Fourth pillar of sustainability: Culture and sustainability

The notion of culture as the ‘fourth pillar’ of sustainability has been part of the cultural planning and policy landscape for many years since articulated in Jon Hawkes influential The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning. Hawkes set out a compelling case for culture as a fundamental planning framework that must be incorporated in integrated sustainability plans.

The challenge faced by governments at all levels has been how to implement these powerful ideas in actual planning. One reason is something that has been a pre-occupation of mine for 20 years. It is impossible to introduce fundamental new planning and policy frameworks without simultaneously providing the new planning tools and methodologies needed to operationalize the new planning assumptions.

This is not to disparage the need for strong theoretical assumptions. Important insights into this side of the equation have been provided by Agenda 21 for Culture, a global network of cities and local governments concerned with sharing knowledge and experience in cultural development. Over several years, the group has devoted considerable attention to culture and sustainability. The illustration below is an adapted version of a conceptual framework for thinking about culture and sustainability.

Given the assumptions represented by the diagram, what tools are needed to implement these ideas I would argue at minimum the following.

  • Cultural Mapping – if cultural resources are to be effectively leveraged to achieve outcomes in all the ‘domains’ of sustainability, we must begin with a clear sense of the asset base that is available to achieve those outcomes
  • New Planning Mechanisms – cross-departmental culture teams drawing staff from all relevant departments in the municipality connected to the various aspects of sustainability, and with planning tools and systems needed to leverage change in those areas
  • New Governance Models – when the concept of sustainable development was first articulated by the Brundtland Commission in the late 1960s, recommendations included the formation of environmental Roundtables in communities consisting of government and non-governmental stakeholders whose interests and resources would be needed to advance an integrated sustainability agenda. The formation of Cultural Roundtables to achieve similar outcomes is frequent recommendations in cultural plans completed by MDB Insight.

Culture as a core dimension of sustainability holds great promise to reposition cultural development on the agendas of local government but only if we can demonstrate to elected officials, municipal staff and important community stakeholders that it is more than just words.