"SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES” is one of those terms that stumps an editor. As I waded through the rich collection of articles that make up the theme section for this issue of Alternatives, I was forever struggling with it. Authors would write that communities wanted to “become sustainable,” as though sustainability was some sort of magical end point, which, once achieved, would merit a ribbon-cutting ceremony that announced: Congratulations, you are now a sustainable community!

I knew what the authors meant, but the inaccuracy, the lack of precision in the writing, challenged the editor in me.

So it was a relief to delve into Victoria lawyer Deborah Curran’s article about the policies and laws that affect community efforts to become sustainable. (There’s that term again!) She described them as a “wicked problem.” I’d come across the concept of wicked problems, particularly when applied to climate change, but had not attached it to sustainability.

One of the classic features of a wicked problem is that it has no “stopping rules.” With conventional or “tame” problems, the problem solver knows when the goal has been attained. With wicked problems, however, there is no conclusion. Instead, the problem continually evolves and mutates, so the job of problem solvers – municipal planners, community groups, etc. – has the pesky feature of never actually being “done.”

Having gained this insight, I turned my attention to sustainable-communityplanning (SCP) guru Ray Tomalty’s description of Canadian efforts to move toward sustainability. Once again, I felt a sense of relief when Tomalty explained that, “SCP does not have associated with it a universally accepted definition.” Instead, he writes, “The concept of community sustainability (and of sustainability itself) is rather diffuse.”

Now I didn’t feel quite so alone. Other people were clearly coping with the same concern about sustainability.

I also recognized that the planners and community activists, who are intent on implementing sustainability plans, are busy people. So it was a delight to see that Kelly Hawke Baxter and Chad Park, both from The Natural Step, presented their thoughts on the topic in seven succinct lessons learned.

Jennifer Taylor’s description of Masdar City near Abu Dhabi is pure eye candy for those interested in sustainable communities. Complete with a $24-billion (US) price tag, Masdar City will be the world’s first zero-carbon, zerowaste, car-free city. Slick as the oil-rich nation building it, Masdar City is a very different approach to sustainability than Whole Village, the ecovillage depicted by Jonathan Taggart in his black and white photo essay. It is also a very different model than the one described by the International Development Research Centre’s Mark Redwood. His Focus Cities Research Initiative involves collaborative, grassroots efforts in eight developing countries.

We are delighted to bring you a profile of Earth Day Canada’s 2009 Hometown Hero. Liz Benneian, who heads up Oakvillegreen, is exactly the type of creative and determined individual that we need more of if we are to “become sustainable.” And finally, in our continuing commitment to highlight environmental-educational opportunities, we include a pared-down directory of university programs. It is accompanied by examples of a growing trend wherein academic researchers and citizen groups are matching their skills to undertake much needed communitybased research.

I hope everyone is enjoying these dog days of summer and that you will all join me in welcoming Fraser Los, Alternatives’ new assistant editor.

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.

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