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Home > Developing Sustainable Communities: The Future is Now

Developing Sustainable Communities:
The Future is Now

By Don Geis and Tammy Kutzmark

We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive. - Albert Einstein

Communities of the future will be very different from the ones we live in today. These communities will need to be different because, as we move through the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we face a whole new set of socioeconomic, technological, and global forces that are unlike those that brought us to where we are today. The renaissance fueled by these forces will dwarf any we have experienced until now. It will alter dramatically the way we live in our communities, their form and function, and, most critically, the way we plan and develop them. At stake is the quality of life, not only for ourselves but also for our children and grandchildren. Local governments will need to understand these forces and to move one step ahead, using this knowledge to maximize the planning and development process and to improve the places in which we live.

Only by applying this knowledge can we sustain our communities and derive benefit from an increasingly complex future. The challenges that we as a nation face--economic viability, deteriorating infrastructure, natural disasters, environmental pollution, social disintegration, loss of community, crime and violence, urban blight, and unmanaged growth--can be viewed either as our shared doom or as our common call to action, a universal opportunity to change, improve, and optimize. Sustainable communities are nothing less than the key to optimizing our future.

What are sustainable communities? Why are they important? What benefits do they bring? How can we create them? How have communities successfully applied the principles of sustainable development? This article will address these questions and provide local governments with a framework of knowledge that they can use to sustain their communities through the planning and development of the built environment. Its objectives are, first, to demystify and "practicalize" the concept of sustainability and, second, to explain how local governments can apply the important tools of this process to achieving sustainable communities.

Origins of Sustainability

The 1994 ICMA Annual Conference in Chicago included a session entitled Planning Sustainable Communities: The Future Is Now. This session was attended by more than 125 ICMA members, a turnout that shows considerable interest in this approach. Over the past five years, sustainable development has found favor with a number of national and international organizations, including the President's Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), the National Association of Counties, Public Technology, Inc., Concern, Inc., and the United Nations (U.N.). Communities across the nation--from Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, to Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado, to Valmeyer, Illinois, and Chattanooga, Tennessee--have implemented programs in sustainable development to resolve problems of public transportation, recycling, energy conservation, natural hazard mitigation, and other matters.

Some of the first ideas of sustainability came in the 1950s from Aldo Leopold, who raised concern for an environment's carrying capacity, or its ability to absorb human influence and still sustain all of its life forms and processes. In the 1970s, Garret Harding placed that concern squarely in the community context with his compelling Tragedy of the Commons, which described the destruction of a village green through individual cases of overgrazing.

Webster's dictionary defines sustainability as "using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged." The key words are resource and use. Essentially, sustainability is the effective use of resources--natural, human, and technological--to meet today's community needs while ensuring that these resources are available to meet future needs.

The most commonly accepted definition of sustainable development came from a 1987 report by the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED): it is development "that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This general definition has been used to identify more specific policies. William D. Ruckelshaus, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, reinforced the integral relationship between economic development and resource conservation in a September 1989 article in Scientific American, in which he defined sustainability as "the emerging doctrine that economic growth and development must take place, and be maintained over time, within the limits set by ecology,...the interrelations of human beings and their works, the biosphere and the physical and chemical laws that govern it .... It follows that environmental protection and economic development are complementary rather than antagonistic processes."

The concept and application of sustainability evolved further during UNCED's 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where 120 nations agreed to an agenda for the actions needed to sustain global development into the twenty-first century. Agenda 21, as it was called, sparked the creation in 1993 of the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), whose work is intended in part to fulfill the United States's commitments.

Concern, Inc.'s definition begins actually to detail the sustainable community as one that "...seeks improved public health and a better quality of life for all its residents by limiting waste, preventing pollution, maximizing conservation and promoting efficiency, and developing local resources to revitalize the local economy."

The sustainable community is a model, an ideal set of goals to work toward. But it also is a philosophy for envisioning those goals and a practical problem-solving process for achieving them. The problem is clear: perhaps the most telling reflection of our community's character can be found in the built environment, yet increasingly it reflects disorder and disintegration. People cannot walk and play safely, neighborhoods lack cohesion, buildings are out of scale with their surroundings, human encounters are marked by fear, and the natural environment is overused and polluted.

But we are trying to solve new problems with outdated perceptions and planning. Before local governments can provide the quality of life that their communities will require to survive, they will need to change their perceptions of "community" and to translate those new perceptions into practical methods of planning, developing, and rehabilitating those communities.

