Are you tired of the word "sustainable"? Does it seem to lecture rather than inspire? Does it feel defensive, perhaps even conservative in its suggestion that humans should have no higher ambition than to sustain? Doesn't sustaining sound, at times, like endless, thankless work?
Well, in French the equivalent word is durable. So in an idle moment I wonder: what if we used "durable" in English? Durable urbanism. Durable transportation. Durable energy. Durable lifestyles.
"Durable" shares many virtues with that more popular alternative, "resilient." There's already a Resilient Cities movement, and an excellent book on Resilience Thinking.
What I like about both words is they imply an intrinsic strength. Sustainability implies the endless labor of sustainers, while durability and resilience are just features of the thing itself.
But "durable," in particular, sounds strong, even masculine. It's a quality sought in boots, storm windows and SUVs. Guys want to be durable, and to live in a durable world. They certainly don't want to be sustained. (And let's face it, a lot of the people resisting sustainability are guys.)
Not sure. Something to try, maybe.
“Relation durable” is also how the French refer to a lasting relationship. Maybe something that not all mecs want.
Brilliant, Jarrett. I resist “sustainable” because it is one of the latest buzzwords, and has lost all meaning. But you are right it is also “preachy”.
And I like the idea of durability of things, of things that can be used over and over, or for different tasks.
New signs could say: Please don’t smoke here; we want this building to last.
So I take it you’d be against Tholeable Transport?
One of my pet peeves is planned obsolescence. When I was 10, I was in a collection show for a local clothing collector. The clothing was original turn of the century, and still in wearable condition. The pants I bought last year are already worn out.
In transport, it’s the same: the roadways built in the 1950s have to be resurfaced every ten years (or so it seems), while the L here in Chicago has been running on original track for the last 100! (That’s tongue-in-cheek to be clear.)
One problem with the word “sustainable”, at least in the US, is that it’s a bright red flag for a good chunk of the electorate, who view transit projects as part of a larger social engineering project many of them want no part of. I’m not endorsing such viewpoints, to be clear, but we Yankee transit advocates routinely have to deal with them; and in some cases they spring from a legitimate concern: urbanist rhetoric frequently is perceived as a threat by those who live in suburbia (and like it).
And there is ample historical precedent for much of this. In the mid 20th century, cities were routinely viewed as nasty places (and many of them were indeed highly polluted; though racist attitudes played a big part of that as well), and freeway construction was openly touted as a way for people to escape the blight and decay of cities several generations back, and sure enough, it had exactly the predicted (and desired) effect on a good many of them. Many suburbanites, I suspect, are terrified that their communities might be abandoned and neglected as happened to many US downtowns decades ago.
Like it. But does the word durable allow the ability to adapt to future conditions? I think of a hammer as durable, but a hammer can’t morph into a screwdriver if the required task changes. Whereas an organism can express resilience by evolving if the environment changes.
Are you implying that the word ‘sustainable’ didn’t prove to be sustainable? :))
In Dutch, sustainable is duurzaam, so I can live with durable…
This is why I love this blog. You’re a genius, Jarrett. I am so sick of hearing the word sustainable these days.
As my mom once put it, why would we want to just be sustainable? To sustain oneself implies that you’re just limping along at the bare minimum. Shouldn’t we aspire to do more than just sustain? In terms of the natural environment, shouldn’t we aspire to give back more than we take out?
I’m adopting ‘durable’ from here on out… ‘sustainable’ sounds so much like you’re barely holding on… just trying to sustain where you’re at. Durable – like it.
Anything to address the nihilism I hear from most people when resource use comes up. The “we’ll all be gone in 100 years” attitude seems utterly fatalistic and stupid to me.
Id like our species and our planet/ecosystem to have a very long future, even if I personally will be dead.
I don’t really have a problem with the word sustainable. I like that it’s application fits nicely in its financial and ecological connotations.
But I like your instinct to always reevaluate language and I think “durable” has a place too, especially with respect to its cousin “enduring.”
I’m in two minds about this.
