The Green Column #40

So, You Are Anti-Sustainability?

December 27, 2010—And, if you are, how do you feel about Quality of Life?

Like so many other good terms originally used to describe good ideas—usually new ideas—in American culture, sustainability has been politicized by media and special-interest commentators. There is no other English-speaking culture as adept at twisting perfectly good language and useful words into new meanings, or perceptions that were not originally attached to them.

Words and explicit definitions matter. Especially in a community, as Lincoln is, that is trying to envision a practical and achievable future 30 years ahead. The discourse about Lincoln’s next Comprehensive Plan is bringing out the best and the worst of communications that are attempting to influence the vision and the strategies for the form and the functioning of the community between now and the year 2040. The words, the definitions, and the uses of the language need careful consideration as the planning process plays out over the next year, while seeking open dialogue among professionals, advisors, public citizens, interest representatives, and political leaders and activists.

Thus far, the process of community and advisory communications has only given a cursory look at sustainability. One place, the City of Minneapolis has been held up as a sustainable community. No real definitions or methods of measuring sustainability have been discussed in the context of Lincoln’s Comprehensive Plan. No detailed considerations have been discussed about the operational differences between a Comprehensive Plan for Sustainability and a Comprehensive Plan, as we have arranged them in the past.

And yet, the so-called compact growth scenario (the planning staff’s designated option) has been demonized as “anti-growth,” “anti-market,” “anti-development,” and the sustainability advocates as “pinko-communist sympathizers.” The spin-doctoring of the Comprehensive Plan process is counterproductive. Drawn lines in the sand will only result in noise, not progress, for action-based, visionary community planning.

So, let’s consider the alternative strategy for good communication; namely, let’s search for existing language that has the cachet of positive images and perceptions through related use by others, and attach local values to the language as we use the words in our discussions. For instance, how many special interests could be against an overall goal of a high quality of life for all Lincoln residents? What is the meaning of quality of life? How would we know if we are moving toward or away from the essential characteristics of a community that promotes and supports a high quality of life for all residents? What are, or might be the essential characteristics of a high quality community?

One source of reference might be International Living magazine’s annual Quality of Life Index, used to rate countries for the most desirable global living conditions. (2010 Quality of Life Index: 194 Countries Ranked and Rated to Reveal the Best Places to Live) Although this particular index has been arranged with national data sets as comparative measures, one can imagine the identification of local information and data sets that could be repeated on an annual basis for measuring the quality of life at the community scale, as compared to national assessments.

The Quality of Life Index measures (with community characteristics substituted for national):

Cost of Living (15% of the overall index). This is a guide to how much it will cost you to live in a style comparable to—or better than—communities of similar size and circumstance in the U.S. The costs of housing, energy, health care, education, food, transportation, etc. would be compared, as well as the communities? tax rates.

Culture and Leisure (10%). To calculate this score, data on literacy rate, newspaper circulation per 1,000 people, primary and secondary school enrollment ratios, number of people per museum or arts facilities, and a subjective rating of the variety of cultural and recreational offerings existing or planned in the community.

Economy (15%). Interest rates, annual gross domestic product (GDP), growth rate, rate per capita, the inflation rate, and employment rates would comprise this score.

Environment (10%). To figure a community’s score in this category, we would look at population density per square mile, population growth rate, greenhouse emissions per capita, the percentage of total land that is protected or green, and recycling/landfill data.

Freedom (10%). Equity, justice and a citizen’s political rights and civil liberties.

Health (10%). Calorie consumption as a percentage of daily requirements, the number of people per doctor, number of hospital beds per 1,000 people, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, and public health expenditure as a percentage of a community’s GDP.

Infrastructure (10%). Availability of public transit, paved highways/streets, bicycle lanes and trails, and equate these things to the community’s population and size. Also, access to air service, motor vehicles, telephones, internet service providers, cell phones per capita and energy supply and costs.

Safety and Risk (10%). Collection of data on crime, fire protection, or dangerous living conditions would be collected for this category.

Climate (10%). Data sets would be established to track climate change, implications for energy consumption and any risks for natural disasters.

Our collective concern should be, regardless of the language, what do we identify as, and how do we measure, the key qualities of community that are most desirable? To have a Comprehensive Plan that will guide public policy over the next 30 years means we must anticipate and respond to the new imperatives in our future. We must plan, measure, assess, reconsider, and act—together.

© Lincoln Green by Design