As the United States urbanized during the twentieth century, communities around the country recognized that building and servicing the industrial, commercial, residential, and transport facilities needed for residents to thrive required extensive planning. As a result planning commissions emerged to advise local governments on a host of growth-related issues. The introduction of Oregon’s pioneering land use system also reflected the widespread understanding that careful management of urban and rural lands was essential to enhancing our quality of life. It remains a model for the country.
The twenty first century comes with new challenges. Climate change is upon us as the Earth, mainly due to human use of CO2 emitting fossil fuels, warms rapidly with potentially catastrophic consequences as oceans rise, rainfall patterns shift, flora and fauna change, and human communities struggle to adjust. Equally serious is the accelerating, planet-wide loss of biodiversity that is largely driven by unsustainable human activities such as over-hunting, overfishing, and the destruction of habitat.
Because these crises have emerged slowly and almost imperceptibly, people often don’t recognize the scale of the issues involved or, if even they do, many don’t view them as an immediate threat. Others say the problems are simply too large for individuals or local communities to do anything about them and they hold the state and federal governments responsible. The upshot of both of these attitudes is that it is easy for individuals and local communities to do nothing while simply continuing outmoded and harmful practices.
If, however, we wish to avoid bequeathing a disastrous future to our children, it is imperative that we act now and at every level to make our communities economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. No doubt the federal and state governments must mobilize enormous resources (material and knowledge based) needed to reverse the impacts of the environmental crises, but local communities also have a decisive role to play in this process. It is local government that does most of the planning for future development and delivers most of the daily services residents expect. Hence, local expertise and local resources will be pivotal to rethinking and implementing changes in the ways we organize our communities.
Many Oregon communities are not waiting for the state and federal governments to act. They recognize that a sound future rests upon adopting policies that are economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable and they know that they have many local resources to tap into that encourage innovation and success. For Forest Grove, for example, sustainability is “essential for the continued livability of the planet.” Forest Grove, like Eugene, has established a Sustainability Commission that includes citizens from all walks of life, e.g., the academic, business, nonprofit, and public sectors and is charged with reviewing and initiating city policies related to environmental health, economic prosperity, and social equity. This approach reflects the growing awareness of the need to embed sustainable practices into all aspects of community life.
Lasting change grows from the bottom up. Local governments that encourage broad-based participation will be decisive in building a more sustainable world. For that reason we urge Salem to join its neighbors and create a Sustainability Commission of its own. A vibrant community rich with talented, engaged citizens, Salem could serve as a model for sustainable development in the Willamette Valley.
Salem Weekly editorial board members: Lois Stark, Richard Reid, Russ Beaton, Jim Scheppke, William Smaldone, A.P. Walther.
What is sustainability?
Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.
Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.