I grew up in one of the most contaminated cities in the world, Mexico City. I used to travel along Insurgentes, a straight road that bisects the city vertically,along Ciudad Universitaria (University City), one of the largest public university complexes in the world.

All I could see and think about as we traveled across town on our way to school were the sorry trees that lined the wide boulevard. Though the climate was temperate and the days mild and sunny, the trees looked wrinkled to me, sad, droopy and dry. Their leaves were not vibrant and green, lush and healthy like they were in summertime Canada, where I moved to many years later.

It was during these quiet rides to school that I vowed, “when I grow up”, to do something for these trees, to do something about the pollution that was killing them. Yet, I could not ignore the rampant poverty around me. It became clear later to me that environmental degradation often accompanies poverty conditions. Thus, I quickly took an interest in environmental justice and economic development, for they are inter-related.

However, environmental issues often take a back seat to “economic development,” if they are addressed at all. It seemed to me that planners actively ignored environmental aspects of the projects they developed, and yet, healthy cities cannot be defined by economic factors alone.

Being a planner meant helping small, medium and large companies (in my case, mostly Latino-owned companies) find and fund opportunities for growth. It took more than a decade before I could work more directly on environmental issues, crafting environmental policies during the comprehensive planning process.

However, even then the planning horizon that consists of decades did not satisfy the urgency with which we face environmental problems such as the loss of species, global warming and compromised water supplies.

We need to do more. While economic development is about growing the economy, our society needs solutions to pressing environmental and social problems to grow even faster than our economy, perhaps exponentially.

Our survival on this planet depends on our being able to quickly provide sustainable and tenable solutions to counteract the ill effects of our waste-generating economic activity, while providing financial security to people everywhere, thus safeguarding growing populations. How can developed countries use more energy per head than developing nations? We cannot look to poor countries to carry the burden of the sins of developed countries. We must act now to cut our own carbon footprint here at home, in the United States and Canada, while we support efforts by developing nations to curb carbon emissions and use natural resources sustainably.

Through environmental planning and publishing activities, we discover and support projects that strike a balance between the economic development arena and environmental protections.

While we are not in a place in our human development where we can revert back to pre-industrial times and thus avoid pollution altogether, we can do much to lessen the impact of the unintended consequences of our economic development policies and everyday economic life.

Join me as we explore ways in which people are protecting the environment while growing the economy. And while we are planning for our future and correcting mistakes of the past, let us not forget to take care of ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities, now, for the present is all we have at hand.

To your health,

Nalini J. Johnson, MUP, AICP


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