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Defining Sustainability: Takeaways from Dr. Julian Agyeman

Posted on June 7, 2014


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Beth Otto is back with the latest on sustainability. This article introduces you to Dr. Julian Agyeman and the topic of “Just Sustainabilities.”

Background Check

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julianagyemanJulian Agyeman Ph.D. FRSA, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, holds a a Ph.D in Environmental Education from the University of London, an M.A. in Conservation Policy from Middlesex University, UK and a B.Sc (joint honours) in Geography and Botany from Durham University, UK. As an ecologist/biogeographer turned environmental social scientist, he has both a science and social science background which helps frame his perspectives, research and scholarship. His publications, which number over 150, include books, peer reviewed articles, book chapters, published conference presentations, reports, book reviews, newspaper articles and Op-Eds and articles in professional magazines and journals.

Just Sustainabilities – Takeaways from Dr. Julian Agyeman

By Beth Otto, June 5, 2014

I recently attended an event that is very relevant to the subject of defining sustainability. Dr. Julian Agyeman presented on the topic of “Just Sustainabilities.”  His lecture enforced the point that the way that we define and approach sustainability in our work is a really big deal. Dr. Agyeman’s definition of sustainability is

the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems.

Intro-just-sus-coverDr. Agyeman’s work is grounded in the idea that as equality improves, so to do environmental conditions. “We treat the environment the way that we treat people” His idea is backed up by a lot of research, most notably by a book called the Spirit Level which shows the correlation between income equality and environmental and social outcomes.

The implications of these findings are profound for planners and policy makers. His work shows that by investing in people that we also improve the environment. So, improving the lives of our most vulnerable community members through affordable housing, health care, access to healthy food, education, and reducing barriers to economic attainment is not only good for our communities and all of our citizens, but it is also good for the environment.

Dr. Agyeman is releasing a book called Incomplete Streets, Processes, Practices, and Possibilities, in which he argues that all community members should have equal rights to the space on our streets (spacial justice) which are, after all, public spaces. His blog post about this book, and the topic of incomplete streets, further details the importance of reallocating street space to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit. He acknowledges the controversy of bike lanes or other public interest investments contributing to gentrification. His conclusion:  “Complete Streets, as places, are socially constructed, fluid and therefore have no fixed meaning; they can be seen as contestations over different narratives and that (white) privileged narratives usually dominate leading to an incomplete narrative and, well, incomplete streets.”

foodtruck_webDr. Agyeman also addresses another interesting topic for local government practitioners, food carts and the resulting equity benefits. Check out his blog, From Loncheras to Lobsta Love: Food trucks, cultural identity and social justice, where he writes:

“Because of the way in which food trucks are challenging the distinction between public and private spaces, as well as being a unique and informal food source, they are garnering the attention of urban planners and policymakers interested in food systems. In particular, much attention has been paid to food trucks in discussions of community economic development and cultural identity formation. The relatively low start up costs of mobile food vending means that it is a business model more accessible to people of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status.”

My takeaway from the event and from Dr. Agyeman’s work:

imagesThe way that we define and talk about sustainability in local government really matters. We have to acknowledge that the solutions to our environmental problems come from focusing on people: improving the quality of life for everyone is the first step to living within the limits of the ecosystem. We achieve this by investing in people.

Supplemental Reading

What is Just Sustainability by Julian Agyeman

Julian Agyeman – Tufts University

Just Sustainabilities

Festival of Faiths to explore our connections with the natural world

Defining Sustainability: The Portland Way

Defining Sustainability: Day In a Life of a Sustainability Coordinator

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