My short piece in The Conversation

The US has become a nation of suburbs

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Suburbanites now outnumber urban and rural dwellers.
Ursula Page/shutterstock.com

Christopher Boone, Arizona State University

Since 1970, more Americans have lived in the suburbs than central cities. In 2010, suburbanites outnumbered city and rural dwellers combined for the first time. We Americans live in a suburban nation.

Despite several concerted efforts by city governments to lure residents, suburbanization continues largely unabated. Census figures from earlier this year show that suburbs of warm climate “Sun Belt” cities in the South and West continue to grow, while cities in the cold climate “Snow Belt” of the Midwest and Northeast decline.

Smaller metropolitan areas with fewer than 500,000 people have also grown, related to an improving economy and job creation in smaller urban centers. This ongoing shift towards the suburbs has significant environmental repercussions.

Since cities and suburbs are home for 8 of every 10 Americans, views of the country are often distorted. Most travel occurs within or between cities. Although rural areas have more than three times the miles of roadways as urban areas, more than two-thirds of the 3 trillion miles that vehicles travel each year in the U.S. are in urban and suburban areas.

Jobs, too, are overwhelmingly centered around cities. Less than 2 percent of the American labor force is employed in agriculture.

Many of my students are surprised that the land area occupied by cities is only 3 percent of the nation’s territory. However, they are correct in that cities have an outsized impact on the economy. In 2016, metropolitan areas contributed US$16.8 trillion dollars to the nation’s gross domestic product, more than 90 percent of the country’s economy.

With this economic activity comes a high use of natural resources and concentrated pollution production. Although density can be more efficient when it comes to energy use, the sheer number of urban dwellers means that cities, despite a small physical footprint, have a big energy and pollution footprint.

Rising suburbanization undermines some of the energy efficiency gained by high density living in urban cores. Manhattan has lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions than the suburbs of New York, thanks to factors like apartment living, high costs of car ownership and extensive public transit. Of course, not everyone can afford to live in Manhattan even if they want to. Low-density suburbs are an affordable alternative.

Even so, suburban life can look less desirable. As the U.S. population ages, elderly people may end up “stranded in the suburbs,” far from adequate public transit and unable or unwilling to drive. At my urban university, a mixed use retirement facility was sold out before ground was broken. In the U.S., there are more than 100 university-based retirement communities and the number is growing.

The trend toward suburban life could soon come to an end. Millennials – the generation born between 1981 and 1997 – appear to prefer urban life. They are happier in cities, especially large metropolitan areas, than older generations. The millennial population is growing fastest in metro areas in the Sun Belt and western states, and slowest in the Snow Belt. Topping the list of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas for millennials are Colorado Springs, San Antonio, Denver and Orlando.

Will millennials follow older generations to the suburbs as they marry, have children, recover from the shocks of the Great Recession and find affordable housing? The jury is still out.

Whatever happens, it’s unlikely that people will start to move out of cities and suburbs and back into rural areas. Even though increased connectivity and the internet of things will make remote work more possible than before, businesses will continue to concentrate in urban cores, because they profit from being close to one another. (Futurists once thought the telephone would make crowded cities unnecessary.)

I believe that it’s likely the U.S. will remain a nation of suburbs for some time to come. That will pose a continuing environmental challenge. But it will also bring a new set of opportunities for millennials, who are predicted to overtake baby boomers by next year as the largest generation in the country. How will that generation remake the suburbs to suit their needs and desires without exacerbating current environmental challenges? The answer has profound implications for the nature of cities and urban life in the U.S.The Conversation

Christopher Boone, Dean and Professor of Sustainability, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ASU School of Sustainability home to international students

As I noted in an earlier post, students in the School of Sustainability are coming from far and wide to study with us. This year, we have students from 24 countries in our undergraduate and graduate programs. The diverse origins of our students reflects the strong international reputation of ASU’s School of Sustainability. Having students from all corners of the globe is also an extraordinary gift.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, a large and impactful part of my education was learning alongside students from other parts of the world.  I was fortunate to be in a graduate program where more than half of the students were from countries other than Canada. I have not forgotten how valuable that experience was.  I am committed to making sure that our own students benefit from global experiences, whether learning with students from other parts of the world or learning in other parts of the world.

