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Rules for ‘Sustainable Development’ Must Be Socially Inclusive

J. EUGENE GRIGSBY III is director of UCLA's Center for Afro-American Studies and an associate professor in the university's Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning

“Sustainable development” is a hot topic among architects, planners and a new breed of business leaders.

Environmentalists were the first to focus on the issue when they claimed planet Earth was in the midst of an ecological crisis that, if ignored, would reduce the quality of life for all.

Proponents of sustainable urban development insist that cities face a similar crisis because of violent crime, traffic congestion and onerous bureaucratic impediments. Even Britain’s Prince Charles, due to visit Southern California in November, has gotten into the act, sponsoring forums for business leaders on corporate citizenship and sustainable development.

Unfortunately overlooked in the debate on sustainable development is the question of how to formulate policies that take into account the quality of life for all segments of our society. Stemming persistent--indeed widening--inequalities between low-income and high-income households should be the force driving discussions about improving the quality of urban life.

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The success of those discussions depends on who defines the parameters. Individuals with the most quality-of-life choices have more opportunities to influence the public policy agenda. Conversely, those who have minimal quality-of-life choices find themselves relegated to the least sustainable communities.

As long as these inequalities continue, there will be tensions and conflict regarding not only what constitutes sustainable communities, but also the types of policies that should be pursued to maximize quality of life.

Through the passage of a wide range of state and federal laws, for instance, environmentalists have succeeded in changing behavior in ways that improve the air we breathe and the water we drink and protect our natural resources, such as wetlands and endangered species. But their absence has been noteworthy when issues of environmental justice have been discussed.

Historic preservationists, advocates of design standards, slow-growth or no-growth proponents and those who favor lower population densities also have succeeded in enacting policies intended, they have said, to improve the quality of life. But like environmentalists, these advocates have been silent on issues of social justice. Indeed, many argue that the results of their policy initiatives--lower density limits, larger lot sizes and gated communities--actually limit the ability of low-income groups, particularly minorities, to enjoy the enhanced quality of life that derives from their efforts.

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Meanwhile, people interested in reducing socioeconomic inequalities--civil rights groups, women’s rights organizations, immigration workers and unionists--have defined social justice as their arena for promoting sustainable communities. Unlike the others, though, their success in recent years has been heavily tied to the health of local, national and increasingly global economies.

For some reason, it is believed that socially just communities can be addressed only when the budget is balanced and national defense or law and order have been adequately financed.

Given these conflicting interests, three challenges must be addressed if sustainable communities are to become a reality:

* First, there is a need to acknowledge that sustainability means different things depending on where you are in the social, political or economic hierarchy.

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It is not reasonable to assume, for example, that a single mother of three children working for minimum wage can, or should, pay much attention to issues such as building designs that will attract birds--a key element in the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency’s Downtown Strategic Plan. This mother, as do countless others like her, wants to know where she can obtain affordable child care and health care. For her a sustainable community is about the necessities--not the amenities--of life.

* Second, when the pursuit of a sustainable community by some may only exacerbate social inequalities, some criteria must be developed to assess the likely impact of policy initiatives on different groups.

For example, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, Miami, Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles all have promoted rail systems as a means of reducing air pollution and road congestion.

But, as the Reason Foundation and others have pointed out, empirical evidence shows that most of the new rail commuters are not former drivers of one-occupant cars, but converted bus riders. Furthermore, rail ridership projections have not been met, so service reductions and fare increases have been required on bus lines to help keep transit operators fiscally solvent. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s recent budget crisis surely has driven this point home.

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Thus, regional transportation systems designed to enhance quality of life have ended up making life worse for a majority of transit patrons--that is, the bus riders, many of whom are elderly, minority, low-income and transit-dependent--while perhaps making life better for a much smaller rail commuter group consisting primarily of white, affluent suburbanites.

* Finally, business leaders and suburban electorates must understand that a sustainable community means a healthy link between the urban and the suburban--not suburban growth and development at the expense of urban dwellers.

Sustainable communities are not likely to be achieved if key stake holders do not elevate social equity to a more central place in the debate. Sorting out conflicting values and negotiating trade-offs can only be accomplished when very diverse constituents are included in both the planning and implementation of policy.


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