New Feature: Defining Sustainability with Beth Otto

Posted on August 1, 2013

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Raise your hand if you are against sustainability? That’s what we thought, it is hard to be against sustainability but how many of us actually know what sustainability means. Fear not, ELGL has enlisted Beth Otto who was worked on sustainability projects in Lake Oswego, Kelso, Maine Energy Education Program, and Maine Conservation Corp.  As part of her graduate studies, Beth was part of a team that produced a public outreach plan and coordinated marketing strategy for South Kelso. Related link:  PSU MURP Students Revitalizing South Kelso

ELGL will now exit stage right and turn it over to Beth as she begins her series on sustainability.


Beth profile pic

Current Position: Portland State University, Masters of Urban and Regional Planning Student and Membership Coordinator, American Planning Association, Sustainable Communities Division

Previous  Work: Public Outreach Manager, The South Kelso Revitalization Plan; Data Analyst, Center for Innovative School Facilities; Sustainability Intern, City of Lake Oswego; Green Schools Coordinator, Maine Energy Education Program and Maine DEP; Environmental Educator, Maine Conservation Corps – AmeriCorps

Education: University of Oregon, Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Environmental Science and Portland State University, Master of Urban and Regional Planning

Connect: LinkedIn and Email[email protected]

Beth’s Bio courtesy of PSU MURP

Beth came to the MURP program in 2011 out of concerns about the fossil fuel dependency of our society. She is focusing her MURP experience around energy and sustainability issues and is optimistic about the possibilities of post-carbon cities.  Her internship with the Sustainability Coordinator at the City of Lake Oswego is a great opportunity to ‘try out’ an ideal job description and undertake interesting projects, such as starting an active transportation challenge and working on green building policy. The MURP program has given her hands-on experience with planning and energy issues. Beth graduated from the University of Oregon in 2006 and then worked as an Energy Educator in Maine where she was inspired by the power and importance of environmental education.

Defining Sustainability


If you work in local government, chances are you have come across the word, and concept, of sustainability. Probably a lot. Sustainability has become a buzz word in many circles. The good news is that it is on everyone’s mind and is generally accepted as something of importance. The bad news is that it is getting watered down with overuse and it is becoming hard to keep track of the real meaning and why it is so important for all of us. This blog feature is designed to take on that concern, and define the importance and meaning of sustainability for local government, across a range of topics.

What is sustainability and why does it matter for local government?
Sustainability has been defined well by several organizations, such as ICLEI and The Natural Step. But it is still a bit confusing. For instance, comments like “we are not talking about sustainability from the green sense” and “we were using the term sustainability long before it became about the environment” point to some of the confusion in this area. What these comments are referring to is that the word sustainability has come to vaguely mean “something about living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.” Sustainability is sometimes used to define a business model or solution that will sustain itself long into the future because it takes a long term perspective. Well, conveniently, that is exactly what the ‘green’ kind of sustainability means too. It means setting up society and human systems in a way that they can continue to function long into the future.

We are far from reaching true sustainability at present. The burning of fossil fuels releases the carbon that has accumulated underground, from millions of years of organic material, in a matter of seconds. The atmosphere is reaching dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide and resources are being depleted much faster than they are regenerated. Global warming isn’t the only concern, but it is one of the most serious. Check out this straightforward assessment of where we are at with climate change.

So, we have to act, and fast. The good news is that local governments are getting on it. Across the country, there is a push toward creating sustainable communities. The double good news is that as local governments push sustainability initiatives they are also advancing all kinds of other goals that have always been on the table, most importantly, creating places that people want to live.

Sustainable communities are places where people know their neighbors, share resources, and contribute to the greater good of the neighborhood and the city. They are places where people can walk to support small, local businesses and get most of their needs met locally. They are places where everybody has access to the resources they need, and where people look out for one another.

The local sustainable communities movement is happening at all levels, through incorporating sustainability into the established planning process, creating community sustainability plans, and through the delivery of services and public works projects. Local governments are creating codes, regulations, and incentives that encourage redevelopment that minimizes carbon emissions and resource extraction. They are also changing hiring practices and developing protocols to begin to create more equitable communities where everybody can feel safe and secure.

This blog series will feature what local governments are doing to create greater sustainability (which includes social, economic, and environmental considerations) as well as dive into the issues behind the actions. It is meant to clear the murky waters around the concept of sustainability as it relates to local government and contribute toward the push for sustainable communities.

One step that you can take right now to get involved in local government sustainability is to join the new American Planning Association Sustainable Communities Division.

Supplemental Reading


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