This year, Dr. Rob Melnick has taken on the responsibility of coordinating and enhancing all of our international efforts. The purpose is to make sure that students recognize the range of global experiences available to them–lots of exciting things to come!

 

ASU School of Sustainability is a national program

The School of Sustainability (SOS) continues to grow in size, reputation, and reach. Data from this year’s class show that students come from 42 states and the District of Columbia. I am proud that SOS serves the nation by providing an excellent education for students from all parts of the country (and many parts of the world: see next post).

This year we have more than 500 undergraduate majors and 200 graduate students studying with us in SOS. When we add the sustainability minor, sustainability concentrations in business, engineering, public policy, and interdisciplinary studies, along with the certificates in sustainability food systems and energy systems, I anticipate the total number of students in sustainability programs will exceed 2,500 by the end of the year. What all of this exemplifies is ASU’s institutional commitment to sustainability, inclusivity, and impacts that reach far and wide.

The disruptive force of sustainability and why we need to be careful

A coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1947.
Coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1946. By U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17048858

Sustainability is a disruptive force. By fundamentally changing the way we think about interconnected social-ecological-technical systems, sustainability demands new models for governance, institutions, economies, technologies, and value systems. These are necessary changes. All of our students know that maintaining the status quo will be inadequate at best, dangerous at worst. We must find new ways, new interventions, to build a sustainable future.

However, change can bring hardship. In the 15th century, the advent of the printing press in Europe set in motion the spread of knowledge and literacy, but put thousands of scribes out of work. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century spurned the growth of incomes, cities, life spans, and educational attainment, but undermined the way of life for small-scale artisans. The knowledge revolution and growth of computing and robotics is eliminating occupations and will do so in ways we don’t fully comprehend. Transitions can release people from drudgery or dangerous work, but also separate them from their livelihoods, their communities, what they know and how they define themselves.

We are now undergoing an energy transition, away from coal to natural gas and renewables. This should have positive effects for the planet by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. But it can be devastating to coal mining communities. The planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the worst polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States (and also expensive to operate), will have positive environmental benefits but will put thousands of people out of work, many on the Navajo Reservation. As GIOS Director Dr. Dirks reminds us, one of the reasons that energy from solar panels is becoming inexpensive is that these systems, once installed, require very few workers.

It is important to remember that embedded in the term sustainability is the notion of human well-being. A key challenge for all of you is develop transition strategies that are just and fair, paying careful attention to people who are most vulnerable. The pace of change will continue to accelerate and change will happen in sudden, unanticipated ways. And change must happen. What I ask of all of you is to use your deep systems and normative perspectives to make sure that the transitions lead to ‘inclusive, inter-generational human well-being’ (Matson, Clark & Andersson 2016) while taking care of earth’s life systems on which we all depend.

Sustainability is a disruptive force, and should be. But I urge all of you to take on this awesome responsibility, and amazing sets of opportunities, with care. I am confident you will.

Congratulations Class of 2018!

Matson, Pamela, Clark, William C., and Krister Andersson. 2016. Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sustainability and the value of inclusion

Sustainability has often been described as a ‘normative science.’ This means that sustainability asks what we should do to make things better for present and future generations and the planetary systems that support life. Embedded in the notion of should and better is a sense of fairness, or equity.

Sustainability is a powerful idea because it starts with the principle of inter-generational equity, meaning that current generations need to think of the well-being of future generations, not just their own, as they make decisions.

It also includes the need for intra-generational equity, or fairness within present generations of people, both as a principle of fairness and for what is necessary to get us to a sustainable future (gross inequities can undermine the ability of societies to think and act in the interests of long term viability of people and the planet).

