Friday, January 16, 2009

Gary Lawrence on Sustainability and Portland

Last night the Portland Society of Architects hosted a seminar on "The Political Business of Sustainability" with a talk by Gary Lawrence, former planning director for Seattle and current head of planning at Arup Associates. The PMA was packed. There was a 5 member panel of Portland professionals and a moderator to discuss how Portland could become more sustainable.

I would like to just focus on Mr. Lawrence's talk and highlight some of his wonderful insights:

1. People in a community such as Portland's must develop a, "collective intentionality". They need to have an agreed upon set of goals to work towards. We can drift towards the future or we can try to head towards a future we want despite the inherent uncertainty of the future.

2. He does not like to use the term, "quality of life", because it is an averaging term. Each person in a mixed neighborhood can have a very different quality of life than the next so we should not let ourselves gravitate towards our and our friends perception of our quality of life and induct that to the whole community.

3. We need to start the community conversation not with technical discussions about 'sustainability', but simply ask ourselves this question: "If things (job losses, etc.) get bad, what are the elements that would make someone stay here instead of moving?". This immediately puts focus on what we really care about.

4. Most people's time perception runs from grandparents to grandchildren so good to think about what we want to be different 10 years from now. Then ask what we need to be different 2 years from now to achieve the 10 year goal.                                                                                                                 
5. Sustainability is all about choices so all about politics. All politician's want to be re-elected so if you want them to advance sustainability goals you then are obliged to make it safer for those politicians to help you- not riskier. You must show those officials that you can help them get re-elected if they advance your goals.

6. Current approach to problem solving in most community is the whack-a-mole one where you attack one problem at a time when it comes up. Sustainability is to attack more than one at a time.

7. When head of planning at Seattle he had his staff of 140 hold hands all at once and say, "I don't know, what do you think?"!

8. Always gather community input in as many ways as possible. People have different learning styles (oral, visual, emotional) and do not all do well receiving information in one way. When deciding against a suggestion, back it up with logic. People want to know they have been listened to for real.

9. Words planners use have emotional effects on people. Need to discuss the emotional effects of planning decisions. Women carry a huge burden of fear when living in an urban environment. It takes a lot more energy and is a LOT more stressful for a woman to live in an urban environment than a man. Most planning has been done by men without thoughts of women and children's emotional needs.

10. People may say they want things to be the way they were, "restorative nostalgia", but they really only want those aspects of the past they like, not the whole package good and bad. This is called, "reflective nostalgia".

11. We must harness avarice in the name of sustainability by figuring out how to let investors make money while making life better- sustainable.

12. In order to move from talk to action three fulcrum points: Environmental justice (increase in infant asthma in poor areas do to auto smog); Community leaders need to be present to support pro-sustainable meetings (he had Bill Gates, Nintendo and Boeing CEO's at meetings in Seattle); No sustainability without quality education system because economic success relies on well educated workforce which is dependent on environmental health of kids.

13. Finally, we need to say, "what we know; what we know we don't know; what we don't know we don't know." This means a community must be constantly scanning the horizon always assuming you 'don't know' so we are always trying to find things out and altering our plans to take into account this always new information.


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