What does 'sustainability' mean?

It gets used a lot, but it’s not an empty buzzword — “Sustainability” simply has lots of definitions.

That means employees of cities and towns find countless ways to incorporate green practices, ideals and expertise into their work. There are plenty of methods to create sustainable communities, such as recycling, which overlap across cities and towns. But some approaches are unique to a community’s particular environment. Here are four city officials who bring their interpretation of sustainability into their daily work:

Mary Pat Baldauf, sustainability facilitator, City of Columbia

Sustainability means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Because I get the question so often, I have a couple of definitions that I use, often depending on the audience.
In my own words, sustainability is about balance. There are three parts to sustainability: the environment, the community (people) and economic prosperity. In order for something to be truly sustainable, it has to meet those three categories. It’s not an easy balance. There are often great projects that may meet two of the criteria quite well but not the third. In that case, it’s not truly sustainable.

The following are a couple of other definitions that I like and often use:

1. A sustainable future is one in which a healthy environment, economic prosperity and social justice are pursued simultaneously to ensure the well-being and quality of life of present and future generations.

2. Sustainability is living off nature’s interest, not her capital.

3. Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

95-gallon plastic recycling roll cart
The City of Columbia provides 95-gallon roll carts.

Jim Jordan, wildlife biologist, Town of Kiawah Island

Sustainability to me means a functioning, natural ecosystem. As a wildlife biologist of a developing municipality, this not only means protecting and preserving native plants and animals, but maintaining the natural relationships between them. Ecosystems consist of countless interactions between predators and prey, i.e. “the food chain.”

All plants and animals are part of the food chain, but large predators sit at the top, and their presence is vital to ecosystem health. On Kiawah, bobcats are a top predator and play a large role in controlling deer and rodent numbers. Research on Kiawah has shown that bobcats take approximately 50 percent of the deer fawns born each year. This natural control helps maintain deer numbers at acceptable levels, reducing vehicle collisions and landscape shrubbery damage.


A healthy bobcat population is only possible if they can readily find the large amounts of resources (food, water, cover, space) necessary for survival. In this way, bobcats are a great indicator of local habitat health and its ability to sustain populations of many other native species further down the food chain. By focusing research, management and preservation strategies on bobcats, we can help maintain the sustainability of the local ecosystem for years t to come.

When bobcat kittens mature, they become top predators in the food chain./Kiawah Island


Madelyn Robinson, director of planning and economic development, Town of Summerville

Working in local government planning for the past 21 years, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by people who have represented different perspectives on how a community’s development should be managed and what sustainability means.

Personally, I think sustainability is creating an environment that results in the betterment of a community whereby decisions create opportunities for ongoing comprehensive success. Often this goal is achieved day by day or one project at a time.

On a micro scale, sustainability could start with a color or material choice or a single tree being planted. Steps toward sustainability might begin with a grant application for construction of a trail section that will eventually become a longer trail throughout the community for recreation and transportation.

On a larger scale, achieving sustainability may entail the implementation of design review guidelines that ensure a community is home to more attractive development or completing a green infrastructure plan to further promote natural and cultural resources through increased preservation or promotional programming. However the community decides to reach its sustainability goals, the decisions made yesterday and today will determine tomorrow’s success.

Kimberly W. Jones, watershed management division manager, Town of Bluffton

The town’s covenant and vision help create a culture of valuing and investing in the local environment, as the town’s leaders and residents are acutely aware that the health of the town’s natural resources are directly linked to the high quality of life and coastal lifestyle Bluffton offers.

In addition to the town’s environmentally friendly ordinances and policies, it is also the daily activities that make a difference in protecting the town’s sustainability. The town has spent millions to install sanitary sewer to hundreds of residents to avoid the negative impact of failed septic tanks on the local environment.
In addition, town facilities are landscaped primarily with native plants which are naturally heat and pest resistant, reducing the need for irrigation and pesticide applications. Town leaders and staff also emphasize pervious or permeable materials in our parking lots to reduce stormwater runoff as a protection to our valuable waterways.

Aerial view of Town of Bluffton's May River
Town of Bluffton's May River/Unique Perspective, LLC

Town-wide, our collective sustainability efforts include recycling at each town office, water coolers to facilitate reusable water bottles, and even a means to wash dishes to encourage reduction of plastic silverware and paper plates. Our efforts are as simple as reducing energy consumption by turning off lights in meeting rooms and offices when not in use and use of energy-efficient appliances and technology whenever feasible.

Twice a year, the town hosts a community-wide river and street cleanup. These events attract more than 200 residents, employees and community-wide supporters who volunteer their time to pick up trash, debris and other pollutants to mitigate impact to the May River.