Most discussions of sustainability begin with people offering their definitions of sustainability. Unlike other topics – think democracy in the political realm or safety in a corporate environment – framing sustainability isn’t just a matter of degrees of difference in views. It can be a real clash of values.
In such a dynamic marketplace of ideas, it can be challenging for an enterprise to ground itself strategically. Do you start with a set of values and principles? Do you begin with standards set by third parties? What about the voice of your customers or constituents? Other stakeholders? Best practices among your peer group?
The questions are particularly relevant coming out of the Great Recession, with companies, organizations and governments having rationalized resources now adjusting to new market realities. So it was with great interest that I had the opportunity recently to participate in a gathering of thought leaders in New York to consider sustainable cities – with a particular focus on energy.
Across a number of discussions, it was striking to me how often government and business leaders alike echoed a common refrain when considering how to make sustainability work: People have to like it. Whether you’re an elected official who ultimately needs the approval of voters or a company leader who needs the endorsement of customers, the market must embrace something for it to be not only environmentally and socially sustainable – but economically sustainable, too.
Enrique Penalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia from 1998 to 2001, for example, described leading the development of a citywide bus rapid transit system and an extensive network of bikeways. More than a decade later, millions of transit riders and thousands of cyclists traverse that city in new ways.
The greatest recent public example of such a public embrace in Atlanta is the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail. The combination of trail and linear greenspace stretches from Piedmont Park to Inman Park past the new Historic Fourth Ward Park. On any given day – peaking on weekends – it is filled with walkers, joggers, runners, bikers and more. The market is responding in other ways, too: developers are redeveloping along the corridor, business and tenants are committing to the location, and people are buying goods and services, too.
While everyone’s definition of sustainability is a little different, few will take issue with the economic, environmental and social benefits of the environmental remediation of a historic rail corridor that gives people new (less auto-dependent) ways to traverse the city – on bike and foot today and on transit tomorrow – and creates opportunity in Atlanta’s neighborhoods.
Most importantly – and most gratifying to the many, many of us who have each done our small part to contribute to its success – is the Eastside Trail’s popularity. It is a very tangible answer to at least part of the equation in making sustainability happen: Do things that people like.