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Defining Sustainability

In the past few decades, eco-consciousness has been growing across the globe, and for good reason. Global news outlets have been reporting record-breaking summers and winters, unseen climatic occurrences such as the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, and rapid loss of biodiversity in the world’s forests and oceans, just to name a few. Many journalists call for sustainable actions taken by world leaders to address the rapid environmental change occurring. And more than just news outlets and journalists have taken notice. Major corporations such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft have made 2030 commitments – meaning that by the year 2030, some metric of sustainability will be achieved. In the case of the name corporations, the 2030 goal is to reduce carbon emissions by a specified amount. Even the United States Federal government has made commitments to sustainability. Now, all of this seems to tie back to one word: sustainability; but what does that really mean?

Sustainability is defined rather broadly as the issue that sustainability seeks to address – climate change – is broad. This has resulted in a multitude of definitions as different organizations seek to tailor the definition of sustainability to fall within the scope of the organization. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations committee tasked with researching the science behind climate change, defines sustainability as “a dynamic process that guarantees the persistence of natural and human systems in an equitable manner” This definition succinctly encapsulates the purpose of sustainability as well as addresses the multitude of impacts associated with climate change. But an organization with a more specific focus, such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) or American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), has a more tailored definition within the scope of the built environment and landscape, respectively.

The AIA defines sustainability through four lenses: resilience, equity, health, and zero-carbon, with each being applied to design; whereas the ASLA defines sustainability as landscapes that are “responsive to the environment, re-generative, and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities”. In all the mentioned definitions, each organization seeks to support both people and the planet through their respective organizations.

So, what can be done? Sustainability is a verb, not a noun, it is something we do, undo, and re-do. Sustainability is a great ask – it requires long-term planning, investment, and societal change, but there are some smaller steps that can and should be taken. For architects and designers, this can mean specifying low-carbon materials to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global climate change, as 40% of global carbon emissions come from buildings. For policymakers, this can mean creating green building codes like New York City’s Local Law 97 which enforces carbon emission caps on the city’s buildings. There are also sustainable actions that can be taken outside of the world of architecture, design, and policy. It could be as simple as using a reusable grocery bag instead of single-use plastic bags to reduce waste that goes to landfills, or even turning off the lights in rooms that are not actively used to reduce energy use and therefore carbon released in the atmosphere. Anyone can engage with and contribute to sustainability on any scale. Because sustainability is not just a policy or a corporate commitment, but is it every decision, big or small, we decide to make.

Sources: 1. IPCC, 2019: Annex I: Glossary [van Diemen, R. (ed.)]. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press.

2. “What Are Sustainable Landscapes?” Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, ASLA,

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