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What do Americans think about Sustainable Communities?

David Boyd / Oct 28 2011

For Release Friday, October 28, 2011

David BoydAnyone who has ever watched an episode of The West Wing or followed the national network’s television coverage on election night has a general idea of how common the use of polls has become to the policy formulation process in our country. Our leaders and public officials have turned to the tools of marketers to help decipher which direction the figurative winds are blowing before they step into the fray. So why wouldn’t planning and smart growth advocates do the same?

Last fall, Smart Growth America (SGA) did just that. It’s a coalition representing nearly 40 national organizations and many state and local groups that share an interest in “creating and maintaining great neighborhoods in which to live and work,” in building coalitions to “bring smart growth practices to more communities nationwide.” SGA commissioned a national survey intended to gain a better understanding about the role of sustainable communities in our nation’s economic recovery.

The poll was designed by Collective Strength, Inc., reviewed by Harris Interactive, and was made possible through funding from the Ford Foundation. Collective Strength is based in Austin, Texas and is led by Robin Rather, who has spent much of the last year crisscrossing the country talking to professional planners and smart growth advocates about the results of the survey.

“One of the main findings of the poll was just how fuzzed up the terms ‘sustainability’, ‘livability’, and ‘smart growth’ are for most Americans,” Rather said in a recent interview. “There is no center of gravity — no two people thought of these terms in significant ways. And that’s very frightening given how much these terms are discussed in planning circles.” Most Americans, she added, “have no idea what the ‘triple bottom line’ is or what it means to them.”

To help clarify this issue, the survey used a clear and easy-to-understand definition: “A sustainable community is an urban, suburban or rural community that has more housing and transportation choices, is closer to jobs, shops or schools, is more energy independent and helps protect clean area and water.”

In fact, 79 percent of the respondents indicated their ‘support’ for sustainability when defined in this way, with only 5 percent saying they were ‘opposed’ and 16 percent ‘still not sure’. When asked to rate the “importance of officials working to create sustainable communities,” 57 percent scored the topic as an 8 or higher on a 10-point scale.

Rather’s conclusion: “if you define sustainability in terms people can understand, you can connect with people. They begin to warm up to what it looks like.”

And it’s important, she told a recent national planning audience, “to understand the emotion of the age. Right now is a time of tremendous insecurity for a lot of people — political, economic, natural disasters. People crave for and there is a deep need for positive messages about going forward.” In Rather’s eyes, planners and others need to find ways to tie the old ways of thinking about topics such as transportation and land use to the “next generation goals” about jobs and the economy.

For example, the survey revealed an “enthusiasm gap” when transportation is presented as a stand-alone issue. The ideas of “expanding the network to handle the growing population” or “investing in projects with the greatest payback” simply did not resonate with survey participants. Note the link when jobs and the economy are included: 75 percent of respondents agreed that “infrastructure spending on roads, trains, and buses create jobs and help the economy get stronger.” Rather commented that “most people think housing and transportation need to be redefined because they don’t work for most people. If they are defined properly, the principles of sustainability and livability are quite popular.”

The survey also helps to reveal how sentiments are shifting when it comes to housing and walkability. Fifty-eight percent of the survey respondents reported that having “places to eat a meal or buy basic goods within walking distance” will have a strong impact on where they decide to live. Additionally, 68 percent agreed that they would accept a 5 percent or greater reduction in the square footage of their future housing if their new house was more walkable to shops and meals. And 82 percent agreed with the statement that “most Americans spend more than 50 percent of their household expenses on housing and transportation costs and that is too much.” Overall, 60 percent of respondents acknowledged how their tradeoffs in housing type and location might contribute to lower transportation costs, less time spent driving around, and creating a more enjoyable lifestyle.

The connections have been drawn — making our communities more sustainable means generating more jobs, lowering housing and transportation costs, and using our limited public funds more wisely. The importance of this work is bolstered by Smart Growth America’s statement that “82% of Americans believe that rebuilding the economy is the most important issue for our generation.” These are the types of projects America’s professional planners work on every day.

However, Rather offers some pointed advice to the professional planning community: “If you continue to talk about ‘quality of life’, the messaging will kill you. Most people are really with us, but we need to pivot our communications strategy.” She’d have planners stop using terms like “green”, “livable”, “sustainable” and instead focus on the effects planning can have on economics.

“People are tired of all the gloom and doom — people need a positive path to follow. As a country, if we can think about how we plan our communities to move forward, I think about how much comfort there is in that,” Rather added.

The question now is whether America’s planners are listening.

David Boyd is the CEO of the Urban Associates Group, headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. jim sykes
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Right on, David. Smart growth, like livable, green, sustainable, walkable, age-friendly etc implies far too
    much and leaves too many of us wondering why planners
    need to complicate what should be self-evident. And yes, we agree that it’s the economy (stupid) but that too is a bridge
    too far (we seem to blame government for high unemployment while the private sector sits on trillions that could fuel jobs. A strong economy is not in our hands, but deciding where to live and what we want we want to access is within the grasp of what individuals can achieve.

  2. Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Please share link to poll! I am interested in extrapolating ideas of public space as an extension of home-space in cities and thereby emphasizing the need for welcoming public space during the after-dark hours.

  3. David Boyd
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    For those who want to read more about the poll:

  4. Posted October 29, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I have to disagree. Quality of life is locally defined and the statements regarding this study drift right back to economic success as the only measure. Planning can be done around collaboration in a community to achieve objectives in common that do span economic, social and environmental areas with clear indicators of success. The commitment of people to sustainability, green choices and desirable lifestyles is here to stay in my view. We teach planning for sustainable communities with communication strategies and that means starting where your audience is and not where you are. Smart Growth may be an oxymoron in a world with 7 billion people and growing with shortages of water, food, health care, and air quality. We need better sustainability strategies with thoughtful communication and education. Growth is simply not a sustainable strategy for the long term.

  5. Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    You are spot on with this essay. The terms you mention not only are vague, they are becoming political lightening rods that attract intense critique by Tea Party and Property Rights groups intent on thwarting local decision-making about infrastructure, community planning, and even bike-lanes! There exists intense distrust of governance at the national level and that is being translated to local planning efforts, with critiques of socialism and the like. Language is key in this tournament of values. Review an overview of the tournament at:

  6. James Pona
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    David, a nice, concise, and usable definition of sustainable development!

  7. DS Boyd
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Tim –
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
    It’s possible that within the constraints of 800 words I’ve somehow muddied the message. I don’t think I intended to convey the idea that sustainability or livable communities or the other issues which you mentioned are somehow diminished in importance. Quite the contrary – and I agree with your point completely – that change indeed starts with “thoughtful communication and education.” And thus it is the clarity of the communication – not indulging ourselves in the vernacular and jargon of planners and like-minded individuals – that we need to be wary of. The poll very clearly says “hey, people agree with this stuff, we just have to talk in terms that everyone understands”.

    Thanks for your comments. And for reading!