The sustainability principles of fairness and equity are best achieved through deliberate acts of inclusion. I use the term ‘deliberate’ deliberately because inclusion rarely happens on its own. This is not necessarily because of bad intentions, but because people will often seek out those who share the same values and experiences and even physical appearances.

But the pay-offs of deliberate inclusiveness are too important to ignore. We have ample evidence that demonstrates that innovation and group productivity is enhanced by greater diversity and inclusivity. To be clear, these pay-offs occur not simply from grouping diverse people together — there must be opportunity for all individuals in the group to participate, have a voice, or state an opinion. A key role of leaders is making sure that all–not only the loudest or the most senior–are deliberately invited to participate. It is also critical that people are treated with dignity and respect, and know they are valued.

In sustainability, we benefit from teaching in a field that requires inclusive approaches in order to succeed. In the School of Sustainability, inclusivity is built into our curricula, whether in methods (e.g. stakeholder engagement) or as core content (e.g. justice and ethics in sustainability).

Principles of equity, diversity, and inclusivity cannot be ‘add-ons’ or afterthoughts if they are going to be taken seriously. In my experience, the best way to engage meaningfully with these and other principles is to integrate them into the curriculum, which is something we have worked hard to do over the last dozen years in the School of Sustainability. This is not about imposing one’s set of morals on another — it is about recognizing what makes institutions effective and what motivates people so that they can continue to grow, learn, and be successful.

For sustainability to succeed, it must be an all-in endeavor.

 

 

Con Vocare: Calling together for meaningful change

Many things about graduation are based on traditions that go back almost a thousand years, including the gowns we wear. Thankfully, we wear these “regalia” only a couple of times per year. The word “convocation” comes from the Latin words “con”, meaning together and “vocare”, meaning to call. So, convocation means a “calling together,” in this case to celebrate the students graduating here today. But it also to call together the family, friends, staff, and faculty that provided the support and guidance to make sure all of these students sitting in the front rows could reach this watershed moment.

To the students, I know all of you are excited to be graduating, as you should be. But with any transition, there is always some degree of anxiety and uncertainty. For the past handful of years, you have been able to explore, grow, and learn in a nurturing environment, guided by faculty and staff that care about your well-being and want nothing more than to see you succeed. Leaving that environment and venturing out on your own can be unsettling. I understand that.

The one thing I want all of you to remember is that you are certainly not on your own when you graduate from the school. You are and always will be part of the SOS family. You will be joining nearly 2,000 alumni who have gone on to do incredible things; achievements we never could have envisioned when we started the school some 11 years ago.

You will come to rely, as past graduates have, on the alumni and school networks for support, for the generation of novel ideas, and for pathways for getting things done. All of you know that sustainability challenges and opportunities are complex, meaning that no individual alone can tackle them in a meaningful way. You will need to lean on each other to move the needle on sustainability, something which I know inspired all of you to join the school in the first place. To make positive change, don’t forget to “call together” your sustainability allies, your alma mater, and the lifelong friends you have made at ASU and the School of Sustainability. Remember the words: Con Vocare. Those words are not just for graduation. They should serve you for life and help you, working with others, to build a better, more humane, and sustainable future. 

Congratulations Class of 2017.

Measured by whom we include, not exclude

The ASU Charter outside of Wrigley Hall at ASU

The ASU Charter contains very powerful language about principles of inclusion. For quite some time, universities have measured their excellence by their selectivity. In some of the most selective schools, this can translate into admitting less than 10 percent of applicants, who in many cases are very high achieving and accomplished students. National ranking systems use the selectivity measure as part of their ranking calculations.

The first line of ASU’s charter takes a different stance:

ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed

Commitment to this principle has produced remarkable achievements. ASU’s incoming class now reflects the demographics of the state of Arizona along all social, ethnic, and economic dimensions. In 1985, less than 2 percent of the students at ASU were from the bottom half of family incomes but now that figure is 50 percent. At the same time, graduation rates have vastly improved since the mid 1980s. ASU has held fast to accepting A and B students while undergoing the highest growth in research expenditures of any university in the country. The evidence shows that it is possible to educate a broad spectrum of society and be a research powerhouse at the same time. One does not have to come at the expense of the other.

