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Important Poll: Communicating to Americans about Sustainable Communities

Important Poll: Communicating to Americans about Sustainable Communities

Thanks to Jim Heid of Urban Green for putting us onto this important article.

Excerpted from an article by David Boyd at

Smart Growth America (SGA) has commissioned a national survey intended to gain a better understanding about the role of sustainable communities in America’s economic recovery.   “One of the main findings of the poll was just how fuzzed up the terms ‘sustainability’, ‘livability’, and ‘smart growth’ are for most Americans,” said Robin Rather, who designed the poll.  Most Americans, “have no idea what the ‘triple bottom line’ is or what it means to them.” To help clarify this issue, the survey used a clear and easy-to-understand definition: “A sustainable community is an urban, suburban or rural community that has more housing and transportation choices, is closer to jobs, shops or schools, is more energy independent and helps protect clean area and water.” In fact, 79 percent of the respondents indicated their ‘support’ for sustainability when defined in this way, with only 5 percent saying they were ‘opposed’ and 16 percent ‘still not sure’.

Rather’s conclusion: “if you define sustainability in terms people can understand, you can connect with people. They begin to warm up to what it looks like.” And it’s important, she told a recent national planning audience, “to understand the emotion of the age. Right now is a time of tremendous insecurity for a lot of people – political, economic, natural disasters. People crave for and there is a deep need for positive messages about going forward.”

In Rather’s eyes, planners and others need to find ways to tie the old ways of thinking about topics such as transportation and land use to the “next generation goals” about jobs and the economy. For example, the survey revealed an “enthusiasm gap” when transportation is presented as a stand-alone issue. The ideas of “expanding the network to handle the growing population” or “investing in projects with the greatest payback” simply did not resonate with survey participants. Note the link when jobs and the economy are included: 75 percent of respondents agreed that “infrastructure spending on roads, trains, and buses create jobs and help the economy get stronger.” Rather commented that “most people think housing and transportation need to be redefined because they don’t work for most people. If they are defined properly, the principles of sustainability and livability are quite popular.”

The survey also helps to reveal how sentiments are shifting when it comes to housing and walkability. Fifty-eight percent of the survey respondents reported that having “places to eat a meal or buy basic goods within walking distance” will have a strong impact on where they decide to live. Additionally, 68 percent agreed that they would accept a 5 percent or greater reduction in the square footage of their future housing if their new house was more walkable to shops and meals. And 82 percent agreed with the statement that “most Americans spend more than 50 percent of their household expenses on housing and transportation costs and that is too much.” Overall, 60 percent of respondents acknowledged how their tradeoffs in housing type and location might contribute to lower transportation costs, less time spent driving around, and creating a more enjoyable lifestyle.

The connections have been drawn – making our communities more sustainable means generating more jobs, lowering housing and transportation costs, and using our limited public funds more wisely. The importance of this work is bolstered by Smart Growth America’s statement that “82% of Americans believe that rebuilding the economy is the most important issue for our generation.” These are the types of projects America’s professional planners work on every day. However, Rather offers some pointed advice to the professional planning community: “If you continue to talk about ‘quality of life’, the messaging will kill you. Most people are really with us, but we need to pivot our communications strategy.” She’d have planners stop using terms like “green”, “livable”, “sustainable” and instead focus on the effects planning can have on economics. “People are tired of all the gloom and doom – people need a positive path to follow. As a country, if we can think about how we plan our communities to move forward, I think about how much comfort there is in that,” Rather added. The question now is whether America’s planners are listening.

Download the full report here.