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.

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.

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.

Honor Sustainability

Tonight I will be attending–at the kind invitation of our students–the Honor Society for Sustainability banquet. This is a great chance to celebrate accomplishments, including graduation, as well as induct new members into the society. Similar to many other sustainability efforts, ASU was the first to create a national honor society specifically for sustainability.

I am pleased The Honor Society for Sustainability is open to students at ASU in other sustainability programs besides our majors.  In my book, sustainability is something to be shared, not hoarded. In the next year, my hope is that chapters will open at other universities around the country. To really make a difference in addressing sustainability challenges requires concerted collaboration and network building.

I like the words “honor” and “sustainability” sharing the same space. Honor, as we know, can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it is often used to describe something or someone held in high esteem. Sustainability deserves our highest esteem for the magnitude of challenges it takes on alongside the sense that we can create a better future. As a verb, honor can denote an action of holding something or someone in high esteem, like a great piece of art or a loved relative. To honor can also mean to fulfill an obligation or keep a promise.

For the students graduating from ASU this year and to the new inductees, I would like them to think of the Honor Society for Sustainability in both meanings of the word honor. We have events like banquets to hold you in high esteem as excellent students. But you should also think of honoring the society and honoring the promises and obligations you must keep to ensure that its mission, and the mission of sustainability, remain with you no matter where you go.



Convocation address, Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership Class of 2016

convo_emslIt is my great pleasure to be here to celebrate the 2nd graduating class of the EMSL. Many of you know that this degree was created in response to demand from working professionals, like yourselves, and from our partners in industry, government, and NGOs. The message was loud and clear – in the rapidly growing field of sustainability what was needed most urgently was leadership.

Organizations then as now are looking for individuals who can formulate a clear vision, communicate it and share it effectively so that others will follow and support that vision, provide the resources and support to realize the vision, and find ways to balance conflicting priorities and interests of stakeholders in order to achieve goals.

Leadership is hard. It’s even harder when you need to practice it in a new, unfamiliar field that spans and transcends multiple boundaries. You most likely will not be leading the production of widgets. You will be convincing sometimes entrenched stakeholders that an integrated systems approach to how organizations function, that puts into practice key sustainability principles, will add value, enrich the company’s vision and culture, energize employees and clients, and move the world closer to a more desirable future.

This is an enormous challenge, but one that will surely get you out of the bed in the morning. I realize I am talking to a biased sample in this auditorium – you came here in the first place because you want to make a difference, a few simple words that are incredibly inspiring, without limits, but a goal that each of us can realize in our lifetimes.

David Brooks, the op-ed contributor to the New York Times, reminds us to think about our “eulogy” virtues and not just our “resume” virtues. We spend a great deal of time and effort trying to fill out and strengthen our resumes with job experiences and accomplishments. This is important, but when people gather in a large room like this to celebrate the end of your life, ask yourself how you would want to be remembered, and let that guide the pathways you take, and make. From this kind of reflection on what is most important, we will all benefit – this generation, future generations, and the planetary systems that provide the basis for the beautiful and wondrous thing we call life.

I urge you to make the most of the new lives you embark on today, for yourselves and for the people who will remember and thank you for the differences you make.

Congratulations class of 2016.


David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List” New York Times, April 11, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html?_r=0


Reason No. 9: Make a difference, and others may follow

Photo by Tim Trumble
Photo by Tim Trumble

“Be the change you want to see in the world”*, a message that adorns many t-shirts and bumper stickers, is an elegant summary of what drives and inspires students in the School of Sustainability. One of the first lessons our students learn is that sustainability is about hope and action. Understanding the nature of human and environmental problems is important, but sustainability trains students how to take action, generate solutions, and build a desirable future. No one can build a desirable future for the planet on their own, but individual actions and ideas can inspire others to follow, especially if the ideas are good and compelling.

Several years ago, I heard a presentation by the eminent Sustainability scholar, Professor William Clark, on what is required to make good ideas like sustainability resonate with people and take hold. He argued that our ideas should be salient, credible, and legitimate. By salient, he means that the information or argument we create or use should be relevant for making a decision. Credible means that the information or argument meets the highest standards of scientific plausibility. Legitimate means that the process for gathering the information or making the recommendation is fair and unbiased, making sure that as many stakeholders as possible have an opportunity to voice their needs and wishes.  What this means for you is that when you develop an idea for how to solve a problem or develop a solution to a sustainability concern, we can teach you how to make that idea salient, credible, and legitimate. The more you can do that, the more likely you will create a lasting impact in positive ways.

