Articles - 2007 | volume 3 | issue 2

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Response to How EPA research, policies, and programs can advance urban sustainability by Alan D. Hecht & William H. Sanders III

Martin A. Bierbaum
Municipal Land Use Center, The College of New Jersey, Ewing, NJ 08628 USA (email:

Keyword: environmental protection, EPA, management tools, urban environments, climate change, public policy, sustainable development

Citation: Bierbaum M. 2007. Response to How EPA research, policies, and programs can advance urban sustainability by Alan D. Hecht & William H. Sanders III. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 3(2):48-49. Published online Dec 18, 2007. http:///archives/vol3iss2/0708-020-response.bierbaum.html


Alan Hecht & William Sanders raise a profound question: Can an environmental regulatory agency with historic roots in controlling pollution implement sustainability? The probable answer is only with great difficulty, if at all. The basis for the authors’ optimism remains a mystery, at least to this reader. While they are to be commended for asking the question, Hecht & Sanders disregard the formidable challenges involved and thereby reduce the chances for agency success.

The authors suggest that the potential exists for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to serve as a “national environmental architect” by promoting research and innovation on urban sustainability issues. What do the authors mean by “national environmental architect” and what does “sustainability” mean in this context? Does it translate narrowly into the design of green buildings, or does it connote a transformation of our understanding of environmental protection and of the EPA mission?

If it is indeed the former, the rosy outlook of Hecht & Sanders can be more easily accepted. If the authors intend the latter interpretation, they have not dug deeply enough, failing to address inevitable resistance to change and how it might be overcome. What will be the role of leadership in articulating a new vision? How important will middle-management budget and resource-allocation decisions be? How will the agency celebrate its small wins to ensure building the necessary momentum? Will existing bureaucratic power relationships yield to reasonable changes? How does an agency find the time and resources to think, plan, and act for the long haul, while meeting daily pressures in the face of increased resource constraints?

Simply providing a list of EPA programs with brief descriptions, followed by an assertion that an already established Green Building Working Group (GBWG) will be successful in executing a strategy that consists primarily of programmatic integration will not do the trick. If organizational change is the goal, such transformation is not for the faint hearted. It requires strategy and political will. Moving from a media-based regulatory approach to a systems-based sustainability approach will not arrive as if by magic, absent requisite pain and effort.

Hecht & Sanders are correct in stating that “achieving sustainability in the built environment is not something EPA or any other agency can achieve by regulations alone.” They then add that “the clearest immediate need is having a broad ‘urban sustainability strategy’ with clear goals and metrics.” The concept of “urban” is never quite defined. However, that aside, the authors add that in light of the extent of urban development and building redevelopment, EPA may serve as a “nationally recognized environmental architect.” But how will this occur?

They recommend the importance of goals and metrics, and they are useful. Touting their value leads one to ask to what extent they have been employed historically in an agency driven by its regulatory regime. How important can we expect them to be in the future?

Moreover, goals and metrics are only a couple of the pieces of this complicated puzzle. Culture change requires strong and resourceful leadership with vision, extensive staff training and education, guidance documents, tools development, process improvements, and a talent for marketing showcase projects to counter business as usual. What of government tools that transcend EPA confines, such as tax policy and infrastructure investments? What kind of coordination and integration external to EPA might we expect?

It also takes time. Transformation is a multiyear process and, indeed, more than likely to be a multiadministration effort that will not play out in unilinear fashion. Fits and starts are inevitable with each new administration, pushes and pulls marred by power struggles between political appointees and more permanent staff. Will the organization have the stamina for this?

While posing a profound question, Hecht & Sanders are scant on complexity and the multiple challenges that will be confronted. An improved approach would begin with reporting on the lessons learned to date by GBWG and identifying what is needed to move beyond its current limitations.

A substantial body of work already exists with respect to disruptive technologies and discontinuous change, but these accounts typically center on the private sector. What insights might be gleaned from that context if those lessons learned were judiciously applied to the public arena where drivers for change tend to be less robust and with continuity often even more difficult to achieve?

Once the social learning aspects are adequately explored internally, along with the challenges and ways to overcome them, the authors might usefully move to society-wide questions of power relationships and confrontational struggle. Only then will the effort necessary to become a truly “national environmental architect” be fully appreciated. Or maybe Hecht & Sanders’ sights are much more modest and limited to simply adding yet another program alongside EPA’s already extensive repertoire. Would this more modest gain still be satisfying as a social improvement?

Martin Bierbaum holds a PhD in Planning and Public Policy, a juris doctorate, and a Master’s Degree in City and Regional Planning from Rutgers University. He held a range of policy positions in New Jersey state government between 1987 and 2004 including Assistant Director of the Office of State Planning, Director of Environmental Planning and Quality Management Coordinator at the Department of Environmental Protection, Special Assistant to the Commissioner for State Plan Implementation at the De-partment of Community Affairs, and Deputy Policy Director of the Governor’s Policy Office. In 2004, Dr. Bierbaum was named Executive Director of the Municipal Land Use Center at The College of New Jersey. The Center receives federal and state funding to provide technical assistance, grants, and training to local governments to promote smart growth and sustainable development. Dr. Bierbaum was awarded the 2006 Distinguished Leadership in Planning Award from the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association.

©2007 Bierbaum. CC-BY Attribution 4.0 License.
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