Making Better Decisions for People, Places, and Profit

By Nicole Ginley-Hidinger

Sustainable Cities Initiative Research Associate, Rob Zako, describes himself as an avid bicyclist. It’s a bit of an understatement. During graduate school he was the president of a local bike club and he met his wife on a bike trip along California’s Big Sur. After moving to Eugene 19 years ago, his passion led him to his involvement in Lane County politics when the hot topic was TransPlan, the regional transportation plan for all modes of transportation (including biking) around Eugene and Springfield.

His friend Robert Liberty, the former executive director of SCI, convinced him to join a project SCI was already working on, researching the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) framework of decision-making.

“I’ve done a lot of work with local governments and I saw this as an opportunity to help them,” Zako says.

Zako is now researching the process of making more sound decisions by better understanding how each decision affects society as a whole, not just the financial profit.

TBL looks at the costs and benefits to society of individual decisions in three sections, or bottom lines: economically, environmentally, and socially.

"Communities are finding that you can be green and do green while still being fiscally responsible,” Zako says.

When judging if a plan will be successful economically, the decision-maker must determine the net benefit to society, such as the economic growth, profit, and cost savings. If a plan is successful environmentally, it takes into account the natural resource use and environmental management needed and if the plan is successful socially it increases the standard of living, the education, and the community.

“Triple bottom line is a framework,” he says. “If you can answer yes or mostly yes for each of the three bottom lines, it’s probably a good decision.”

Currently, Zako is working with Lane Livability Consortium and focusing on decision-making in transportation, brownfields, and sustainability.

Recently the process was used to convince city council members that building the West Eugene EmX, an extension that would add 8.8 round trip miles of service to the preexisting bus rapid transit system, was a win-win-win situation.

“It’s good for profit, it’s good for people, and it’s good for the planet,” Zako says.

To work with TBL, Zako recommends adopting one of the one-page frameworks that has already been developed, such as Olympia’s Sustainable Action Map or American Public Works Association’s Framework for Sustainable Communities, then getting a group of stakeholders together to talk about the costs and benefits in each category.

He hopes that this method of thinking is useful to the various partners in the research, which includes the Lane Transit District, the City of Eugene, and Campus Planning and Real Estate.

“This particular research isn’t rocket science,” he says. “It’s common sense. This is getting people to talk to each other. The challenge is in getting people to implement it.”