You Say “Sustainability,” I Say “Grilled Cheese”

Here’s a quick survey. Which would you prefer: “Coagulated
proteins and fats derived from a bovine mammary liquid,
heated to high temperature inside a gluten-based covering”…
some “yellow gooey stuff with a hard, hot coating”…or a
grilled cheese sandwich?

It might seem like a no-brainer that the best way for a restaurant to sell its grilled cheese sandwich is to make sure
customers clearly understand that’s what they’re ordering on
the menu. But for some reason, many of our brightest minds
seem to lose sight of that simple fact when they’re trying to sell the American public on important policy issues like sustainability.

Wait a sec. There’s a perfect example of yellow gooey coagulated protein right there: sustainability. What does that word even mean to the average citizen? One person might
say it’s all about recycling. Another might tell you that it’s green technology. Still another might shrug their shoulders and say it’s got something to do with left-wing liberal love
beads left over from the sixties.

If you’re a planner or smart growth advocate, you’ve probably got a very good definition for the concept, like this one from a recent Citiwire article: “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 air
and water.”

Now, that sounds like a grilled cheese sandwich that people can sink their teeth into. Who wouldn’t want to support initiatives that resulted in communities like that? In fact, when a 2011 Collective Strength, Inc. survey used that exact definition to poll opinions on sustainability, a whopping 79 percent of respondents indicated their support, with only 5 percent opposed. That same survey went on to demonstrate that people also respond more positively when they clearly understand how sustainable planning practices result in more jobs, lower housing and transportation costs, and wiser uses of public funds.

The same thing is true of placemaking. If we want the public to buy these concepts, we need to make sure they clearly understand what they mean, and how they will benefit. Vague, esoteric words and phrases like “green,” “livable,” and “quality of life” can be the soft kiss of death to people and policy makers struggling to find solutions to hard economic realities. We need to help them understand these are not feelgood
distractions—these are the solutions they are seeking.


*Reprinted from my column in the November issue of The Review

  • Not sure I follow, but I smell cynicism. Thanks for reading.

  • chad frederick

    Frankly, the Citiwire definition is horrible. But yeah, why would an urban planner bother explaining things when you can give a quick catch-phrase? Gotta golf game to catch, amirite?