“Sustainability means being able to balance the budget, providing basic services for public safety, transportation, and business development, and encouraging development of the local resources that are special to the community,” said Paul Schreiber, mayor of Ypsilanti. “In Ypsilanti’s case, this is historic architecture, Eastern Michigan University and the proximity to Ann Arbor.”
In 2013, I wrote nine columns focused on the city of Ypsilanti. The discussion was mostly about the city’s chartered way forward, its Master Plan, but it was also about its recovery from a recession and its ability to pay back a considerable amount of debt. In other words, the story of Ypsilanti, a small city of 19,621 people, mirrored that of the U.S.
Certainly these problems continue. Unemployment is above the national level, and above the 5 to 6 percent economists consider healthy. Of course, a new year starts a new discussion to be had. The topic of discussion: sustainability.
Before the new year started I asked a few people to define sustainability in about 200 words or less. I received two responses that are noteworthy, one from the mayor, and another from a student. (I tried to contact the university’s subsection for urban planning to no avail).
Sustainability is a loose word, and by that I mean there is no strict definition in terms of public policy – the word can mean what you want it to mean, and context matters. For a mayor of a small city it can mean the ability to pay the bills in the future, for an environmentalist it’s hoop houses and urban farms. It’s also a word that, without plans to follow it, is empty.
What is there to sustain, and how do we sustain it?
To be sure I did not ask the mayor, or the student I communicated with to propose policy, and there are a host of “sustainability” measures listed in the city’s Master Plan.
I do want people to think about the word sustainability, however, and think about what that means for their communities, because that is the quest now – to sustain. A city like Ypsilanti will not be the next San Antonio – Ypsilanti is 4.51 square miles, 40 percent of which is taken up by EMU. It has to maintain what it has now, like its “historic architecture” for example.
Aimee Frey, a student at EMU. delivered a well-written definition of sustainability in her junior year that I would like to share.
“When looking at the textbook definition of sustainability, one finds a brief description of maintaining a diverse and productive ecosystem,” Frey said. “Anyone looking at this definition would imagine a wildlife documentary, where the food chain is strong and every animal falls into their specific niche and are able to keep the ecosystem going.”
“Humankind, with the introduction of industry has altered this picturesque idea of a sustainable community and in turn, created a new definition of the word that is defined by actions rather than images of sunny meadows,” she said. “Sustainability goes beyond hugging trees, or putting solar panels on the roofs of our buildings. Sustainability targets both the environmental impact an action has on our community as well as the likelihood that this activity will be able to continue, without damage, or issues, into the distant future. Without taking sustainability into account, the economically beneficial actions that we take today will impact our children, their children, tomorrow. So frequently we find ourselves blinded by the possible gain of the moment, rather than the long-term ability to sustain that gain long into our lives.”
Frey is a member of Student Government, and she chairs the committee on energy and sustainability.
A topic for the new year is sustainability. The question to ask anybody who invokes this sometimes loose and occasionally hollow word is: what does a person mean when they says sustainability? Secondly, how will they achieve that vision of sustainability?
Mayor Paul Schreiber has decided not to seek reelection this year after two terms in office and the election is months away. Candidates will arise over the next few months, and these questions must be asked of them as with any other civic leaders.
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