The term sustainability has slipped into the political and professional lexicons with decreasing attention paid to what it means or represents. The general principle of doing no harm has been interpreted and qualified in many different ways, to serve agendas that are sometimes very different, and even conflicting.
It remains a useful portmanteau term, however, embracing the aspirations of those who aim to secure the long-term future of our environment, society,culture and economy. Our success in achieving this will only be confirmed in the long term, although by some of the indicators we use, progress is patchy.
In this context of differing interpretations and varying prognoses, evidence of progress and good practice is increasingly valuable. The Academy’s aim to learn from places, and to understand better the means by which our urban settlements can provide a higher quality of life, makes an important contribution to the continuing debate among all those interested.
As someone (I’m sorry, I can’t remember who) pointed out at our Annual Congress in Bristol in May 2014, we should not forget, in our celebrations of great places and the quality of life they provide for their citizens, that this quality of life has to be sustained by the population, economy and environment of its hinterland. The reciprocal relationship between consumers and suppliers has to be ‘sustainable’.
The economies of scale and the cultural wealth of urban concentrations are scalable up to a point, but we should explore more diligently where this point is, and how to recognise it when we get there. The Academy celebrates the successful urban places of the UK, Ireland and Europe, but we are all aware of the chaotic and unhealthy conditions and ‘unsustainable’ growth of many if not most of the world’s largest cities. That such places continue to be a magnet for the poorest members of society demonstrates that there is little acknowledgement of the dynamics of that reciprocal relationship.
The places from which the Academy has drawn inspiration and evidence of successful urbanism demonstrate the benefits for humans as social animals in sharing space, resources and association. The social and cultural examples of this are legion. We have to accept also that such concentrations can stimulate inequality, hostility and disease. Events around the world constantly remind us that these usually occur despite our steps to anticipate and plan for future problems, and sometimes without warning.
The Academy will continue to search for examples of sustainable urbanism. We will celebrate the ways in which people use the unique circumstances of their locality to enhance the quality of life for all. We will continue to identify the common characteristics of successful places and offer these as the potential building blocks of a better quality of life for places that seek to emulate them.
We might perhaps spend more time in future, as the range of the Academy grows, to identify those counter-productive characteristics of some urban places that could help us all sharpen our focus on what sustainability really means.
Steven Bee AoU