Sustainability is a term that has developed a common usage in many areas of society, but often with a very narrow definition within the area under consideration. Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as:

  • able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
  • involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
  • able to last or continue for a long time

Most frequently, the word sustainable is associated with “green” or environmentally specific concepts. Energy efficiency, waste recycling, water conservation, greenspace and pedestrian friendly urban design are conceptual basics in what most community leaders think of when addressing community sustainability.

From an economic development perspective, sustainability means far more than than addressing exclusively environmental concerns.   Economic development sustainability requires the consideration of all community assets … Financial, Social and Environmental.

For far too long, communities, counties, states and our nation have viewed economic development narrowly in the context of “how many jobs can we create”, or “how much new investment can we entice?” In a simplistic context of a rising tide lifts all boats, this makes total sense. Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple any more, and communities are beginning to move beyond this perspective and are placing a much higher importance on environmental concerns.

What frequently remains as a missing economic development component is the serious consideration of social needs within the community. It sometimes feels as though community leaders look at their economic development initiatives and say, “Well of course we’re doing this to improve the economic conditions of ALL our community!” Unfortunately, the best intentions don’t always render the results desired by the community.

From a purist view of economic development, almost nothing matters more than how current residents of a community will benefit from economic growth. But in that context, economic development efforts should truly be focused on creating enhanced opportunity for those in greatest need.

A sustainable approach to economic development requires consideration all of components. Sustainable economic development gains its greatest momentum from what has become known as the triple bottom line approach. This is a perspective that identifies social and environmental impacts as co-equal elements with financial progress.

Recruiting companies that create jobs for current residents should be more highly valued than those that simply bring new jobs to the community. New development in depressed areas of the community should be encouraged over projects in high demand areas, with limited community resources allocated accordingly. Communities also need to think about conserving environmental resources for future generations and include strategies to preserve community values.

With communities facing fiscal challenges and needing growth, economic development has become an essential focus for most communities. Sustainable economic development requires leaders to think beyond urban planning techniques in how they approach development growth. It necessitates thinking about what the community wants and needs, as well as thinking about what it will commit to that effort and what it will not. It needs a human component as much as an analytical component.

In future posts, I’ll break down some of the key elements of the triple bottom line approach and provide real world examples of what works and what doesn’t. From time to time I’ll address issues that may not be specific to triple bottom line strategies, but have a broader impact on the economic development world.