REFRAMING THE PROBLEM
The workshop opened with presentations on sustainability perspectives from the region. Speakers collectively represented a variety of sectoral expertise (energy, transportation, environment, and health) but each speaker emphasized the linkages from one sector to others in an urban system. Key issues that arose included connecting sustainability issues with more general societal goals, framing sustainability to include human health factors of concern in the region, and thinking about metropolitan Atlanta as a system of interdependent parts.
LINKING ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMY, AND EQUITY
Dr. Carol Couch, Senior Public Service Associate, College of Environment and Design, University of Georgia, began by referring to the Brundtland Commission’s well-known definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). To achieve sustainability in the Atlanta metropolitan region and in other metropolitan regions, she added that it is necessary to reframe the problem by eliminating the thinking that environmental protection and economic development are mutually exclusive concepts. By that same token, institutions must consider social equity issues, along with environmental protection and economic development issues. Dr. Couch noted that the solutions must be societally acceptable if they are going to be implemented. She added that the “command and control” approach that characterized previous decades of environmental regulation does not lend itself to regulating individual behavior.
Dr. John Frece, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Sustainable Communities, expanded on this topic and emphasized that we should not expect “single outcomes from single
actions.” He explained that EPA’s present interest in supporting sustainable communities is driven by a number of separate but related factors: concern with projected urbanization trends and growth patterns (as they relate to environmental impacts), a demand for more walkable communities, and the rapid loss of scenic vistas within the United States.
Environmental issues have not typically been discussed as limits to further development in the region, although Dr. Couch suggested that this may be changing. Water resources in particular have been a point of contention, and future growth in metropolitan Atlanta (and an expected increase in municipal demand) could be constrained in order to meet competing needs in the aquatic systems that form part of the watershed. As several participants noted, the 2009 federal court’s ruling on Georgia’s limited rights to use Lake Lanier might be a turning point and, at a minimum, has increased the scrutiny of municipal withdrawals, including regional coal-fired power plants.
By altering the landscape, Atlanta’s built environment has become less and less resilient to natural disturbances. The flooding in fall 2009 provided one such example, when as much as 20 inches of rain in a 24-hour period overwhelmed metropolitan Atlanta; severe weather events like this could become more frequent or severe with climate change.
Renee Glover, President and CEO, Atlanta Housing Authority, noted that, while sustainability is a laudable goal, we must consider whether efforts to achieve sustainability continue to support other goals for urban areas, such as reducing poverty and providing affordable housing. She stated that regional stakeholders can probably agree to some of the long-term visions for metropolitan Atlanta (e.g., more walkable communities) and can use that as a basis to try to integrate what have traditionally been separate goals. She further stated that sustainability should be something that is desirable—achieving outcomes that everyone in society can recognize and benefit from.
SUSTAINABILITY AND HUMAN HEALTH
Dr. Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed interactions between human and natural systems in the built environment from a public health perspective. He noted that we tend to understand the impact physiological factors can have on our health. For
example, improvements in air and drinking water quality in urban areas have led to direct improvements in human health and well-being. However, our personal health is also influenced by internal factors (namely, our genetic makeup) and external factors that include our social support system, access to health care, and employment. These external factors are part of our urban environment and, thus, ought to be included when we are evaluating sustainability issues on an urban scale. He added that it will be important to work across our traditional silos when addressing urban sustainability issues, to be willing to make decisions with sometimes incomplete information, and to course-correct when we learn something new.
Dr. Portier stated that community design has been shown to affect our physical and mental health (for a region-specific discussion of this issue, see, for example, IOM, 2002). The configuration of a city or neighborhood affects land-use patterns, automobile dependency, and certain social interactions, all of which in turn can affect physical activity, safety, and social capital. He cited a recent study of transportation and health linkages in New Delhi and London (Woodcock et al., 2009) that suggested that fuel quality improvements (e.g., switching from gasoline or diesel to natural gas or electrified transport) contribute to improvements in health, but larger gains seem to result from a switch to more “active” forms of mobility (bicycles and walking). The connection between increased physical activity and decreased obesity-related illnesses might seem obvious, but the implication is that our transportation choices in an urban area can have a dramatic impact on our personal health.
Dr. Portier expanded further on this idea, stating that health care amounts to over 16 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (compared to 10 percent in Switzerland, his example), and U.S. energy consumption per capita is roughly double that of Switzerland. His point was that if we fully accounted for the costs and benefits of a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle, expenditures on health care and energy could be put to more productive or beneficial use.
METROPOLITAN ATLANTA AS A SYSTEM
Catherine Ross, director and Harry West Chair, Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, Georgia Tech, noted that sustainability mandates interdisciplinary solutions to economic and
social challenges and opportunities. Dr. Ross maintained that addressing sustainability requires a “systems approach” because the major environmental and societal components—energy, transportation, food, water, waste, housing, health, and security—are interconnected and interrelated. She suggested that considering these issues in isolation can be counterproductive and that the important questions are not merely engineering challenges, but fundamental questions about how residents in metropolitan Atlanta live, and the role that the region plays in the global economy.
Dr. Ross used the transportation sector as an example. Transportation challenges can be framed as mobility needs, which for Atlanta are local, regional, and global. Atlanta, like other U.S. metropolitan areas, is now operating as a global gateway and so its mobility needs include considerations of logistics and infrastructure that will enable the regional economy to remain globally competitive. She also highlighted specific local mobility needs, such as the lack of east– west connectivity in the metropolitan area. Other participants noted that these connectivity problems seem more acute due to the dispersed pattern of employment in the region.
Several speakers and participants emphasized the important role that infrastructure plays in the look, feel, and function of the metropolitan area. Dr. Ross explained that infrastructure includes the transportation corridors, electrical and energy systems, water and waste handling, as well as green infrastructure, the natural systems that exist in and around metropolitan Atlanta.
As some participants noted, Atlanta is investing heavily in upgrading infrastructure systems ($2 billion for the Atlanta BeltLine initiative, and approximately $4 billion in wastewater infrastructure). There is increasing recognition that improving these infrastructure systems is a key opportunity for the region to become more sustainable and that there are natural overlaps among these systems (which tend to be planned and managed independent of one another). Dr. Couch cited the example of land-use planning in metropolitan Atlanta not accounting for water needs, and the complications that have resulted. Infrastructure ecology represents one approach to understanding these interactions and offers insights into how they could be jointly managed more efficiently and sustainably.
John Crittenden, director of Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems with the Georgia Institute of Technology, discussed modeling
sustainable and resilient urban infrastructure in the Atlanta metropolitan region, using decision support tools. His current efforts include modeling a business-as-usual growth scenario versus a compact growth scenario to help planners and decision makers understand future infrastructure needs and the consequences of following a particular pathway. Dr. Crittenden’s team is also beginning to investigate material flows within metropolitan Atlanta, modeling, for example, optimal use of recycled plastics or potential reuse of batteries from electric vehicles. Overall, he stressed that our infrastructure must be not only sustainable, but resilient, describing infrastructure resilience as maintaining functionality in the face of exogenous and endogenous stressors.