The thought and practice
of sustainability

SCS 2000 was fortunate to have Gary Lawrence, the former planning director of the City of Seattle, as a main speaker and advisor. Lawrence is currently president of Sustainable Strategies and Solutions, a consulting firm that helps governments and organizations around the world think strategically about adopting more sustainable practices. Current clients include the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Paris), World Business Council on Sustainable Development (Geneva), European Academy for the Urban Environment (Berlin), the U.S. Government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, American Chamber of Commerce Executives, Global Environment and Technology Foundation and Discovery Institute. The following are excerpts from Lawrence's talks at the symposium.

Today's objectives are four-fold. One is to get a better understanding collectively of the challenges facing the region. Northeast Ohio, like every metropolitan area in the world, is facing circumstances that, if we had a choice, we probably would not choose to face. Our past is catching up to us in many ways. So it's important to really grasp the nature of the issues that confront us.

The second objective is to understand better the tremendous amount of activity that is already underway to move the region to a more sustainable future. The commissioner [Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jane Campbell, the previous speaker] already mentioned that local governments and the non-governmental sector are already doing extraordinary things. The neighborhood associations, the environmental groups, the business associations, are all making progress. And it's important to understand that and to think about it contextually how these activities fit together and how they might leverage one other.

The third objective will be to react to the draft plans of the Working Groups that have led up to this symposium. I'm really excited that you have a bunch of people in this community who have created a tremendous gift for Northeast Ohio the body of thought that went into the Working Groups.

And the last objective is to discuss the potential benefits of a broader-based coalition that will work towards sustainability and promote change more rapidly.

Planning is political

You need to know and here I'll expose my biases that I believe planning is the most political thing a society does. The issues that we take on in planning are issues of allocation of opportunity, allocations of wealth, the deciding of who has mobility and who doesn't have mobility, who has the benefits of infrastructure investments all of which are important political questions.

Sustainability, then, is a political choice. Every day we learn more about techniques that will improve our communities, but, in my experience, knowing the right thing to do and choosing to do the right thing are entirely different. In many cases we know what to do, but we choose not to do it. Given the circumstances, the choice not to do can seem rational in the short term, but in the long term it's often irrational.

Basic conflicts

One of the critical issues in the discussion about sustainability is the debate between optimism and pessimism. I don't think you can become a more sustainable society by being pessimistic and focusing on things to avoid. You have to be striving for something. It's human nature - aspiration is a much greater motivator of change than guilt or fear. If you are not striving, you are probably not making progress.

Faith versus doubt is another important issue. And I'm not talking about this in a religious sense but in the way the physicist Richard Fineman talks about having the capacity to doubt what you know so you are willing to learn new things. Many people are so certain of the information they hold that it constitutes an act of faith. But the phrase, "I don't know, what do you think?" may be the most powerful phrase in sustainability, because it's only through that phrase that we learn and change.

An openness to doubt often runs up against the tyranny of experts. This is a Michael Tracy idea that the people most invested in the status quo are experts, because once things change they are no longer experts. You see all sorts of public institutions and community leaders clinging to the past. They are experts about what used to be, and they fight to preserve that old reality when things have changed dramatically.

Then there's the issue of equity versus equality. It's a big issue, both internationally and nationally, because the idea of sustainability includes both equality the fair opportunity to compete and participate and questions about the distribution of wealth and resources.

Another key issue is market freedom versus market constraints. This relates to the question of how we capture costs. People will say that the market is the best way to distribute scarce goods and services. And that's probably true, given the circumstances that we face today. The difficulty is that the price of a product often doesn't capture its true costs. Take the example of gasoline. We have been whining about the rise of gas prices at the pump. Well, the Defense Department says that about 30% of its $350 billion annual budget is dedicated to maintaining security and supply lines for foreign supplies of oil. That doesn't show up at the gas pump; it shows up in your income taxes. It's a hidden cost that is difficult to make part of our choices. So getting the price right is very important.

Sustainability as a context
for decisions

I think that there are a variety of ways to view the idea of sustainability. One way is to think about it as a context for decision-making. Sustainability suggests that we need to start asking better questions and thinking more broadly before we start deciding what to do.

An illustration of this is the game of Whack-A-Mole. A person is given a mallet and is supposed to whack down the head of a mole that is sticking up through a hole. When you whack down one mole, another pops up somewhere else on the board. The object of the game is to see how many moles you can whack down in a certain amount of time.

Well, that's how we take on public policy issues in this country. We have one agency that whacks down its mole, and then when another mole pops up it walks away from the game saying, "It's not my responsibility. That's a finance issue. That's a public works issue. Whatever."

One of the ways to think about sustainability is having more people at the table and whacking down more moles at the same time. The game of Whack-A-Mole is a very good device to cause you to ask whether it's possible to redefine your problems so that you are dealing with more moles.

