From the President: On Sustainable Communities

April 1, 2010

On Sustainable CommunitiesEd Wilson

“Sustainability” is one of the great buzzwords of our time. Ever since the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission issued a call for “sustainable development” back in 1983, the term has been applied to an ever widening array of issues. Today we have sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, sustainable energy, sustainable business, sustainable design, sustainable tourism, sustainable living… you name it. At 10,000 Friends we and our colleagues are talking a lot about sustainable communities these days. But what exactly do we mean by that?

The original idea behind sustainability – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – is simple and appealing. But like all overused words, “sustainability” risks losing its meaning. Whenever people start talking about sustainable-something-or-other, I find myself wondering if the term is more than just feel-good jargon.

Recently, though, I’ve been gaining a new appreciation for the concept, simply because so many things right now seem unsustainable. The Commonwealth is facing what Governor Rendell has described as a “fiscal tsunami” created in large part by an unsustainable increase in pension obligations. Nearly all of our cities are in a similar predicament, with astronomical bills for pensions and other expenses coming due at a time when coffers are already nearly empty. And the pension crisis is just the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back. For decades, Pennsylvania’s cities and older communities have been caught in an unsustainable cycle of decline – raising taxes to compensate for eroding tax bases, in turn encouraging more flight to the suburbs and more loss of tax base. The current municipal tax system, with its reliance on property taxes, is proving itself unsustainable, and many cities are on the verge of bankruptcy. At the same time, the bills from decades of unsustainably low levels of investment in infrastructure are coming due.

Our older communities are the victims of various unsustainable trends that are now hitting their limits. Does this mean we’re heading toward an Armageddon of collapsing communities and governmental structures? I don’t think so. I have enough faith in our system to believe that somehow we’ll muddle through and avert catastrophe.

But it does mean that change is coming, one way or another. Our tax system, our patterns of spending and investment, our delivery of public services, and our structures of local governance all will change because they’ll have to change. Either we’ll take action and change them ourselves, instituting reforms that will move our communities toward a desirable future. Or change will be thrust upon us in ways we don’t like.

Viewed in this light, the concept of sustainable communities becomes a lot clearer. Sustainability isn’t just a meaningless buzzword or a vague, utopian dream. It’s about taking the steps we need to take to keep our communities moving forward, even in hard times like these.

Ed Wilson
Acting President & CEO

Please feel free to contact me in the Harrisburg at the central office of 10,000 Friends. My email is, or call me at 717-234-6070.