Green Wash: The Church of Sustainability

Green WashXSmall.jpg

The term green-wash is used to describe something that has been promoted as 'green', but is not. Has the term 'sustainability' worn out its welcome as well?

I am a long time adviser to the board of Sustainable Land Development International. Like many other organizations, they market themselves as producing sustainable land developments through new technologies and methods in design. We often use the term “sustainable” in relation to a concept called the "Triple Bottom Line”: People, Planet, and Profit, endorsed by the United Nations in 2007 for urban and community accounting.

On March 11th, I will have the honor to be the keynote speaker at the California League of Cities conference in Anaheim. When I speak, it is typically on the topic of sustainable solutions. This time, I was astonished to learn that the term sustainability had become green-wash and that I should avoid using it!

Individual perspectives (or goals or agendas) can easily color the meaning of sustainability. For example, an environmental engineer might want to promote elements of land development that makes his or her career more important and personally satisfying. All of us have personal agendas that make our brief existence on this planet more meaningful, sometimes at the expense of others or even the very thing we are trying to promote. Often we unwittingly become our own worst enemy.

At one time our firm began a relationship with one of the largest environmental engineering firms. When we spoke to their engineers about reducing pollutants from rain run-off caused by development it became clear that their only agenda was to eliminate, not to reduce, pollutants. Eliminating pollutants on a land development certainly is possible, but would not be in any way financially feasible. This firm had built a reputation and won over some very large non-profit organizations that fueled their success. Surely the engineers had their self-esteem (egos) inflated. If the developments they designed had to be financially viable without huge non-profit subsidies, they surely would have failed — spectacularly. They were artificially sustainable. Our goal was to use their expertise to create methods that would not add a penny to land development costs compared to conventional construction. We believed pollutants could have been reduced somewhere between 10% and 30%, which would have a significant international impact. As we began to work together it became quite apparent that our agendas were much different, and the relationship withered. Their all-or- nothing approach was not a balanced one, nor was it sustainable.

Nearly two decades ago when I developed “Coving” as a method to design projects, my own ego got in the way of progress. At the time, the New Urban momentum had begun to grow. I aggressively compared the advantages of Coving to the grid form of traditional development as well as to conventional subdivision design. Reducing streets — "Coving" — by 20% to 50% without reducing density in comparison to a traditional grid certainly had benefits, but the attempt to push an agenda by reducing the importance of others agendas does not win friends, and New Urbanism had already won many converts.

Coving by itself is only a streetscape design method, nothing else. The efficiency of coving opened up new opportunities to create more functional and financially viable development. . Both coving and the traditional grid pattern rely solely on the performance of the developer and builders to construct to a high level of architectural and landscape standards. The New Urbanism expanded upon the traditional grid to include a strict standard that included many details. Coving remained only a streetscape design method, void of these details. In the hands of a substandard developer with builders who cut corners, both Coving and New Urbanism have resulted in some embarrassingly awful land developments, tarnishing both movements reputations. Coving, particularly because of its financial advantages, seemed to attract some of the worst culprits. Unfortunately, in land development the time from concept plan to enough of a built environment to see the “finished” product can be between two and five years. We had become our own worst enemy by focusing too much on the financial benefits of a design method and not enough on other aspects.

There were still some spectacular developments that resulted, but there was no mechanism in place to assure great neighborhoods. By the end of the 1990’s it was clear that “our agenda” needed to be modified. In an attempt to achieve a more sustainable world, we had concentrated on a singular goal, not a balanced approach. This meant we needed to step back and look at all the elements of land development to create a balanced approach where no one agenda held the others hostage. Ultimately this led to the creation of a comprehensive approach to land development we coined as Prefurbia.

Land planning today has become like a religion that requires unwavering devotion. But those who embrace only one approach as the ultimate utopian mega-metropolis design to solve all social ills are fools: There is no singular solution for land development. Not the New Urbanism, not Smart Growth, not Prefurbia. Good planning is not about pointing fingers. It is easy to blame the automobile, blame developers, and blame government. But it is up to those people responsible for growth — stakeholders such as the developer, builders, city staff and council — to determine the best possible path that will result in a legacy for future generations instead of a blighted project that served to fill the bank account of the developer.

It is also up to the stakeholders to investigate and learn the various options available for growth. If a city planning commission or council member does not have the time to learn the different land development options available today, well, they should step down and be replaced by someone who cares.

All of this brings us back to the term 'sustainability'. The dictionary defines it as 'Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment'. Here is the problem: The dictionary does not include the long term affect on economics (affordability) and living standards. Did we create something great for the ducks, but an eventual blighted neighborhood, or a gentrified one exclusively for the wealthy?

My view of how to be sustainable is simple: Do our best to create places that will still be wonderful, livable, affordable, and environmentally responsible for future generations. If we do, we will have created places that will be sustainable, no matter what planning religion we worship.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are and

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

"Sustainable" does not exist

A sort of known secret of the environmental movement is that there's no such thing as "sustainability." No one makes this very public, because I think environmentalists are scared of talking about concepts they think might be complicated.

Anyway, the whole notion of "sustainability" is almost always advocated within the context of a constantly changing environment. It encourages intelligent and responsible adaptations to that environment so that we may survive - perhaps sustain - but doesn't actually seem to suggest any lifestyle, culture, or economy can be sustained "indefinitely."

This sort of built-in contradiction is maybe why we see a lot of people in environmental circles - especially at conferences like TED, Bioneers, and the APA - moving the goalposts away from the term "sustainability" and toward an idea called "resilience." Resilience is an attempt to acknowledge the inevitable reality of change while suggesting less that a culture should try to become "sustainable" in the face of it and more that it should try to become "resilient" to it.

It's possible "resilience" may be the "sustainability" of the next generation; much as "sustainability" was the "ecological" of the last generation. It's all sort of about moving goalposts, maybe.

Sustainable Land Development is an Intentional Paradox...

Another great article, Rick!

You have raised an important issue regarding the true definition of the term "sustainability", as it relates to sustainable development. As you say, the term has often been used narrowly by various factions to justify their agendas which are viewed through the lens of their specific perspectives.

The evolution of this issue has been documented in the SLDT article entitled "Origin of Sustainability Movement Leads to Current Challenges" (, which states - “Overall, the effort to define and achieve sustainability [in local government] has involved a significant amount of consciousness-raising about the trade-offs involved in community decision-making. At its best, it is a process for ensuring that otherwise overlooked perspectives and constituencies are not excluded from decisions. But it remains an ill-defined process in which operational results remain elusive." The national and international sustainability effort has been marked with an inability to create policies that are meaningful to all parties involved. The issue, once again, is that differing ideological approaches towards sustainable development give opposing views on how to achieve it.

I believe your reluctance to accept the often-quoted and single-purpose dictionary definition of "sustainability" is appropriate. A more holistic and robust definition for "sustainability" can be found at Wikipedia, which states that an evolving and more holistic interpretation "requires the reconciliation of environmental, social and economic demands - the 'three pillars' of sustainability."

In response to our industry’s need for more sustainable thinking, SLDI is now entering the pilot phase for its unique Sustainable Land Development Best Practices System. Unlike other standards and certification programs, the SLDI Best Practices System helps to structure a triple-bottom-line (people, planet and profit) decision model that helps development projects achieve greater success in each area.

The SLDI Code™

The World’s 1st Sustainable Land Development Best Practices System is symbolized as a geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom-line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions.

Your participation and comments are welcome.

Sustainable Land Development International (SLDI)