Defining sustainability in small towns

Think simple as my old master used to say – meaning reduce “the whole of its parts into the implest terms, getting back to “first principles.” – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Throughout the process of unpacking small towns, the team tried to understand those factors that influence not only the design of service provision but also its sustainability. Coming back to first principles suggests several things. Firstly, sustainability of the service probably has less to do with the technology than it has to do with wider circumstances in the town. Secondly, all towns cannot be treated the same. Whilst there will be generic issues about national rules and regulations (which can in fact be re-assessed and modified), each town brings its own particular circumstances that may have a bearing on the success or failure of an approach. The drivers of demographic change, the function of the town and the resulting economy, and the nature of the relationships between who influences or sets the rules and those who receive the services, are all important elements. Sustainability can only be created by understanding and weaving in these factors.

Much of our analysis suggests that sustainability has not been helped by the ‘golden opportunity’. Several policymakers and practitioners along the way suggested there is a danger that offering (relatively) big money to small towns to sort out their water and sanitation service provision creates perverse incentives on all sides to put in infrastructure that will not be affordable or manageable, in many cases, even after a few years. The team saw this first-hand in several places. Consultants and construction companies make more money from designing bigger projects; politicians make a bigger name for themselves by bringing in bigger projects; donors get more money granted, contracted or lent to meet more macro targets; populations get quick fixes.

A clear message came from several corners that more modularised or staged approaches to both technology and finance were needed. This would allow for the gradual build up and expansion of a service provision system that is more affordable and more adaptable. One colleague suggested that such evolutions could see land procured and primary underground infrastructure invested in earlier on. The above ground infrastructure would then be gradually built up over time but allowing for changing circumstances and boundaries. Such modularity may also allow for easier reduction of services should the town be in decline.

Clearly, for a variety of reasons, small towns require a flexible approach to planning, implementing and operation. Policymakers and practitioners should not be relying on a single technical or management model. Instead we should make use of a dynamic and flexible mix in which different supply options are provided for different consumer groups and stages of town development (Mugabi, December 2006).

Throughout the research process, the team struggled somewhat with the need to tailor approaches to specific towns versus the sheer number of towns that need support. It has been agreed all along that working solely on a case by case basis is impractical. Working at scale thereby came to mean ensuring that policies worked in favour of small towns and that they recognised and supported different kinds of towns. It also means that different policies or approaches may very well be required for towns of 20,000 inhabitants versus towns of 200,000. The design of NGO programmes should be based on supporting this policy development, unearthing the differences between small towns and identifying a menu of options that respond to the findings of wider contextual and stakeholder analysis. In time, this work may generate a quicker assessment methodology that would allow for some short cuts to be taken.