Sustainable Development vs. Sustainability

Next week’s “Rio+20” Conference is an opportunity for world leaders to refocus and commit to bold measures that alleviate poverty, protect the environment, and strengthen the economy. The conference’s chief organizer, the United Nations, hopes to achieve this wealthier, greener world through the process of “sustainable development.” But what exactly does this mean, and how does it differ from the term “sustainability”? In a world where every organization, product, and project tout themselves as sustainable, it’s easy to lose the meaning of the words and their important implications. To understand them, we must look back before 1992’s Earth Summit.

In 1987, a report entitled Our Common Future defined sustainable development for the first time as development that “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report was born out of global dissatisfaction with large-scale development projects such as hydroelectric dams or logging schemes that increased GDP but at the expense of local peoples and natural resources. The poor especially were subject to physical displacement and vulnerable to job loss due to destruction of ecosystems. Sustainable development recognizes the inseparable link between people, the planet, and wealth; it advocates for policies that fully consider these three components to ensure that none negatively impact the others. A program that is enacted “sustainably” means that attention has been given to meeting human and environmental needs.

In the realm of urban sustainability however, the ‘s’ word has a much greener connotation. Urban areas are by definition a displacement of ecological space for human constructions. Expansion of cities almost always means a degradation of soils, lowering of the water table, and dirtying of the air. In post-industrial countries, regulations and infrastructure have sought to curb pollution problems; for example in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, city policymakers are working on innovative ways to control stormwater through green spaces. However, in the developing world, municipal laws and services have usually been overwhelmed by the rapid influx of migrants and population growth over recent years. For example, in Nairobi, Kenya, waste management presents a tricky problem because adequate landfills do not exist to hold the refuse of 3 million people daily.

Though the difference may seem arbitrary, distinguishing between sustainable development and urban sustainability is an important way to assess products and programs. In many cases the close association between the two concepts has caused ‘sustainable development’ to be compartmentalized as solely environmental, although it is intended to facilitate coordination between social, environmental and economic issues. Much of the discussion at Rio+20 will be to ensure that world leaders truly enact sustainable development projects that do not just pay lip service to its ideals. Our exploration of urban sustainability will examine projects that truly reflect sustainable development: programs that have positive social, environmental, and economic outcomes.