CONTEXTUALIZATION: REDEFINING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND ARCHITECTURE, Part I, Fall 2013

Section I. Redefining the Framework Sustainable Development

The concept of “sustainable development” has reshaped the world of the 21st century and has brought insights about the consequences of human actions, since its introduction in the late 1980s by World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Its theories have been debated in local, national, and global contexts, encompassing economic, political, socio-cultural, and ecological realms. Therefore, it surfaces in the world of academia with over 450 worldwide institutions with approximately 1378 sustainability academic programs (AASHE); multinational corporations adopting corporate social responsibility as core value of business and management; to the 1993 foundation of U.S. Green Building Council with 13,000 member organizations and now certifying 1.5 million square feet of buildings per day in 135 countries as sustainable ventures that complement the environment and enhance communities (About USGBC). However, although cross-disciplinary in nature, the concept of “sustainable development” found itself contradictory in application, as it disproportionately focuses on environmental aspects, regardless of context, while often ignoring social-cultural nuances paralyzing its ability to sustain long term development (Berke and Conroy 30). Thus, the increasing advocacy for a holistic approach to the framework “sustainable development,” in which policies and innovations reflect socio-cultural, ecological, economic nuances are considered critical to design comprehensive and effective responses to global problems.

The elusiveness of WCED’s definition of the concept of “sustainable development” in the Brundtland Report constitutes the genesis of its lack of context in application. Sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. As the most common definition of this concept, it does not portray the particular needs which it aims to address and the underlying processes to achieve such development. Although theoretically at its key concepts, it prioritized addressing the needs of the poor, it really ignores the varying definitions of poverty which differ across the globe. By 1996, at least 80 different, often competing and sometimes contradictory, definitions have been published from different authors on sustainable development (Williams and Millington 99). Although, the concept was hard to pinpoint, it captured the attention and generated cross-disciplinary discussions among wide range of experts operating in socio-cultural, political, economic, and ecological realms. The lack of clear definition and the intellectual debates due to its varying scales and mediums of implementation constituted a diversion away its processes of implementations. 

The emergence of the concept of “sustainable development” in 1987 responds to global concerns concerning poverty and its relationship to the scarcity of environmental resources. In 1980, there were 340 million people in 87 developing countries struggling daily to meet their basic needs making them vulnerable to serious health risks; therefore stunting local economic development (United Nations). According to the 1985 World Development Report by the World Bank, the difference in GDP per capita between in the developing countries, excluding China and India, and the developed world ranged from $190 to $11,430 in the industrial market economies. (United Nations). The vulnerability of those populations is amplified by the growing rate of deforestation and land depletion due to the unsustainable cultivation of timber for domestic use and economic development. The growing rate of natural disasters, which in turn are products of the greenhouse effect cause by traditional forms of production and consumption based on fossil fuels, are multiplying the economical and ecological consequences on those vulnerable regions. The concept of “sustainable development” was introduced as the pressing need to reconcile these human actions to the natural processes of the ecosystem, while bridging the global economic gap between the developed and developing world. Therefore, policies and innovations heavily focused on the relationship between economy and ecology to implement sustainable development, while neglecting its socio-cultural influences.

Although emerging as a global movement, the implementation strategies of sustainable development primarily reflected Western methodologies, unsuitable for the context of the developing world. In its application, the focus on the environmental paradox revealed two core schools of thought: weak sustainable development and strong sustainable development (Colin and Willington 100). Weak sustainable development adopts the perception of human beings as dominant forces and separate entities from the natural world; and reflects the optimism that the latter can be controlled and managed for the benefit of people (101). On the other hand, strong sustainable development views the Earth as a finite resource, which biotic rights contradict materialistic patterns of human consumption.  Our current means of economic progress and development should be replaced by the basic needs and desires of all, which are met through the pursuit of self-reliance (102). Both, however, failed to encompass the socio-cultural and economical complexities of the rest of the world, as this relationship whether ecological or anthropological, is the primarily sole means of survival. Access to basics such as food, shelter and education are highly dependent upon it, in most cases have tremendous consequences on the natural environment. Thus, western theorists neglected the layers of complexities inherent necessary to achieve holistic framework for sustainable development in a global context. ­

As a result of the era of globalization, strategies for sustainable development are continuously ignoring socio-cultural nuances in application, therefore reducing their ability to have meaningful impact. As technological innovations are increasingly facilitating cross-cultural interactions, western ideologies on sustainable development are continuously influencing policies, which envision the future of the developing world. In order to eliminate extreme poverty and foster sustainable development, Jeffrey Sachs, a well known economist, proposed that affluent nations double international poverty assistance to about $160 billion a year, which would go a long way toward ameliorating the terrible predicament faced by 1.1 billion people utterly destitute in a world of plenty (58). Distributed usually through channels of non-profit organizations, foreign aid strategies consider inhabitants of the developing world as recipients, therefore finding them to be greatly ineffective and engender dependency rather than sustain-ability (TEDNovogratz). The lack of accountability in NGO channels to local governing bodies instill distrust between both entities, and destroy the reliance of local population on local government to provide adequate strategies and policies to satisfy their basic needs. For example, $8 billion has been invested in Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010 in the past three years; however 300,000 people are still living in tents camps with no adequate access to drinking water and proper sanitation (Mintz). Although globalization has enabled greater cultural exchange, a socio-cultural framework is needed in order to maximize the profit of foreign investments in the developing world aiming at creating self-sufficient and sustainable communities.  ­­

Development theorists are increasingly advocating for a redefinition of sustainable development, which involve the three Es “Environment, Economy and Equity” as presenting a more holistic framework.  The third element of the triad “Equity”, which by definition refers to as fairness or justice in the way people are treated or a risk interest and ownership right in property (McSherry); recognizes the interdependence of ecological, economic and social systems (Spies 379). In business, the integration of the E”s is often referred as the “Triple Bottom Line”, increasing economic profits, protecting the planet and improving the lives of people. Debra Straussfogel, an Associate Professor of Geography at Penn State University, expanded on the triple bottom line to incorporate four sources of capital necessary to sustainable development: ecological capital, human capital, manufactured capital and the institutional capital. Unlike previous stated perspectives, she expands the framework of sustainable development to not only economics and environmentalism, but also to socio-cultural and political nuances. She pushes the boundaries as it now allows for the emergence of holistic responses based on economic structure, cultural fabric and human capacity.

Contextualizing sustainable development through the lenses of activism enables greater potential for long lasting impact and benefits. As though for any development to achieve the criteria of being sustainable, it must advocate a holistic approach which encompasses socio- cultural, political, economic and environmental context. Equity must be instilled through a participatory process, which include local actors and sees the beneficiaries as local experts and agents of change, not as recipients or marginalized end-users. 

Continue to Part II, here.