Sustainability is about Permanence

According to Richard Florida in his latest book, Who’s Your City?, the average American moves every seven years. “More than 40 million people relocate each year; 15 million make significant moves of more than 50 or 100 miles,” writes Florida. That’s a lot of carboard boxes, time and energy.

The implications for such a footloose society is further complicated by a staggering statistic: a roughly 50 percent divorce rate nationally, leading to multiple homes for what was once a single family home. Of course, second home ownership was also on the rise before the financial meltdown, increasing by 22 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to the Harvard University’s Joint Center on Housing Studies. Now we have two (or more) homes (to fill with stuff) only to later sell them, on average, every seven years.

Then when we age, we’re left with the quagmire of what to do with all our accumulated stuff. The solution for many, of course, is to jam it into self-storage lockers. Over the past two decades, self-storage has emerged as a $20 billion industry and comprises over 52,000 facilities, according to the Self Storage Association. In California, many people park their vehicles in their driveway or on the street not because of their famously great weather (no city snow removal), but because their garages are packed full of more stuff.

Florida points out that there are several key trends emerging:

(1) Despite globalization, place remains an important aspect of the economy.

(2) Places are growing more diverse and specialized — from their economic makeup and job market to the quality of life they provide and the kinds of people that live in them.

(3) We live in a highly mobile society, giving most of us more say over where we live.

I’d argue that these trends are also factors that play into the decision many Americans make when deciding upon a certain locale or community to settle down for a long-term commitment to sustainable living.

After all, a key to sustainability is permanence. When you stick around long enough in your community, you come to care more about what happens to it, from the pollution that a company might dump into a river or how well the city keeps up with a park that your family enjoys. Relationships are established among neighbors and a rich interdependency is created that usually fosters a safe, clean and happy environment for all who call a particular place home. By staying put, we can also make investments in the future of clean energy (perhaps with an on-site wind turbine or PV system) or healthy soil, investments that make sense on levels other than purely financial. But we need to stay around for a while to appreciate them.

Free to Choose (where we live)

It used to be you grow old where you grew up or settled where you found employment. For some Americans, that’s still very much the case. But for a growing number — whether we’re young and single, married with kids or empty-nesters who decided not to have children or who had kids and they’ve grown up and out of the house — we can choose the place we want to live for the opportunities that it might provide. As Florida puts it, we’re coming to terms with “how to balance our career goals against our lifestyle and other needs.”

As I write about in Rural Renaissance and to a lesser extent, ECOpreneuring, this has spawned a return to the countryside by those seeking a simpler, pastoral quality of life to either raise their kids (perhaps also home schooling them) and growing food from their own kitchen gardens. Others in their retiree years are seeking to relax where traditional values of community, safety and companionship trump lattes and nightclubs. Over the past 20 years, there has been a net migration into rural areas according to demographers, Kenneth Johnson and Calvin Beale in their study summarized in the The Rural Rebound. In America, there still are places where you don’t have to lock your door at night. Imagine that.

In Florida’s book, however, he focuses on medium and large cities and the opportunities they provide. He argues that the opportunities are based upon talent, innovation and creativity. While about 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, the remaining 80 percent live in our medium and large metro areas (city and suburbs). Among his top picks is Madison, Wisconsin — interestingly less than a hour away from our farm and Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast. We often head to Madison to pick up special food provisions at the Willy Street Cooperative, of which my family is a member, or attend a green festival like the Isthmus Green Day; more than a third of our bed & breakfast guests live in Madison.

Disappointingly, Florida’s focus in Who’s Your City? remains largely on economic activity, measured, of course, by GNP. His conclusions tend toward “standard of living” (aka stuff) criteria, not quality of life and happiness conclusions, though the two may overlap in some of his highest rated cities. I’m not sure he gets the whole green-sustainability-climate change thing because there are some cities that he scores highly that might be underwater (or without any water) by the end of this century. Perhaps that’s his next book.

My observation in many of the cities he highlights is that the awareness of our relationship with both the environment and other people factor largely into the residents of these communities. From Austin, Texas, to San Francisco, I’ve noticed that a large percentage of people who live in these communities also share a sense of responsibility to care for the Earth and for each other. Bike trails crisscross everywhere. Government buildings are LEED certified. There isn’t just one farmers’ market, there are many and offered more than one day a week. Public spaces abound. Many communities are places where a car isn’t even needed to get around.

Oh, and one more thing. People really like to live in these sustainability-oriented communities for a long time. They put PV systems on their roof. They join a community garden.

So regardless of whether you call home a 5.5 acre “hobby farm” in southwestern Wisconsin like we do or a eco-condo with rooftop veggie garden in downtown Chicago, sticking around in one place can translate to meaningful savings to the environment and foster greater social cohesiveness. Just say no to self-storage lockers and moving vans, and savor the sense of place you’ve come to love and call home.

Photography: John Ivanko/ (view up State Street in Madison, Wisconsin)

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  • While permanence can absolutely contribute to a model for sustainable living, it is certainly not a prerequisite. Models for nomadic sustainability in various forms are as old as humanity itself. It is sad to think that one must be a permanent resident of a community in order to respect the local environment and forge relationships with the people there. While I may not be installing solar panels on my rental property property any time during my year-long lease, there are many other ways in which one can foster a model for sustainability.

    Perhaps it is not that we move, but the way in which many people choose to do it that is unsustainable?

  • Very nice post. [my slightly rambling reaction is…] The economics can also be deceptive (besides the usual GDP problems) because of the way that imported items are counted in gross (not VA, as in VAT) terms… Put differently, sustainable may not show up in the measures. OTOH, fewer locks and easier agreement among neighbors make for better living, even if the numbers are not in “economic output.”
    — David (an economist 🙂

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  • that we move is not the probem – niether is it that we change – both are inevitable.

    its how we move and change that matters.

    tho i admit, this too will change