The most overused word in the English language these days may be sustainability.
Not that I'm complaining.
It will be a key word in Copenhagen this week, where world leaders are gathering to try to figure out ways to cope with climate change. And it comes up again and again as businesses try to figure out what kind of economy will emerge from this ugly recession.
People seem to realize that the future will be a lot different than the past — or at least different than the consumption binge that America has been on since the end of World War II. That just wasn't sustainable.
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Sustainability is usually defined as the ability to meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing future generations' ability to meet their needs.
Facing up to those issues could be good for the country, and good for business. It will force companies and industries to think more about long-term value, and not just short-term profit. And it will emphasize the need for good planning, good design, creativity and innovation.
For example, everyone knows that crime is bad for society. But did you ever stop to think that it's also bad for the environment? I didn't, until I attended the Sustainable Communities Conference last week in Lexington.
The conference was put on by the UK College of Design, Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Crime and the Built Environment, the Lexington Division of Police and the London Metropolitan Police (from that other UK across the pond).
Calvin Beckford of Britain's Association of Chief Police Officers said London Metropolitan Police officers drive 66 million miles a year patrolling that city. Goods stolen and property damaged by crime must be replaced. And when crime makes people feel so unsafe in their neighborhood they want to move, that contributes to petroleum use and suburban sprawl.
Beckford said researchers determined that, all told, crime each year contributes about 13 million tons of carbon to the United Kingdom's environment.
He heads an effort called Security by Design that seeks to make British society safer, and its environment greener, by using good design principles to reduce crime. That means everything from more secure doors and windows to better design for neighborhoods to discourage crime before it occurs.
The conference included a discussion about development projects that are planned near the Red Mile that could bring much-needed revitalization to Lexington's South Broadway corridor. But when some conference participants looked at those plans, they also saw the potential for trouble.
That's because the developments have characteristics that researchers say can lead to crime and urban decay if they are not carefully designed and managed.
Residents in those developments would be renters and mostly students — people of similar ages and schedules that would leave the neighborhood transitory and lightly populated during many times of the day and months of the year.
"This would not be a place where anyone living in it has a stake in it or any particular reason to look out for others living there," said UK architecture professor Richard Levine.
All of those issues are worth discussing now, before construction begins, so plans can be improved to prevent crime and decay, conference participants said.
Of course, these developments will serve a specific niche. But what makes average neighborhoods both socially and environmentally sustainable is that they're places where diverse groups of people want to live and stay — rather than move away from to something newer, nicer and safer.
Michael Speaks, the dean of UK's College of Design, said good design will be key to social, environmental and economic sustainability.
"Design has to be a more expansive practice than problem-solving," Speaks said. "It must be about looking at situations and speculating about what might be. It means solving problems before they exist."