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In my role as a graduate assistant, I have been working on putting together a course lately called “Building Sustainable Communities”. The course is going to focus on all of the ways that local government officials can make a difference in sustainability, from investing in sustainable economies, social systems, environmental concerns, and building sustainable institutions. Within those units, we are looking at specific policies, everything from non-motorized transportation to watershed management to food insecurity: all the policies that communities adapt to make themselves more sustainable.
However, I had a conversation with a former professor earlier this week; he is an expert in climate policy and is well-known for his climate change research. He said that sustainability is not about what policy we adopt or how we perfect this technology but instead is about the turning points. He went on to explain that turning points are everywhere, places where we are given choices to act in one way or another, and the path that we choose has monumental spiraling impacts. He challenged me to think about sustainability not as a series of policies, but as a series of turning points that the policies then reflect. Will we choose to come together as a community? How much do we value convenience? What do we do when an emergency occurs? How will we react to the choices that are put before us? Which policies will we choose as a result? Those reactions to choices will be different depending on the needs and desires of our community, yet hopefully, always trend towards making a more sustainable future: economically, socially, environmentally, and institutionally.
As I have thought about this more, it is a wonderful reframing of approaching sustainability, especially in regards to civic engagement because it reframes the way in which we think, and shows us the importance of policies that accurately reflect the community itself, but also it directs us to think in a more sustainable way. When we sit and consider the consequences of a turning point, it directs us to future-led thinking, to think past the most immediate term, and recognize that the choices we make today impact the choices we have in the future. There are so many situations wherein the less sustainable choice was made because the people making the choice thought of it as a decision, not a turning point. If they had thought of it as a turning point, they might have recognized that it inherently limited the options of the future, making things less sustainable.
Local government officials have tremendous opportunity to impact sustainability through policy. After all, we are the ones who choose the energy sources, invest in local living economies, build green space, select the non-motorized transportation, and make decisions that can build trust in institutions, and these are just a few of the sustainability decisions that we make every day. However, instead of thinking of them as policies, let us instead think of them as turning points, and keep in mind that the choices we make today will impact the number of choices we are able to make in the future. Will we choose to expand our opportunities and open possibilities? Will we choose to listen to our communities? Will we choose to continue building in a way that allows future community members to have choices as well? When it comes to sustainability, no question is truly short-term, because each fork in the road offers a new set of paths forward.
Katie is the Management Fellow for the City of Wayland, MI and is a student at Grand Valley State University. In addition to wearing many different hats in her community from being an artist to an educator, Katie is active in local professional organizations serving on the ICMA Welcome Ambassadors Committee and the Michigan Municipal League Economic Development and Land Use Policy Advisory Committee. You can find her on LinkedIn or Twitter.