Indeed, I believe the strategies are mutually reinforcing. Inclusion means, in part, not excluding the good ideas, experiences, and insights from a diverse cross section of society. For some time, business has recognized the value of the diversity dividend. Simply put, a diverse work force translates into increased profits and financial performance. Inclusion and diversity are important to the health of any organization.

A second and equally important reason for promoting diversity and inclusion is the ethical responsibility universities have to the public. Citizens of Arizona rightfully expect children of all family backgrounds to have the chance for an education. It is the right and fair thing to do. A college education remains the single best predictor–by far–of social mobility.  A college education prepares individuals for a fulfilling and meaningful life while contributing to the overall health and well being of the community.

Yet inclusion in college does not just happen. It requires vigilance. It requires all of us to make the effort to reach out, welcome, and listen to those who may feel that college is not for them. It means developing pathway programs for students in high schools that do not typically send students to college. It means inviting students to campus to demystify what it means to be a college student. It means creating an environment on college campuses (including online) where all people are respected and listened to with an open mind. It means that all are welcome. The future success of universities, and the societies they serve, depends on it.

 

A funny thing happened on the way to the job market

Deans of colleges and schools have an annual ritual. Each fall, they greet their incoming class of freshmen – excited, hopeful and mostly young minds ready to enter adulthood, citizenship and self-sufficiency.

These students have worked hard to get into the school of their choice, and now their journey begins. This meeting is a blend of informational, inspirational and joyous.

Often sitting beside these excited young students are their equally excited parents, who have sacrificed to enable their children to reach this auspicious moment. They dream their children will become the proverbial “doctors and lawyers and such,” and also artists, engineers, historians, teachers, journalists and other well-known vocations.

But when the dean of a sustainability school addresses an incoming class, something curious happens. Every time.

Incoming students who have chosen sustainability as their career path have expressions that unmistakably say, “I want to save the planet.”

At the same time, their parents seem somewhat mystified, wondering, “Will my child be able to get a job with this degree?”

When Arizona State University opened its School of Sustainability in 2006, it was widely considered to be the first school of its kind in the U.S. To be honest, nobody knew how many students would enroll, let alone where they would work after graduation.

One faculty member quipped, “It’s not as though our students can look in the want ads under ‘S’ and find a career path.”

By comparison, today there are hundreds of sustainability programs offered by universities, and employers of all sorts are keenly interested in their graduates.

A 2016 survey of ASU’s undergraduate sustainability alumni showed that 96 percent were employed or attending graduate school. What’s more, 67 percent of employed students were working in sustainability-related jobs – more than twice the national average for major-to-career match.

Those are good odds.

But how can this be? After a decade of working with sustainability alumni and their employers, we know that sustainability is more than just a major. It is also a value – a set of principles by which to live one’s life, treat humankind and the Earth – all in a way that helps create a prosperous future for everyone.

Employers of all kinds are attracted to workers who hold these values and have attained the skills that sustainability students are required to master – systems-level, future-focused thinking and the ability to engage and collaborate with stakeholders to develop and implement solutions, among other skills.

In 2006, we couldn’t predict who would employ our graduates, other than perhaps the obvious environmental and conservation-oriented organizations. But since then, our graduates have consistently gotten good jobs at top-notch companies, important government agencies and major international nonprofits. Some examples: Amazon, PepsiCo, Walmart, NRG, Tesla, cities throughout the U.S., GE, Rolls Royce, Waste Management, World Wildlife Fund, USAA Insurance, Owens-Corning, Sandia National Labs, Dell.

So, when this dean greets incoming sustainability students, he understands the earnest concerns parents have about their child’s employment prospects. But he is also confident that these fears will, on graduation day several years from then, have been allayed.

This short article appeared in a number of newspapers in the Valley and across the country.