Ends and means

It's also important to understand the difference between ends and means. In sustainable development, for instance, economic development is never legitimately an end in itself. Economic development exists in order to improve the lives of people in society. Economic growth is great if it adds value, such as the jobs that people need. But growth that depletes value from society is questionable.


Another thing that's really important is getting the scale right. In our society we have institutional boxes - counties, cities, metropolitan planning organizations, and so on. And whatever the problem is, we try to stuff it into the existing institutional boxes. It sometimes works, but seldom works very well.

The issue for sustainable development is getting the scale right, so that the response actually matches up to the size of the problem. Regional transportation, for instance, can only intuitively and rationally be understood at the regional level. The sequential planning of transportation infrastructure within one community doesn't lead to a system that works. So getting clear about what it is you are trying to accomplish and getting the scale right are big problems.


If we are to govern ourselves with sustainability in mind, we need to understand Einstein's definition of insanity, which is, "Doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result."

For example, we know what doesn't work in terms of metropolitan development, but we continue to do those things because those are the things we know how to do. Now for sustainability to work, we actually have to open up ourselves to the recognition that some of the stuff that we are doing probably isn't in anybody's interest. This raises a critical issue for the relationship between communities and their institutions. In almost all public institutions it's much safer to continue to do things that we know don't work than it is to try something new.

The price of mistakes in the public institutions is really high, particularly when mistakes are reported in the media. I once was asked by a reporter, "What's the difference between the private sector and the public sector?" I said, "In the private sector when I make mistakes, they affect my profit and I bury them I learn something and move on. When I was in the public sector as planning director, however, when I made a mistake my wife and my friends got to read in the newspaper that I was an idiot."

Everybody makes mistakes, and you are going to have to cut people some slack because we don't really know exactly how to make ourselves more sustainable. We are going to have to try a bunch of stuff, much of which won't work. So a higher tolerance for mistakes, I think, is an important part of this.

Commitment to a place

People struggle with definitions of what sustainability is. In my work with the National Association of Counties, I developed not a definition but a way to think about the problem. And that is, a sustainable community is one where the majority of the residents, rich or poor, actually thinks their future and their progress is linked to the future of that place. It's a place where, if they have a real choice to stay or go, they will choose to stay and fight for the future of that place because their identity and the identity of that place are linked. A critical element: Without ownership of the place, the ability to stay and fight for a more sustainable future goes away.

Backing into the future

So what's this whole thing about? Like most places, Northeast Ohio is mostly backing into the future. It's heading towards the future backwards because people are focused on avoiding mistakes instead of affirmatively moving forward.

The future is random and chaotic, although it's constrained by the choices that were made in the past. Things keep changing, and you keep sort of reacting and drifting towards a future that you may not want. So the future you are likely to get may be very different than the future you prefer.

Of course, one of the hardest questions any society faces is figuring out what future it prefers. What constitutes a better place than the place that you are likely to get if you do nothing?

So you are constantly intervening and applying all sorts of efforts - well intended and sometimes thoughtful. You are making transport solutions, environmental health measures, and economic development and human service programs. You are applying pressure on all sides of the equation. And you end up canceling each other out in many instances or not leveraging existing assets.

What sustainability is about, in part, is trying to align all those things you are currently doing so you nudge the society away from the future you are likely to get and toward the future you want. That's what this whole effort is about. Can Northeast Ohio imagine itself as better than it is today? What constitutes better? And is being better enough reason to align your forces working more comprehensively to nudge society into a better future?

Sustaining joy

One last thing, in my work on sustainable development with communities all over the world there is one point of tremendous confusion: people think that being serious and being solemn is the same ideal.

These are really serious issues we are facing, but we don't have to be so damned solemn. There is only a small subset of human society that is looking for additional ways to suffer. But most of the meetings and discussions about sustainable development that I have been involved in would qualify as suffering. It's typically a bunch of morose people saying, "woe is me," and blaming everybody who is not in the room.

The people you need to have at this discussion are the people who have choices about whether to come back to the meeting or not. And if it's not at least a little joyful and interesting and fun, those people won't come back. So embark on this discussion with great seriousness, but try to have some fun.

One of the end goals of human life ought to be joy. If we can't sustain some joy in our society, then sustaining our society probably isn't all that good of a thing to do.


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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


A sustainable community is one where the majority of the residents, rich or poor,
actually think their future
and their progress
are linked to the future of that place.
Gary Lawrence




What is a sustainable community?

  • Communities in which the majority of residents, rich and poor, link their future to that of the community as a whole.
  • Places where people, if they have a real choice, choose to stay rather than leave.
  • Places where people will fight for the community's future rather than flee.


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