I contend that the only reason people are opposed to the word ‘sustainable’ is because it was that adjective that was chosen to describe “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” by the agenda setting UN commissioned Brundtland Report in 1987.
As a result it was very widely adopted as a common definition of the kind of development we should aim for.
If the report had said “durable” development I’m sure the debate would now be about the tiredness and red-flagedness of that word.
Any time the status quo is challenged, those in power will oppose it and use all kinds of practises to subdue it, including demonising words. Think about the word ‘feminisim’.
So should we concede to the status quo or hold on to the word and continue to promote the critical values behind it?
Or should we adapt, and use words that appeal to the widest audience, or the key audience. George Lakoff, author of “Don’t think of an
Elephant: know your values and frame the debate” would say yes.
So perhaps instead – ‘economically efficient transport’. Same transport, different descriptor, but appealing to the right’s values.
As for gendering transport, isn’t it time we moved on from those tired old stereotypes?
“Sustainable” has unfortunately become a “green” buzzword, but there’s other kinds of sustainability, including financial sustainability for things like transit systems, municipal budgets, and the economy as a whole too.
Maybe I’m being pedantic, but I think of resilience literally in terms of the verb to resile, i.e. to return to the original position when disturbed. With that definition, transportation can’t be resilient – on the contrary, it’s always sensitive to small changes. A change in gas prices or in the tax regime or in regulations can have large effect on mode shares, car ownership, VKmT, etc.
It seems we haven’t really improved upon the Roman’s in this, as I think the three legs of Vitruvius’s stool of good architecture and urbanism: commodity (well fitted to human needs); firmness (durability and resilience); and delight (self explanatory) pretty much cover it. In our discussions on sustainability and resilience we hardly say anything about delight/beauty forgetting that we have to love places to want to preserve them.
Very insightful post, Jarrett. Your background in literature gives you a sharper edge than most planners.
I don’t believe “durable” and “sustainable” are completely interchangeable. The former to me refers more to physical form or strength, while the latter could be more related to time. “Endurance” may be a good cross-over term between the two.
Also, the word “sustainable” was popularized in the Bruntland Report of so many years ago, and the perception is that it is an overused term now. “Durable” and “resilient” may seem more refreshing.
I don’t like either word. Durable sounds like you can neglect and trash it and it will still work. Obviously not something that history has borne out.
I like the word “quality” as in “quality urbanism” or “quality transport”
It also implies the opposite it true of the status quo. ie. non-quality sprawl or non-quality freeways.
Though the word sustainable has been over used I still like it, and I disagree that durable would be an apt substitute. Sustainable encompasses the ongoing investment and evolution involved in maintaining any system over time even if the desired outcomes are static. Durable implies lasting, but resistant to change and inviting neglect. Sometimes that’s a good thing, products that last create less waste than disposables, but a typical plastic grocery bag is more durable and less sustainable than a paper one. And yes, I’ve been using cloth for since my teen years. Hat tip to MB for spinning it to ‘enduring’.
What really comes to mind when I think of “durable” is the NYC Subway surviving the deferred maintenance of the 70s and early 80s. The image I associate with “resilient” is how rail transit systems often fare so much better in snowstorms than roads and planes, and how they’re often much quicker to restore service after a disruption.
Reminds me that the Spanish word for environment is “medio ambiente”. Threw me for a loop the first time I saw it in a sentence. We care about the ambient medium? I know just enough Spanish words to totally confuse myself at times.
How about “Frequent transport”
That’s the only one I care about 🙂
Adjectives don’t always come after nouns in Spanish…in this case it is the reverse. Medio would mean average and ambiente would mean atmosphere.
And while the word “sustainable” is just about enough for me to stop listening regardless of who says it, new words can only be powerful if they mean what people think they mean. If you tell an Idahoan that you are a durable transportation enthusiast, and you will soon find yourself in the middle of an argument about the relative merits of Ford vs Chevy.
I can understand the want to move away from a term that is overused and meaningless, but that is the result of overused and meaningless branding of concepts that are too vague to be called what they really are.
