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Scotland sums it up monosyllabically

08th February 2011

By Rob Cowan

Is there any positive aspect of planning or urban design that Patrick Geddes had not mastered by 1915? Possibly, but I have not come across it yet. The thought is prompted by some good news from Scotland. I will come to that in a moment.

The language of urbanism is awash with over-used words that stand for ill-defined concepts. Never, though, has a word been so quickly adopted, so widely used and so ill-defined as sustainability. By 2002 Heather Cruickshank of Cambridge University had found around 500 definitions of the term, though few of these are likely to be usefully precise. Often the word is used as a placebo, free of any real content but intended to give a sense of comfort to the writer or the reader. For urban professionals it is the verbal equivalent of a smiley face.

The good news is that the words sustainable and sustainability may be on the way out. It is true that the government is committed to basing the whole planning system on 'sustainable development', and the CLG has promised to define the term sometime in the summer. But this has happened before. The previous government, despite repeated requests, never did come up with a definition. 'Defining sustainable development more precisely would run the risk of opening up a Pandora's box with lots of Trojan horses jumping out of it,' Tony McNulty, minister for planning and mixed metaphors, told the House of Commons in 2003. And elsewhere the cracks are showing.

When the term sustainability first hit the big time in the 1980s, it referred – vaguely – to environmental matters. Soon the government, finding this too restrictive, introduced the concept of 'social, economic and environmental sustainability'. This meant that the environmental imperative could be neutralised by the other two if it became too demanding. The term's devaluation continued apace, and soon it served little purpose other than to fill gaps in thinking.

Things changed around the time of the publication of the devaluation

Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2006. While being far from the first report on the subject, this one had a significant impact on public attitudes. Discussion moved from the vague notion of sustainability (social, economic, environmental and, a new category, cultural) to the more concrete and measurable concept of climate change.

Scotland seems always to have relatively resistant to the logorrhea of sustainability. By 2002 the Scottish Executive (later renamed the Scottish Government) seemed to be replacing the terms 'social, economic and environmental sustainability' by 'social justice, economic competitiveness and environmental quality'. Anyone who meant more than what those words conveyed could explain what they meant, rather than expecting 'sustainability' to express whatever was in their head.

Recently the Scottish Government has started using a new trilogy: place, work and folk. This brings us back down to reality, focusing on three monosyllables that suggest what the business of placemaking is concerned with. The terms are borrowed from Patrick Geddes, who in turn derived them from the work of the French sociologist, economist and social reformer Frederic Le Play (1806-82). Place, work, folk: their simplicity reminds us that these are concepts to think about, not – as 'sustainability' has long been – a substitute for thinking.

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