Be the change you want to see in the world, and the world may follow.

Ready to join the School of Sustainability? Click here to find out how.

* Although this is often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, there is no evidence he ever spoke or wrote these words exactly:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html?_r=0

Reason No. 8: Undergraduate research opportunities at a top research university

Reason No. 7: Meaningful Internships

Sustainability internship poster session 2 When the school opened its doors in 2007, we decided to make a special investment in a dedicated internship coordinator. Since sustainability was a very young field, we wanted to be sure that our students had the opportunity to show how they could add value to workplaces. We also recognized then, as now, that internships are important for building resumes and professional skills, and for giving our students a chance to try out what they learned in the classroom in the “real” world. You will find that the internship is a very rich and worthwhile experience and a really important part of your education. The School of Sustainability will be with you every step of the way to make sure it is a meaningful educational opportunity.

The internship program in the School of Sustainability has been a shining success. We now have more internships than students, a product of our excellent staff members who work tirelessly to identify the best possible opportunities for you. The first thing they do is match your interests to the internship. You will meet with the internship coordinator, talk about your studies and career goals, and then build a portfolio of opportunities. While you are pursuing your internship, you will enroll in a class offered by the internship coordinator. This is a skills building class that allows you to translate what you learn immediately to the internship experience. You will learn how to problem solve, work effectively in the workplace, and improve your professional communication skills. The highlight and culminating experience is a poster session where you and other students will summarize what you did and what you learned. Internship providers, as well as faculty and staff, come to the poster session. This is a great chance for you to reflect on your accomplishments and to meet and greet other potential employers.  The poster session is very fun and informative and you will walk away with another product for your portfolio. And remember, you can always do more than one internship!


Want to know more about how we will help you will find an internship? Have a look at this “Getting Started” guide.

Here are a couple of stories about internships students like you have benefitted from.

  1. Sustainability Internship with Dell Corporation
  2. Sustainability Internship at Pepsico

If you have any questions about the program, please take a look at our internship page and feel free to contact us. The one thing we have heard from alumni is that it’s never too early to start planning for an internship.



Reason No. 6: Vibrant Community, Small Residential College in a Large Research University

School of Sustainability Residential Community raised gardensOne of the five core competencies we teach our students is collaboration (the other four, if you want to start studying, are systems thinking, future thinking, values thinking, and strategic thinking). The essence of this idea is that to understand or solve complex sustainability challenges, you need to be able to collaborate. No single person has the capacity or capability to tackle the really fundamental challenges we face. You will have to rely on others and actually learn the skill of collaborating.

Effective collaboration depends on a lot of factors, but building a sense of community and shared purpose is one key ingredient. The School of Sustainability is a wonderful incubator for building community, and for many of you it will start in the residences. The School of Sustainability Residential Community (SOSRC) is where many of you will begin building the collaborative networks that will help you succeed in classes, in university life, and in life after college.  The SOSRC is located in Adelphi II, which recently underwent some renovations guided by sustainability principles developed with students (see photo above). This is a nurturing and supportive environment where you will learn how to work together to get things done. You will be surrounded by students from the same major who, like you, are looking for an education inside and outside the classroom that focuses on solutions. It is a wonderful community where you will quickly develop a sense of belonging.

The School of Sustainability provides a full-time staff member to be a resource for you in the residential community. This person helps you arrange special events (including dinners and lunches with the dean), pinpoint resources for projects (such as the SIRF I wrote about last week), organize outings on and around campus, design and deliver field trips, and in general make sure you get the most out of your experience in the SOSRC.

In previous posts I have written about the advantages of building community in a small college in a large research-intensive university. The SOSRC, as a small residential community within a small college, is a great way for you to develop that sense of belonging that we cherish in the School of Sustainability. Residential life is a beginning point in your development as a sustainability student, a great way to start learning the importance of collaboration to meet with confidence the challenges ahead of us.

Have a look at our residential life page and see how it can help you become part of the SOS team. I look forward to having dinner with you there this fall!