop measuring their height.
Further, indicators, while a way of understanding what is to be done, are an ineffective way to increase sustainability in the long term. As a tool for increasing sustainability, they are like trying to stop each buckshot as it is expelled from a shotgun to prevent it from hitting its target. Or rather it is like trying to stop the buckshot from a billion shotguns to prevent it from hitting a million targets.
Indicators are asking people to make a choice–at the governmental level, at the industry level, at the community level, at the individual level. But we don’t have time for that discussion, that ask. Indicators are reactive to what is happening. For true sustainability, we need preventative measures. We need to remove the source of consumption. We need to remove the ability to consume.
The Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) study looks at the health risks of highway pollution. Began in 2008 to monitor the air in Somerville around Interstate 93, the study has expanded to Dorchester, South Boston, and Chinatown. It is funded by National Institutes of Health grant to Tufts and has included several of the local organizations where there air is being studied.
While the study is large–they have collected more data than can be analyzed at the moment–the study website has a short film titled Highway to Health.
Elin Reisner, a Somerville resident and advocate, begins “There were some really bad mistakes made when they built I-93 that we’re still paying for in terms of people’s health.” I found this to be just an amazing quote (and the film fleshes it out and puts it in context), as it is as much about I-93 as it is about any urban highway.
I have been uneasy about highways in urban areas since childhood. The walkable, generally equitable town I grew up in is living through a slow decimation that began after US 50 was developed into a 4-lane overpass through the city, making it much easier to develop land outside of the core area. The highway brought with it–reciprocally with greater household incomes, the availability of inexpensive fuel, and a community mindset to match–increased car ownership and eventually system-induced demand. The walkable core became less desirable because there was limited parking, the land outside of downtown became easier to access because of the speed of the car and road infrastructure that facilitated it, and the vast streetcar network experienced dwindling ridership to the tipping point of being unprofitable. All leading to further demand for automobile travel, more parking, and more land use developed in a way that limits true walking connectivity. This is a scenario that has played out thousands of times across the US in the past 50 years in an ever-increasing rate. There are hundreds of readings and videos about this topic — it’s an old yarn by now.
And that is why the video, and the corresponding study, give me an aha moment. The other sources I’ve read or watched encompass infrastructure-driven physical and economic changes. Sometimes they include anecdotal comments about rising levels of obesity, diabetes, or loss of neighborhood social cohesion. But they leave out the localized health impacts that the CAFEH study does so well to begin to uncover.
I was amazed by two things. First, the idea of such a focused study—the highways around Boston, and specifically researching Interstate 93—is intriguing. The highways are an untapped data source that seems to receive little localized research. Most of the work happening is at the regional level, under the assumption that mobile pollution affects larger scales. What if we, as standard practice, put air quality monitoring devices every mile in urban areas? What kind of results would we see? The video described that those living within 100m of a highway have the highest exposure to mobile pollutants. Cars and trucks produce particulates–we have known that since the first internal combustion engine. However, the advances in measurement devices have brought the public health community to know that a vehicle produces different sized particles. The larger ones our bodies can filter. But the smaller ones–the ultra-fine particles–pass through our body’s natural filters making their way deep into the lungs causing cancer and sudden heart attacks. In fact, of the mortality rates of 100 surrounding communities, 14 have 75% in excess of lung cancer and heart issues. When you map them out they line up with the highways surrounding Boston. As advocate Steve Miller says in the film, it’s an “unfair distribution of benefits and costs”.
Secondly, I was surprised that we don’t do this in the first place. I am on a working group for planning changes to McGrath Highway, and it is the first transportation planning study to incorporate a Health Impact Assessment. We’ve been making urban highways for a generation and while many go through an Environmental Impact Assessment, there isn’t a lot of research on the human side of things. This video made me think more that infrastructure projects don’t focus enough on that community context. I think this should be part of the mix of every large scale project. The interstate in Somerville carries 150,000 vehicles each day. That’s more than 54 million vehicles traveling past the houses along the highway each year. The video and study showed to me that we have built first and research later in terms of infrastructure impact on communities. I think I’m still just amazed that so many urban highways were built. The fact of the work and views are rapidly changing – because of research like the CAFEH study – gives me good hope. I think is these other voices—coming from the health side and not just the planning side—that fleshes out arguments for change. In order for change to happen we need a choir of voices.