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An urban planner's dream

An interview with DUSP's Judith Layzer
Judith Layzer
Judith Layzer

Judith Layzer, the Edward H. (1962) and Joyce Linde Career Development Associate Professor of Environmental Policy in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is an expert on how sustainability pressures will drive change in the built environment of the city -- and believes those pressures might make some "healthy changes and opportunities" more possible than ever.

Layzer co-directs the Environmental Policy and Planning group's Society, Business and the Environment Project. Her research and teaching focus on the roles of science, values and storytelling in environmental politics, as well as on the effectiveness of different approaches to environmental planning and management.

Q. What would you say is the generally held public definition of sustainability?

A. The conventional definition is the three-legged stool -- that social equity, economic development and environmental regeneration all are essential components, and there's that sweet spot in the middle where they all come together. I don't use the three-legged stool. I don't find it useful. My preferred metaphor is the container. That is, our social and economic systems have to operate within the constraints of a healthy, resilient natural system; the natural system is the container for the social and economic systems.

But that definition is not only controversial, it's also antithetical to the way the world is currently organized in terms of how we run our global economy.

My view is that we have to consume a whole helluva lot less.

Q. Which sustainability-related pressures do you think are going to have the biggest impact? What's going to cause people to change their behaviors soonest?

A. I think in the United States, it's going to be energy prices. That's pretty clear.
There are a lot of healthy changes and opportunities that will come out of higher energy prices, of course. In cities, there will be a massive shift away from the car. There will be more emphasis on walking, biking, mass transit. The long, car-based commute is on the wane and should be.

All of this is in some ways an urban planner's dream. It's the way we thought people should be living anyway.

Q. What do you think the impediments to addressing sustainability issues are going to be?

A. The single biggest impediment is the fact that none of the things that are limited in our natural system have prices. We don't price carbon, we don't price ecosystem services. If we're really going to do this -- I mean if we're really going to do this -- then we need to put a price on what's scarce.

Q. Starting with prices on finite natural resources?

A. You have to start there. You say, what is scarce now in the world? And it's not human beings and it's not human-made capital. But what is increasingly, frighteningly scarce is natural capital. And we have barely begun to talk about pricing it.

If I were dictator of the world, the first thing I would do is dramatically reduce the taxes on labor and instead price natural resources and natural capital. That to me would be the single most important thing we could do to put ourselves on a path to sustainability.

Q. Are there ways that companies can begin capitalizing on these trends and accounting for them in their strategic plans?

A. There's great opportunity in innovations that make products simpler. Many studies show that adding bells and whistles to products doesn't actually enhance user experience. People end up ignoring them. I'm a testament to that … one of the few things I bought this year was this fantastic clothesline. Somebody really figured out how to manufacture it out of relatively benign materials and make it so it will last forever, so it's a really high-quality thing. And now I don't have to use my dryer. This product has actually simplified my life.

Companies that figure out how to make things in a way that takes into account both the biological stream and the technical stream -- a way that considers the life cycle of the product -- are going to succeed.

A sustainable economy is not going to be driven by an urge to consume as much … as possible. It's going to be driven by the urge for less stuff but really good stuff. Good food, good products, things that last.

This really is a different model. And, you know, people aren't going to get rich. But more people will live moderately well and how much better would that be? Who really needs to be rich?

Q. You realize how groovy you're sounding, right?

A. Yeah. But what's so funny is you look at me, and I couldn't be less groovy. I don't fit the model. I don't live in some yurt, as the caricature insists. And most people who feel the way I do don't fit that model, either. It's a silly caricature that was a very effective way of marginalizing environmental concern. It worked very well for a while, but, you know, I think we're done with that.

This article is adapted from "An Urban Planner's Dream" an interview published by MIT Sloan Management Review in April 2009.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 29, 2009 (download PDF).

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