What does sustainability mean to you?

In my former role as planning commissioner in the city in which I live, I took part in an exhausting, protracted discussion about the definition of “sustainable” (as applied to local economy, in the context of developing local economic development policies as part of a comprehensive plan). This was a bit ahead of the curve, before “sustainability” became a common buzz word and an attempted performance measure. Honestly, by the time we were finished I just wanted to beat my head on the table.

I just saw this great article about this and other words we use in the planning process, and their effect on the audience’s support (or lack thereof) for policy measures:


I’d like to invite some comment on this. Even if we avoid “plannerspeak” acronyms, are we using the right words?

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Profile Photo Stacy L. Carpenter

Good afternoon,

As a consultant and educator in the same forum in which you served, your plight is quite familiar. Citizens routinely ask me about (and mis-use) definitions including “Green”, “Clean”, “Sustainable”, “Environmentally Friendly”, “Natural” and the like. The understanding of the definitions is different for every person…and the understanding largely driven by the media choice consumed by that person. Often the terminology is used as a stance for positioning either to be liked or gain access/influence (be it a board, grant or otherwise).

When such terminology is used on a regular basis and ill defined, it does tune people out and reduces buy in. I think the term is Green-fatigue or Greenwashing. Citizens often see it as expensive, not easy to understand in terms of clear, direct benefits and lose confidence when they watch authorities struggle to define the words that will drive the future of the municipality. They worry that the fixation is a fad or just trying to be like everyone else using those terms because they are the “correct/popular” terms to use at this point in time.

Most people I have met enjoy a casual conversation and are more supportive when the terms are explained in the colloquial.. even if the words used in planning documents are not the colloquial.