If you want a way to make the words “public transportation” sound cool, you will be much more effective by making public transportation cool than to try to brand it with a new buzzword that will be obsolete the moment someone misuses it.
I favour ‘resilient’ over ‘durable’.
While their meanings overlap, to me ‘resilient’ refers more to a more human character (and can relate to a society or individual).
Whereas ‘durable’ relates more to the physical properties of a thing (ie it’s long-lasting).
Also ‘resilience’ seems to have a closer relation to ‘robustness’ that ‘durability’ lacks.
(while a different meaning it’s relevant to the recent floods in Brisbane and local flooding in Melbourne)
Like another commenter, if you did change the word of the day to durable, how long till someone gets annoyed at the new word. Maybe we don’t need to change the word itself but rather how its used incessantly to describe everything people want to think is green. You also have to think of the target audience.
My personal take on durable is meh. It’s not really a sexy term in my opinion and conjures up thoughts of a rusty post jutting out from some rubble. That piece might still work and be functional, but it might not be optimal. Imagine if engineers decided that making everything durable was a priority. My guess is systems would become more expensive and over-engineered than they already are.
I don’t think the problem with the word sustainable is the word itself – it’s an important concept. My problem with the word is our collective inability to make it meaningful. The idea of sustainability holds out the promise that there is a future we can imagine where we don’t exhaust resources and our environment faster than they can replenish themselves — but nobody (to my thinking) has done a credible job explicating what that vision might look like in real life, to say nothing of identifying a pathway to get there. Instead we throw out policy prescriptions, density and modal preferences that have held sway for decades among planners as if those ideas will transform our lives in some fundamental way that can’t be explained. It requires faith. All the while, a society that doesn’t include cars remains beyond imagination without rebuilding every neighborhood to a density most people won’t tolerate, and for which we haven’t made work yet for families with children.
A new word wouldn’t solve that problem. Either a practical vision is needed that goes beyond the usual mode and density remedies, or a term is needed that reflects a more realistic aspiration; one that doesn’t require uncritial faith to envision.
I’m quite surprised, being French, to read your post.
The phrase “développement durable” is often criticized, here in France, since it can be understood as “endless developpment”, and not as a developpment that doesn’t endanger the future generations. The phrase does describe the developpment we wish, but doesn’t express WHY and HOW we want it.
Thus, French people often regret that, since we don’t have any correct translation for “sustainable”, we chose to use the phrase “développement durable”.
People sometimes refer to “développement soutenable”.
I agree with Danny, at least to the extent that replacing one buzz word with another is an empty sort of effort. We have to use more specific words to say what we mean, and use catch-all terms like “sustainable” when we truly need to lump diverse efforts together.
“Durable,” is possibly more specific in some cases, and inappropriate to others. Describing a community garden as an example of “durable agriculture” would lose me. “Durable” applies more the end result, to systems. Saying that bike lanes will make a city center more durable does make sense, and might say more specifically what you meant.
Is “durable” perhaps more masculine? Perhaps. But, let’s be honest, masculine descriptors still get favorable treatment (insert light smiley face here). Anyway, if you use the term when you really are talking about an end product that will last longer, and use the term for the forces of good, it should be okay.
Words are funny creatures, I have sort of felt the word sustainable is evolving into new meanings. Durable is a good word, but somehow seems more static for use over the long term. Resilient is also good, but does not seem to connect as easily to a broader meaning. As several posters have pointed out, any word is subject to being overused.
Your point is well taken however, summarizing difficult and for reaching concepts in planning and transit into a few words can be difficult. Often you end up speaking only to specialists and not the general public.
One definition in Wikipedia is that “Sustainability is the capacity to endure. In ecology, the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time.”
The biological part of the definition is how I view the word sustainability.
The definition in the free dictionary is more rigid
1. Capable of being sustained.
2. Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.
That definition is limited in my view, a minimum long-term effect on the environment does not speak to issues of growth and evolution as in the more biological orientated definition in Wikipedia.
