Agenda 21 is a bureaucratic report initially adopted by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, in June 1992. Periodic assemblies have reviewed the status of the report, most recently at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) held in June 2012. The Agenda 21 document, which is intended to fulfill the principles of the Rio Declaration, contains four sections:
I. Social and Economic Dimensions
II. Conservation and Management of Resources for Development
III. Strengthening the Role of Major Groups
IV. Means of Implementation
Sustainability is a way of looking at resources over the long-term. Sustainable development looks at the “big picture”, considering impacts of current growth on economic, environmental and social factors now and in the future. Sustainability is also a tenant of “Smart Growth”, an approach to community building that emphasizes creating diverse neighborhoods, multiple options for transportation, preservation of working landscapes and development that pays its own way.
How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense? That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America. . . . The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.
-William F. Buckley, Jr, National Review 1962
Implementation of sustainability practices, however, is complicated and not everyone agrees on specific principles or actions. While the Agenda 21 document is not well-known, among development professionals or the general public, some people have latched onto it to express their concerns with the idea of sustainable development. Critics have three general themes:
- Conspiracy Theory. Certain groups allege conspiracies around the United Nations, the Rio Earth Summits, Agenda 21 and the US Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). There is concern that Agenda 21 could be interpreted as a treaty, rather than as a simple report, which would fall under the authority of the US Senate for approval. The national Republican Platform included one phrase, within the plank on American Exceptionalism, rejecting “the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty…” Some people also mistrust consensus-building processes commonly used in business-oriented strategic planning.
- Anti-Environmentalism. The Agenda 21 document provides a rallying cry for some people who oppose environmental laws, regulations and projects. Some have extended their attacks to Smart Growth practices such as the smart grid, multi-modal transportation and mixed use development practices.
- Property Rights. People don’t like to be told what to do with their property. These concerns echo long-standing conflicts between federal and local control, especially over public lands in the West similar to the Sagebrush Rebellion or Wise Use movement.
Unfortunately, some people have also used Agenda 21 as an excuse to disrupt public process. In LaPlata County, Colorado, an organized effort scuttled a two-year, $750,000 planning process after 137 public meetings. The High Plains Initiative strategic planning exercise in Platte and Goshen County in Wyoming was also disrupted last year.
Good planning takes into account the opinions of all stakeholders. However, principles of sustainability and stewardship are as old as the Code of the West—treat people and nature with respect. Smart growth, done well, creates more choices for development that pays its own way.
Support for and opposition to Smart Growth cuts across political parties—this is not a partisan issue. (William F Buckley himself proposed a network of bike lanes when he ran for mayor of New York City.) People are going to question processes they don’t understand. This is a reminder that we must be transparent and “bottoms-up” in local planning, with a clear discussion of data, sources and methods. We must also be prepared to make sure all citizens have a seat at the table.
It is smart to have an honest discussion about both the costs and benefits of development, and how they fit locally. Not every tool in the Smart Growth toolbox will work in every community. Many tools are still out there that we haven’t yet given a fair shot. Just because it’s mentioned in a UN report doesn’t mean it’s wrong—or right—for your home town. We can only move forward if we have an open, honest discussion.
Not everyone will agree on all aspects of development policy. Not every bad idea is a conspiracy in waiting. Creating great places to live, work and play is something we should all be able to build on.