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Broader Education, Not Wider Roads

Special to The Green Register by Kyle Crider, Manager – Environmental Operations, Ecotech Institute

“The image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic well-being. If all places look alike, there’s no reason to go anywhere.” ~Edward T. McMahon, Urban Land Institute

Last week, thanks to the folks at The Institute of Sustainability (TIOS) and The Green Register, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Ed McMahon speak. No, I wasn’t with a psychic channeling Johnny Carson’s former sidekick; I was with sustainability and environmental policy expert Edward T. McMahon, co-founder of Scenic America and current Senior Resident Fellow with the Urban Land Institute.

At a breakfast hosted by Birmingham Southern’s Environmental Center, followed by speaking engagements at both the University of Montevallo and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), McMahon addressed the “Dollars and Sense of Sustainable Development.”

McMahon, speaking from decades of global experience, stated many profound things during his talks. The opening and closing quotes of this article may provide some hint as to why sustainable development makes dollars and sense. But one thing he said really stood out to me. The gist of it was this: We typically think of rural development as widening roads. But what we really need is better education, not wider roads.

As I reflected on this, I realized that McMahon had hit upon a universal truth for sustainable living in general. What we really need is broader education, not wider roads.

By “broader education” I mean: More education. Wider education. And deeper education.

Not all of us get to travel the world and experience life-changing events such as McMahon related in his own life, but we can read. We can watch and listen to educational media, such as TED talks and Open University programs. We can learn from global instructors, whose experiences are different than our own. We can begin to think critically—in a sense, to ask “How do we know what we think we know?”—as I have been emphasizing in my own class at UAB. And we can learn to think deeply—to address root causes of problems, not symptoms.

Sometimes this is as simple as paying for education, not paying for wider roads. As McMahon will tell you, wider roads rarely solve our problems. Wider roads are usually attempts to address the symptoms of problems, not the problems themselves. And wider roads often create more problems.

McMahon also gave a great definition of “sustainable.” It means enduring. That goes for education, too.

“The best places to live, work, and visit are those places that are willing to uphold their standards in the face of pressure to allow lowest common denominator development… Successful communities understand that when they say no to development that is contrary to the long-term health of their community, they will almost always get better development in its place.” ~ Edward T. McMahon, Urban Land Institute

Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Ecotech Institute or Education Corporation of America. Email Kyle at