The term "sustainability" boils down to the "triple bottom line" for any company or program: Its impact on people, its impact on the planet and its profitability.
The embrace of profit as one of the three elements of the triple bottom line is sensible, not cynical - we can make a good living from living well.
Besides, marrying a movement to money does wonders for its viability, and that's what makes the term different from, say, '60s farming communes.
"To just say 'green' . . . too often, that leaves out the impact on people and jobs, the social-justice impact," says Leanne Krueger-Braneky, executive director of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia (SBN).
Sustainability is more all-encompassing than any single definition or catch phrase. To City Planning Director Alan Greenberger, sustainability is as close as the buildings where we live and work.
"The rowhouse is almost the perfect sustainability model," Greenberger said. "You have two warm walls. But, the houses are old, so weatherizing them is key."
The other end of that spectrum is a commitment to environmentally sensible new construction, from studio apartments to the Comcast Center, but also construction of new roads and bridges that factors in storm-water management and open space. It's about meeting the needs of the present without messing up the future.
"Sewers are probably one of the more important and least sexy things out there," Greenberger said. "Cities are by their very definition pretty impervious, so water is diverted into sewers." When a city does that well, it sustains a big resource while sustaining health. And that sustains energy. Which sustains financial resources. And on and on.
Underground cisterns, like the system at the new Salvation Army building in Hunting Park, collect rainwater for use in irrigating the site. Such effective water management is a huge help.
Philly places in the top 10 (of the nation's 50 largest cities) in four sustainability categories, according to SustainLane's 2008 rankings: city commuting, metro transit ridership, locally produced food and natural disaster risk (not including Eagles draft day). We're in the top 20 for six other categories, including tap-water quality, a "green economy" and housing affordability.
Most important, in 2008, Mayor Nutter created an Office of Sustainability and made it a cabinet-level post. Penn heavyweight Mark Alan Hughes runs it, and he tends to instill instant religion in those who hear him speak.
And while we may not be at the level of a Portland or Seattle, for a large East Coast town that was dominated by manufacturing not so long ago, we are somewhat of a leader.
Wednesday, Mayor Nutter unveils "Greenworks Philadelphia," an comprehensive framework to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the U.S. by 2015. It sets goals in five areas - energy, environment, equity, economy and engagement.
Paul Glover, founder of Green Jobs Philly and an adjunct professor at Temple University, cites Philly's emerging reputation for inner-city agriculture (recently bolstered with a pilot project by the city's Redevelopment Agency), food co-ops and farmers' markets.
"One thing we do very well is the amount of food we provide locally, from Lancaster County to South Jersey, and Delaware, too," said Greenberger.
We're also a major port for fruits and vegetables. That's a big plus for the city (and longshoremen) because studies show it is more energy efficient to have apples shipped from New Zealand than to have the same amount trucked in from Washington State.
The use of infrared motion detectors to turn lights on and off automatically in city buildings has meant huge energy savings.
Then there's the Comcast Center, one of the highest-ranking sustainable skyscrapers in all the land. High-performance glass and the use of natural light that penetrates deep into the building are just a couple of features, but maybe the biggest one is that it sits atop a transit hub, Suburban Station. Sustainability is all about the two-fers.
The Delaware River's wasted and politically troubled waterfront might just be the single worst example of sustainability in Philadelphia. For years, access to the river has been cut off by six lanes of I-95 and six lanes of Columbus Boulevard. Tombstones of our industrial past still sit, rotting, on the banks of what could be the most valuable real estate in the region. The "big box" stores on Delaware Avenue are an environmentalist's nightmare.
Regional experts said the federal government can start by not using current or future stimulus dollars to fund the same old projects that have been proven ineffective in the past. In particular, training programs with no jobs (regardless if they are "green" or not) at the end of the rainbow.
For Greenberger, funding for weatherization programs like the one up and running in Philly is the biggest deal right now. "They help the city in general and have a very direct effect on energy costs for homeowners," he said.
Buy local. When you fork it over to a local business, three times as much money stays in the community, studies show.
Krueger-Braneky's advice on that front: Pick one thing and stick to it.
Other things don't have to involve brushing up on civil engineering. Put blankets over your hot-water heater. Get a better thermostat. Take the subway.
If you can safely divert rainwater to use for watering your lawn or garden, or washing your car, do it. It saves you money. It helps lessen the load on the sewer system. It helps the planet. Your basic triple bottom line.
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