January 28, 2011

Sustainable, Obtainable, Attainable

Written by:

Our guest blogger today is Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, Director, Philanthropic Research & Initiatives, Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation, Policy Development and Research

As I pondered the early-entry winners in our Sustainable Urban Housing Competition and the many other efforts we come into contact with during our work, I was also remembering some of my experiences in “sustainable” community development before coming to HUD.  But before I get to those thoughts I would be remiss if I did not mention our three early entry winners for the competition and the partners making the competition possible – congratulations to Green Development Zone in the USA, Housing Finance for urban financially excluded families in India,and Franquicia Social para el desarrollo de vivienda sustentable in Mexico!   With three weeks left, this competition is a unique partnership of  HUD’s Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation, APA, the State Department, the Rockefeller Foundation, HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, the Brazilian Government and Ashoka Changemakers  that is open to nominations and entries until February 11, 2010.

I put the quotes on sustainable because, though we used, and still use, that word frequently, I have reshaped my own definition and continue to even now.  One reason I am still refining my definition of sustainable is that it means something different to most people you meet, especially those in the community development arena at the real grassroots level.  This is where I have spent much of the last 10+ years and I keep those lessons in mind even now as we seek to define sustainability and infuse it into most everything we do.  For the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities the definition is based on six Livability Principles:  1. Provide more transportation choices;  2. Promote equitable, affordable housing;  3. Enhance economic competitiveness;  4. Support existing communities;  5. Coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment;  6. Value communities and neighborhoods.  For community-wide efforts involving the three federal agencies and all their local partners, grantees and municipalities, these six principles go a long way in helping define sustainability as a whole.

Which brings me to my final ruminations on the subject as I contemplated this blog post.  In many of the sites I previously worked, when we talked about the double (profit and people or financial and social) and triple (profit, people and planet or financial, social and environmental) bottom lines of community development I would often get crossed arms or raised hands as soon as I brought those terms up as ways of thinking of sustainability for organizations and communities.  The crossed arms were usually a signal that “… a single bottom line is hard enough right now for my community and this new organization, why are you bringing in these other factors?…” and often the raised hand was connected to a question like – “… shouldn’t everything be sustainable?…” or  “… why do you need to say social and environmental when true operational planning and sustainability should encompass those pieces already?…”  And the discussion and questions would continue as we worked through each location’s specific challenges and solutions, each with an imprecise definition and a unique set of outcomes.

These experiences and many more, including very recent ones, remind me that when we strive to define such terms and the products, systems and tools that go with them, the major lesson is that we have to make them both obtainable and attainable.  We must look for models and best practices that are replicable, transferable and applicable that can be affordably procured and adapted.  In other words, not just accessible but achievable, not just livable but inclusive, to reach that sustainable position.  For the Sustainable Urban Housing Competition we worked very hard as an entire team to create criteria and parameters for “… innovative solutions that engage communities, entrepreneurs, and key institutions in collaborating to integrate and develop affordable, inclusive, and sustainable urban housing that respects the environment, local cultures, and practices.”  We were concerned with operational and environmental sustainability for the innovations, as well as their inclusiveness, not just in how people were to live, but how the housing and communities were designed – obtainable and attainable for individuals, families and community members.  The nominations and entries continue to flow in and with each one we may be pushing our definition of sustainability further.  Perhaps some of you are sitting there with arms crossed or trying to raise your hand to ask one of those questions… we all look forward to the continuing discussions.

One Response to Sustainable, Obtainable, Attainable

  1. Nice article. I’m always interested in creative ideas for more sustainable building practices. One project that I’ve been following is full of really low cost, low impact ideas. You can check it out here. — Weiss Lake Southern Living Showcase Home

    Sally

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