Monday, April 23, 2018

Sustainability: tough to teach, tougher to do

Sustainability: think globally, act locally

'Introduction to Sustainability' is probably the most challenging course I’ve ever taught. Most universities offer a course that’s a variation on the theme; in Laurier’s case, it’s a 2nd-year course that is required for environmental studies students, but is also taken as an elective by students from many other programs, especially business and science. I taught it for the first time this past semester and, having got my students’ grades finalized last Friday, thought I would reflect on it a bit today.

The basic conceptual aspects of sustainability can be covered in about five minutes of classroom time, ten if you want to stretch it out. The overarching premise of sustainability is that it means ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met today while ensuring that peoples’ future needs will also be met. To practice sustainability, we need to take economic, social and environmental considerations into account when we’re making plans and decisions, and act accordingly. Do the above and you’re on the road to sustainability. Trash the environment, allow the gulf between rich and poor to widen, or simply be indifferent to the future consequences of current actions and you’re on the wrong track. Which is pretty much the way things are right now in most places.

There’s obviously many additional dimensions we can add to a discussion of sustainability.  We can fancy up the language by saying sustainability requires both intra-generational and inter-generational equity. We can trace the origins of sustainability back to Gifford Pinchot’s ‘wise use’ principles of resource conservation in the early 1900s, through to the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, that generated the working definitions of sustainability and sustainable development we use today. We can also dig into the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs – to which global action on environment, development, food policy, and security are increasingly linked. But we don’t need to; sustainability in its essence is easy to understand in conceptual terms.

The real challenge is how to operationalize sustainability. We can see fairly easily that most things we do– from our own personal consumption choices to agricultural practices to broader societal behaviour – are not sustainable. So how do we get from what we are currently doing to what we know we ought to be doing? The task is so enormous, where do we even begin? As the person sitting next to me (at the coffee shop where I am currently composing this blog posting) said to her daughter, who is struggling to complete her master’s thesis, “How do you eat an elephant? You do it one bite at a time”.

I hadn’t heard that metaphor before, and I dislike the mental image it conjures of a dead elephant dinner, but it captures how I approached the topic of sustainability with my class this past semester. Rather than trying to imagine how to change the world, we focused on helping foster sustainability in one small corner of it. The town of Ayr, Ontario, specifically.

Ayr is a small town in southwestern Waterloo County, with a current population of about 4,200 people. It was born as a mill town over 150 years ago at the confluence of Cedar Creek and the Nith River. The first important buildings were sawmills and a flour mill. A large stone factory was later built by a man named Watson, in which a variety of agricultural implements were made over the following century, from hitching posts to plowshares. The milling and manufacturing activities are long gone now, the factory today contains a variety of small retail shops, professional services and a tattoo parlour. One of the original saw mills stands decrepit along the main street, ready to swallow up or tumble in on an unwise trespasser.

It sounds like a picture of terminal decline, but actually, Ayr is growing quickly, its population projected to increase 150% over the next dozen years. Why? Subdivision home s are springing up alomg the outskirts of town, the developers capitalizing on Ayr’s proximity to the booming economies of nearby cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo, and the town’s quick access to highway 401, along which people can commute to metropolitan Toronto. Such rapid growth will create a wide range of economic, environmental and social challenges for the town, which has limited capacity to plan for and manage such rapid growth.

One key challenge will be doubling of automobile traffic. Many occupants of these new subdivision developments will snake through the downtown core twice a day as they make their way to and from work. I use the term ‘snake’ deliberately. The layout of the historic town centre was determined by the mills and waterways, and so cross-town traffic must pass through a squared-off S-bend, further complicated by angled street parking and a war memorial at the centre of town. An inexperienced tractor-trailer driver can create instant gridlock with one poorly executed turn. The simple act of crossing the street requires keeping your head on a swivel; it will get worse for pedestrians. The regional government will be redeveloping the main streets of the core starting this summer; I’ve seen the plans and they are quite unimaginative, focused mainly on getting cars through the core efficiently, with minimal thought given to the quality of the streetscape or the pedestrian experience. 

The meandering Nith River is very attractive, and many communities would love to have such a beautiful environmental asset around which to create a civic identity. However, the Nith can flood at any time of the year, as it did this past February when an ice jam formed. As a result, the town architecturally turns its back to the Nith, and instead surrounds the Cedar Creek millpond, around which there are attractive walks and a small park.. The built environment of the old town centre is also very attractive, with plenty of old stone buildings and century-old facades. Unfortunately, key businesses like the grocery and hardware stores have relocated to larger, modern buildings out by the highway, reducing the amount of shoppers coming into the centre. These businesses have been replaced by services like dental clinics and law offices that generate only sporadic visits to the centre.
Flooding in Ayr, February 2018

I assigned my 85 students a straightforward task: come up with one good idea to help foster sustainability in Ayr. They were organized into a dozen consulting teams, briefed by the town’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), and bussed to Ayr on a frosty January evening to tour the downtown core. An online survey of local residents’ views on sustainability was conducted, and local residents, councilors and business operators came to class to explain future challenges and opportunities as they see them. At the end of the semester, the students presented their project ideas to the CAO. They were excellent. A couple groups focused on enhancing the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in the core, another came up with a plan for walking trails along the Nith. One group looked at the need for seniors housing, another came up with a very viable sounding plan for a brewpub. Still others proposed farmers markets, solar demonstration projects, and outdoor centres for paddling. While none of these are likely to be enacted exactly as described, they create a resource bank of good ideas Ayr residents and local government can draw upon going forward.

My students learned that coming up with a sustainability plan for even a small town like Ayr is a lot of work if you want to do it right. Sustainability is easy to talk about, but hard to implement (let alone monitor and assess, steps we never actually got to practice beyond the classroom). But that’s ok. If it were as easy to do as to say, we wouldn’t need to be teaching it in universities, would we? We didn’t save the world but, if the elephant that needs to be eaten is the wider societal inability (or unwillingness) to build durable, livable and prosperous communities, we took a nibble.