Siloed Sustainability

Sustainability is all about securing, if not a better future, than at least one that is not a whole lot worse for our children and subsequent generations.

This ambition is usually described as having three pillars: Society, Economy, and Environment. It is not unusual to hear that one of these pillars has been given undue priority or another has been unfairly ignored.

But in the last couple of years, I have become aware of another aspect of siloed sustainability. Not three pillars but two challenges, which seem to rarely be considered or addressed by the same people or research. These are the twin climate challenges of mitigation and adaptation.

In transport circles, you might hear about them in discussions of infrastructure resilience or reducing car use. But you are unlikely to hear these discussions in the same room, around the same table.

This is a problem because many agree that the only way the transport sector can really tackle either the climate emergency or emergencies caused by climate change is by highlighting as many ‘co-benefits’ of sustainable (and resilient?!) transport as possible. For example, switching to active travel modes like walking and cycling not only reduces carbon emissions, but is also good for your health and your wallet.

Yet who asks if active travel has a resilience co-benefit or can be promoted as an adaptation measure? True, it seems unlikely that walking or cycling will be attractive options if the weather is too hot or too wet much more often.

However, that is too simplistic a view. Integration of land use and transport planning is key to increasing active travel, with more local service provision. Reducing the distance residents have to travel to access essential services during transport disruption makes communities more resilient because, maybe not during the storm, but when faced with post-storm flooding, walking to a local food shop or pharmacy is probably more practical than driving to such facilities further away.

Yet how often is such a scenario taken into account by those making policy, strategy, and decisions on the sustainability of transport proposals or land use planning developments? And what tools do highways teams have at their disposal to help communities without local services maintain accessibility when they have to close a road after flooding has occurred? The unsatisfactory answers to these questions are a manifestation of siloed sustainability planning.

Another example is the promotion of online access as a sustainable travel alternative. Transport researchers enthusiastically investigated the potential of ICT to reduce the need to travel, and thus reduce the environmental, economic, and social impacts of travel, including congestion, carbon emissions, and severance. However, there have been some disappointing results. Online shopping increases the vehicle mileage required for deliveries. Regular telecommuters tend to live further from their place of employment and make more trips for purposes other than commuting, resulting in only minimal reductions in their travel.

Yet these analyses do not consider the potential of online access to provide a resilient alternative to travelling. Information and communication technology infrastructure is often newer, more robust in extreme weather, and has more redundancy built in due to competition between providers than traditional road and rail networks.

Thus, a proactive approach to integrating online and transport access options would help communities adapt during extreme weather and give them a greater ability to continue to interact socially, maintain productivity, and respond in real time to an emergency. Only the siloed nature of planning for sustainability leaves such integration until the last minute and results in a reactive and piecemeal approach.

Therefore, just as we try to ‘join up’ our thinking on the three pillars of sustainability in order to build a holistic perspective, let’s also not forget to break down the invisible silos between adaptation and mitigation. It will help us all do our jobs better and deliver a better future.

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