The real question though is how does the general public view the word sustainable? Would the inclusion of additional words along with sustainability clarify the meaning? For instance would a diverse sustainability mean something different than saying an evolutionary sustainability or just sustainability? There are many ways to modify the meaning of course. But again, especially in speaking to the general public, even the word sustainability may be too abstract and meaningless and should be broken down to simpler, albeit, probably longer, terms or sentences by way of explanation.
What about “agility” and “agile” urbanism, cities, etc.?
Agility is the ability to swiftly react and adapt to change.
Granted, agility is relative and would be a timespan of months and years for cities — not fractions of seconds or something on the scale of Usain Bolt.
I do not like the term “sustain” or “sustainability” because it builds human expectations toward a rhythm of predictability and a false sense of control.
The world we live in wasn’t designed to be sustainable. Biological cells die and regenerate, soil becomes less fertile, land erodes, water evaporates, metals oxidize and species go extinct.
In the human-built realm, nations break away or are swallowed by conquest, empires fade away, languages appear and disappear and communities are settled and abandoned.
Stasis would be a wonderful alternative to the bleakness of chaos. Yet it has its own perils.
Agricultural societies that produced monocultures of a specialized crop suffered famine when some force disrupted growth cycles.
Supply regions specialize in the extraction of a good, but are blindsided when resources are exhausted. Industrial societies aren’t immune, either. Economic policy in the Upper Midwest starts and ends around reactivating factories and producing more stuff again.
Sustainability itself is unsustainable.
(un)related to the previous post on the spanish term “medio ambiente”, it would roughly translate into “surrounding medium”, or media. In addition, there’s further confusion as there’s two words for “sustainable”: ‘sostenible’ and ‘sustentable’. The latter, I imagine, came from the word in english, and the term itself (with everything in it) was adopted as such. Meanwhile, the “official” term is ‘sostenible’, as in ‘desarrollo sostenible’ (sustainable development). While I think the concept is too disperse even from its origin, I also stand by the ‘apocalypt’ above that says sustainability is unsustainable… change is the only way.
So far, the best ‘official’ term for the idea I’ve found is in the german “nachhaltig / Nachhaltigkeit”, meaning ‘lasting’, ‘durable’, but also ‘sustainable’, [and as an adverb, ‘deeply’ and ‘strongly’]… something that “holds [also] afterwards” (http://dict.tu-chemnitz.de/?query=nachhaltig). Not forever, though.
You might consider “enduring” rather than “durable”. In the positive sense of “enduring” it is something that lasts without having the added connotation of ruggedness that I get from “durable”. Think of stirring political speeches about our enduring freedoms, for example.
The problem arises with the negative connotation in which one must “endure” in the sense of suffering patiently–which is how I feel if I’m stuck in traffic.
For the person who suggested “quality”, linguistic purists will note that it needs to take an additional adjective to identify whether it is of POOR quality or HIGH quality. The word’s meaning has been diluted through over-use by people who presume it has only a positive meaning when it is in fact a neutral term. Everything has some kind of quality, be it good or bad.
Fascinating discussion. It appears that for some commenters “sustainable” has begun to go the way of “tolerance”, which is a far more lukewarm word than “inclusion” or the even more positive “celebration”, if you think of discussions about diversity.
Here in California the term resilience is used more often for disaster planning (earthquakes etc). So I don’t think it would work to replace sustainability. Also the Bay Area is pretty green and the word sustainable is used pretty widely with positive connotations afaict.
Xkcd illustrates your point well, “The word ‘sustainable’ is unsustainable” http://xkcd.com/1007/
Back in 1997 I cycled across the country for sustainable transportation. I was occasionally tongue-tied as I went door-to-door fundraising in my south town, trying to explain to rural Texans what sustainable transportation meant. In undergrad, we memorized the Brundtland Commission definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It’s hard to capture the intergenerational equity aspect of sustainability with another word.
When I talk about transport today, I use efficient, high quality, and high performance more frequently than sustainable.