Themes of the discussion

One of Gary Lawrence's roles at the symposium was to be an observer of the proceedings and then reflect on what he heard. Here are his observations after the all-day session on Friday, May 12.

Engaged citizens: There is really a lot of valuable stuff going on in this meeting. People have not waited for permission. They haven't gotten stuck in definitional battles of what is sustainability and what's not sustainability. They are just out there doing things. And that's incredibly important because the energy for this is going to come from the communities. Sustainability, everywhere it's happening, not only has to be enabled by public institutions but it has to be the cause of the citizens of the region. If it doesn't matter to the people, it just won't happen. And it seems to matter here.

Make better use of natural capital, the build environment, and human potential: There needs to be a more efficient use of the existing resource base in the community and the nurturing of that resource. And by resource base I mean the natural capital, the built environment and the human potential. Natural capital the lake, nature, rivers and streams is an extraordinarily valuable part of creating a more sustainable community. Your built environment is another asset. You have some of the most extraordinarily beautiful buildings in your downtown that exist in any urban place in America. In that respect, you were fortunate to have had an economic lull and no money when everybody else is ripping those things down and putting up glass buildings. So you have got a very important stock of buildings that define this community in a visual way and that can form a basis of ongoing urban redevelopment. You also have a solid infrastructure base that can be utilized much more effectively than it is today. And most important, you have an incredible resource of human potential - the capacity of people in this community to rise up and change things. Today, a lot of human potential is not realized, whether through poor education, lead poisoning, or other problems. By wasting human potential you are wasting the most valuable thing you have in your community. Indeed, the only natural resource that actually grows with its use is human intellectual capacity. Everything else gets changed or depleted.

Making sustainability the organizing principle: Another thing that you have that's really important is experience. You have been through a lot together over the last few decades. You learned how to get things done. The question is whether the idea of sustainability is something that can be an organizing principle as important as cleaning up the river and the other more visible things that are thrust in the middle of your life. The idea of sustainability is a little vague and harder to identify. In a similar way, environmental progress is much more difficult now because the things that matter most, such as persistent toxic chemicals, you can't see or smell.

Business commitment: As a resource in this work, you have incredible business capacity here. The business community is shrewd. They have been struggling to make it. In my experience in working with the business community here, they are invested in the future of this place in a more emotional way than most business communities are. They think of Cleveland as their place, not the place that they are in. That's a very important difference.

Memory: Another important resource to nurture and grow is memory. We saw very powerful presentations this morning about the visual history of Cleveland, and these are important because they ground you in who you were as you are considering what portions you want to carry into the future as you are becoming a new society. On the other hand, it's also important to recognize that change is the status quo. Stasis is unusual. And so as you are thinking about all these issues, you are going to have to adapt them to the change. Holding onto the past too tightly will constrain you in ways that will probably be harmful to your efforts.

Understand the opposition: There seems to be a belief here that the rules that reward unsustainable behaviors need to be changed. That's a hard thing to do. The entire U.S. tax system is full of perverse incentives that make it entirely rational to do unsustainable things. But you have to hold in your mind that everybody involved in these things is behaving rationally from his or her own perspective. It may look irrational to you, but it's rational to them. And if you just sit back and declare them to be irrational without understanding what's motivating their behavior, the ability to create the dialogue necessary to agree on a different path goes away.

The region is key: Another theme I hear is that a regional approach is no longer just an interesting idea, it's a necessity if we are going to be successful in an addressing the issues that confront us today. It's not optional any more.

Coalitions are necessary: The next theme is that change is much less likely if there is not a broad-based coalition of individuals who are willing to combine their passions to a common end. All the changes involved in a plan for regional sustainability are going to require a committed constituency willing to act politically to get what it wants. Most of this is not going to happen because it's the right thing to do. It's going to happen because people have decided things need to change and have organized the coalition that's necessary.

Moral leadership: In all the discussions I've heard during the past few days, I've noticed a feeling that the lack of a clearly defined leader is a barrier to success. And I have to say that I think that's true in part. The movement for sustainability is actually a moral battle about the future of the community who benefits from change, who is a full participant, who has the right to a healthy lifestyle. It's not just a bunch of techniques we apply, it's the creation of a preferred society. And you need moral leadership for such things. Now that doesn't mean you need a single leader. It does mean, however, that the coalition created to move this forward needs to start refining its language and its partnerships to move beyond the technical to the reason that we are all here. Urban places exist not just as places to put interesting buildings or to aggregate infrastructure, They exist in order to increase the possibility that every human has a chance for a better life. So you are going to need to start thinking about these issues in a new way. Most communities and most activists are much more comfortable treating these as though they are political problems as opposed to moral or ethical problems. But if you are unable to ground it in an ethical commitment to the future, I think your energy will wane and you will be much less convincing.

Gary Lawrence can be reached at Sustainable Strategies and Solutions, 1535 NE 90 St., Seattle, WA 98115, (206) 979-9842, e-mail:


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Copyright 2002-2003



Proceedings of Sustainable Communities Symposium 2000
Three days in May 2000
Symposium agenda
The thought and practice of sustainability
Themes of the discussion
Agenda for architecture/urban design
Agenda for business/economics
Agenda for infrastructure
Agenda for political/legal issues
Agenda for health
Forging a regional civic vision
Committed to people and place
Sustainability pledge
Quotes from speakers
Resources for sustainability

Download publication of SCS 2000 proceedings

Back to main sustainability page
Go to SCS 2000 site


Some key concerns of sustainability

  • Limits growth in number of consumers and rates of consumption.
  • Exacerbation of inequality between classes on both moral and security grounds.
    Depletion and/or contamination of certain non-renewable resources.
  • Rates of change that make it impossible for nature to adapt or for us to understand the unintended consequences of the change.
  • Increasing ideological, cultural, and class conflict that makes progress slow or impossible.

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