My own understanding of sustainability reflects a growing concern about fossil fuels, energy and the metastasizing problems created by human interference in the biological and physical features of earth. Pure ecology is where my heart and spirit dwell, but sustainability is where my intellect finds real solutions to some heavy-duty global challenges.
I'm in good company, since thousands of delegates and tens of thousands of thinkers have agreed to deem the decade beginning in 2005 as the United Nations' "Decade of Sustainable Development Education."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o what does this all have to do with Spokane? And, how is it that some cities in the United States (which is, overall, considered to be two decades behind Europe in sustainable development) are more apt to shape their futures around bio-regionalism, sustainable agriculture, alternative transportation and strong land use planning?
Measuring a region's ability to adopt more sustainable practices doesn't just include studying natural resources; it also includes the political, social and human dimensions that will inform the decisions necessary to change their way of life. And that's just what a new research project at Washington State University aims to do.
"I wanted to know what accounts for adoption of sustainability programs, policies and principles in American cities," says Nicholas Lovrich, former interim chancellor of WSU and currently with the school's government studies and services department.
Lovrich's goal is to gauge how cities can adopt stronger and more applicable sustainable development measures before the point of no return is reached. So he has combined the collective interests of demographers, sociologists, planners and statisticians, plus the ongoing help of graduate students, to crunch the numbers from a goldmine of data donated to WSU by the Leigh Stowell Company of Seattle. Starting in 1989, Stowell surveyed the habits of tens of thousands of people in cities across the nation. The company sells the research to major media, but every year, when the newer numbers replace the old ones, the firm donates the data to WSU.
"It's a very progressive company," says Lovrich, "and there are a lot of grateful researchers because of them. It would cost a fortune to collect this data."
WSU has run several studies on the data in the 10 years that the gifts have been coming, and other schools like Harvard, Duke, the University of California and Carnegie-Mellon are using the data, too. In fact, sometime this year, WSU will join just a handful of other higher education institutions when it offers the entire archive online.
Starting around 2000, Stowell started asking a different set of questions -- called "psychographics" -- that delved into how cities are different. Are Bostonians more open to change? Don't Cleveland residents prefer just to keep things the way they are?
Lovrich has teamed with Bill Budd, chairman of WSU's environmental science and regional planning program, to organize and overlay the Stowell data in a way that will make a city's social character clear for any number of future analyses. So far they have studied 28 cities, but they hope to get to 50 by the end of the year. The psychographics allow them to measure a city's relative trust in people and public officials. Lovrich and Budd are also measuring how open cities are to taking risks.
They are also denoting whether a given community's population is predominately "moralistic" (respectful of a shared living space), "individualistic" (believing in competition for power) or "traditionalistic" (obeying authority and believing those in power know best).
The psychographic surveys are planned for 1,300 U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or more.
"We want to find out who the early adopters of sustainability are," Budd told a gathering last month at WSU Spokane, "how they initiated the measures, why they went forward with sustainability and so on."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & obilizing a community like Spokane around a specific cause or action based on values will be made easier if these psychometrics are documented and understood. And according to Stowell data from 2000-03, Spokane is a mixed bag when it comes to trust.
"Spokane is a nice family city," Lovrich told the group, "but not a very comfortable place for people who are different -- gays, different ethnicities, creatives or artists."
Spokane places 94th out of 286 cities on Richard Florida's creative class theory measurement.
Additionally, according to Stowell data, Spokane is found to be predominately moralistic, meaning it measures government by its commitment to the public good and concern for public welfare. Spokane's secondary characteristic is being individualistic, meaning it focuses more intently on private concerns.
Budd concluded that the top five cities (out of the 28 studied) that are most the most favorable toward supporting sustainability -- San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Albuquerque -- are also the cities that have the highest per capita investment in nonprofit organizations and the highest per capita square footage of park land.