The other day, a colleague asked me if I was seeing an increase in “sustainable development” despite the economic downturn.  The question seemed simple enough, yet somehow a simple answer didn’t come.  Instead, I began to contemplate the connections between economy and the notion of sustainability.

The good news is that the concept of sustainable development has moved into the mainstream over the last decade, so much so that it has become a competitive advantage in marketing development projects. LEED has certainly been a major catalyst in introducing and codifying sustainable development. The bad news is that the absorption of the term ‘sustainability’ into the mainstream has also diluted its fundamental premise.

Too often, the term sustainability is used to describe features that minimize resource consumption.  Reducing a building’s energy consumption by 25%, for example, is laudable, but can it justify labeling the building as “sustainable” when that same building is constructed of materials that require massive amounts of embodied energy to extract, process, and transport, or if the building is sited in an area that disrupts landscape processes such as nutrient flows, wildlife corridors, or natural hydrologic processes?

For the most part, sustainable development has meant building energy efficient buildings, reducing greenhouse gases, and minimizing resource consumption–something Bill McDonough describes as, “being less bad instead of being more good.”  What is missing from the sustainable development movement is a lack of consideration of basic ecological tenets; a realization that sustainability is as much about place and context as it is about a specific building, solar panel, or green roof; and that natural, social and human capital are just as important, if not more critical to long-term sustainability as the physical and financial capital that monopolize the sustainability discussion.

The current economic downturn has done three things to sustainable development. First, it has weeded out those who claim to be “sustainable” because they want to take advantage of market conditions, without truly believing in its intrinsic value.   When the market collapses, so does their motivation.

Second, and unfortunately, it has also impacted development projects that were beginning to move beyond the confines of LEED, exploring new paradigms of sustainability from a social and human capital perspective.  Noisette in Charleston, SC is one of the best examples in the country, if not the world, of thorough integration of social and human capital in a sustainable development project.  Regrettably, lack of financial capital (which needs to be completely rethought as well) is jeopardizing the realization of Noisette and many other deserving projects. It is possible that the economic downturn has resulted in diminished capacity and momentum to continue pushing for higher performance.  Ironically, this in itself may demonstrate misplaced priority in capital-intensive technological solutions rather than intensive investment in human, social and natural capital.

While the first two impacts have been negative, the third impact has been resoundingly positive.  I see a resurgence in sustainable development that is grounded in place and community, embraces social and environmental justice, and nurtures health and wellness.  People are recognizing that we need to move beyond being sustainable, to actually being regenerative.  Some of Biohabitats’ recent projects serve as proof.

One can easily argue that ecology is the basic foundation of sustainability. Without basic life support systems (healthy soils, clean air, fresh water, and biodiversity) our social and economic systems will collapse.  This fundamental principal is often forgotten or worse completely ignored in most sustainable thinking that goes on today.  It is very rarely considered in the majority of land development projects in the U.S. and sadly missing from many sustainability planning as well. The classic Venn diagram giving equal weight to nature, culture and economy is disingenuous and misguided.   Simply put, without nature we don’t have culture or an economy.  Recognizing this, we need to bring a perspective to land development projects that focus on healing the landscape, regenerating ecological processes and reconciling social inequalities.  Landscape architect Randy Hester calls this ecological democracy.

The true measure of sustainability is based first and foremost on ecological principles.  If we deplete our resource base, extirpate biodiversity and degrade basic ecological processes, we will not be able to provide our grandchildren and future generations with the same opportunities, wonderment, and richness of life that we enjoy. Land development projects that are approached with an ecologically based, whole systems, life nurturing perspective, that fully engages the community, are in my mind the only projects worthy of  the label “sustainable.”  Only when land development addresses the human, social and financial capital systems that interplay with the natural and physical capital of a community, town or city, will I consider it “sustainable.”   Building an office building that consumes 70% less energy and reduces consumption of non-renewable resources by 50% is not sustainable – it is only slowing down nature’s demise.  Conversely, rebuilding a community that (re)discovers and nurtures its place, regenerates ecological processes, values and encourages human capital, enriches social capital, and supports the local economy, will lead us to a sustainable future.

I have come to realize that practicing sustainability, or regenerative design, requires three things.   It requires you to think in whole-systems and nested scales.  It requires you to constantly think and employ a living systems approach.  And most of all it requires compassion.  As Tim Murphy, a pioneer in whole system site assessment and permaculture from the Regnesis Group likes to say, it requires a ‘Riot of Reciprocity’.


Further Reading

Meet Water Resources Engineer Kayla Brown
New Mexico Must Become a Catcher of Rain
Ripple Effects
Get to know Water Resources Engineer Jake Radeff
Meet Conservation Biologist Nolan Schillerstrom

More From This Author

NY Times: G.O.P. Pushes to Deregulate Environment at State Level
COP10: Intervening on behalf of biodiversity
Looking Back to Move Forward – Celebrating Ecological Restoration
Election 2016: Down, but not out…
Restoration as a Conservation Tool