Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Sustainability conference aims to move past triteness

Ask 600 average citizens to get together and talk about sustainability and you might hear slogans like: Mandate hybrid cars! Ban plastic bags! Bring on bike-sharing! No more paper cups!

Put 600 sustainability experts together and it would sound more like: “Do something substantial.”

Just what “substantial” might look like is expected to tumble out forcefully on March 5–6 at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s sustainability conference at the Sturm College of Law. The annual gathering is where professional planners, attorneys, architects, Realtors, academics, government officials and others from throughout the West struggle with how to move America beyond trite phrases and toward substantial action.

The talks aren’t easy, cautions James van Hemert, institute executive director, but they have a “big impact on public policy.”

Which, he notes, means addressing more than bags and cups.

“OK, let’s get rid of the paper cups; that’s fine,” he allows. “But in the meantime the elephants are still in the room. The ecological footprint you’re gonna shrink because of that is infinitesimal.”

So what would make a big difference?

Van Hemert ticks off a few items for starters:
•    Reduce total vehicle trips instead of just shifting to hybrid cars and driving the same amount.
•    Redesign communities in ways that encourage biking and walking and include mixed uses so there’s something to walk to.
•    Build transit systems so most people are proximate to a stop, not just the handful living in a Transit Oriented Development area.
•    Combine land uses so homes can be for more than just living and so affordable or transitional housing is in every neighborhood.
•    Unfetter development in core urban areas to increase density.
•    Improve bicycle networks with better striping and signage and take decisive steps to encourage bike commuting to work.

Leading this year’s assault on sustainability platitudes is keynote speaker Ralph Becker, Salt Lake City mayor. Becker is a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, one of the highest honors in the profession and one bestowed for “significant contributions to planning and society.”

Becker’s gift is that he understands not just sustainable planning, van Hemert says, but how to integrate it into city policy.

“He campaigned on a platform of sustainability,” van Hemert says. “Not just ‘let’s green up city hall and give city employees hybrid cars.’ But policy that will permeate all of the planning and implementation of building and redeveloping the city…actually changing the way the city functions.”

Becker will explain how he’s doing it in Salt Lake and help chart the conference’s course toward five main themes: housing; mobility and transportation; climate change; green urbanism; and standards and measurement.

The green urbanism segment will address issues such as whether the marketplace is ready for Zero Energy Buildings. The measurement segment will explore new ways of deciding whether “green” practices are actually working, and examine the pros and cons of the LEED system of rating buildings.

Other topics include equally thorny issues, such as how to better engage the public in sustainability; techniques by which homeowners and businesses can finance renewable energy improvements and ways to motivate communities on a local level to fight global warming.

The biggest elephant in the room at this year’s conference is the economy, van Hemert says. Fear may be trumping the excitement of a new administration and the impetus it could give to sustainability initiatives. Nevertheless, van Hemert is optimistic.

“The U.S. is like this large supertanker,” he says. “You don’t turn it around very quickly, but it’s turning.”

For information about the conference, visit the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at

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