This approach--sustainable development--can revolutionize the way local governments guide community growth, socially, environmentally, and technologically. It represents the best possible opportunity to apply the existing tools of the planning and development process toward goal-driven decision making. The practical understanding and application of sustainability are keys to improving the life--and quality, of life--of a community.

Forces Driving Sustainability

While sustainability has its roots in the environmental traditions of the past, it also is influenced greatly by forces unique to this decade. Local governments can recognize these forces from their impacts on a variety of decisions made in their own communities over the last 10 years. Then, they can begin to see these same forces as part of the larger picture of sustainable development, which can unite these decisions in a comprehensive and integrated strategy to guide them into the future. These forces include:

Limited resources. Natural and human resources are finite. Local governments face declining forest and range lands, spiraling utility costs, unskilled workers, and countless other limitations that demand a "more with less" strategy. And where, in the past, a viable economic base or federal dollars would have applied at least a bandage to the problem, communities today face footloose industries, difficult bond markets, and a federal government that mandates more and funds less.

Urbanization. The classic American urban form--strip development, superhighways, and subdivisions--proliferates across the nation's landscape, reaching small towns and rural communities that are unacquainted with and often resistant to this form. At the same time, such traditional urban hubs as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., experience an exploding population growth that creates spillover and sprawl and overwhelms the urban capacity for clean water and air, affordable housing, and waste management. Ironically, these trends have happened in the name of progress.

Scientific knowledge. The field of data collection and analysis has evolved to provide an improved understanding of the social and environmental impacts of the planning and development actions taken over the last century. With the new tools of the scientific method--land satellite technology, geographic information systems, census data, risk analysis, and others--decisionmakers have more information and accountability then ever before about how communities work, how decisions have affected them, and what should be done in the future.

Technology. Technology's revolutionary hand is seen in the automobile, high-speed transit, and a communications industry that has devised the CD-ROM, the fax machine, and the Internet. It has created and revolutionized entire industries: cable television, agribusiness, and recyclables, to name a few. If used effectively, a "technology of community" could connect people and their institutions, resolve conflicts, build markets, optimize existing businesses, maintain equal access to goods and services, and begin to achieve other community-driven goals.

Social awareness. American society is increasingly aware of itself, and this awareness is accompanied by both tension and a heightened sense of responsibility. While the political meaning of democracy is that all people are entitled to a good quality of life, the practical reality of democracy is that no community will survive without it. Even more important than acknowledging diversity within communities is empowering them to find solutions and to achieve a higher quality of life.

Health and safety imperatives. Having overcome the 18th- and 19th-century threats to life from poor hygiene, primitive medicine, and urban overcrowding, America's hospitals face new health problems symptomatic of today's urban conditions: handgun violence, AIDS, domestic violence, sick building syndrome, crack babies, chronic alcoholism. What is noteworthy about these threats is not only the severity and epidemic nature of them but also the widespread recognition that they constitute community problems and require community solutions.

New economics. The new economics of the twenty-first century will encompass broader concerns and will have a broader application than in other phases of economic history. It is an economics for ecology and society, for simultaneously conserving and maintaining equal access to resources. It has a local base and a global focus, renews and maximizes existing businesses and materials, uses job creation to reduce unemployment and underemployment, and involves a client base that makes quality-of-life decisions. Most important, it seeks to achieve multiple community goals through economic activity.

All of these forces should be acknowledged for their impacts on and potential opportunities for the community. Properly harnessed, these forces can play important roles in achieving the goals of sustainable communities.

Benefits of Sustainability

Sustainability is good business from the social, economic, and environmental perspectives. When tied to a community's vision, sustainable development can resolve successfully many key issues faced by communities today. Within the context of the built environment, sustainable development is especially effective and in a tangible way.

For example, a park can be a sustainable component of the ecology and a community focal point when it is planned not as a parcel but as a system supportive of and accessible to all kinds of living things. It can be a catch basin for stormwater runoff, a means to mitigate flooding and pollution, a centerpiece for economic development initiatives, a place of serene beauty and contemplation, and a showcase and habitat for local plant and animal species.

Across the country, sustainable development has offered practical solutions to common problems. Seattle based its highly effective recycling and waste reduction program on sustainable themes and now applies the concept in its efforts to curb sprawl, to preserve the landscape of the Cascade foothills, and to enlarge the public's role in the planning process. Boulder, Colorado, created urban growth boundaries and improved transportation options to sustain its quality of life and scenic edge. Austin, Texas, established a Green Builder Program to encourage the use of energy-conserving building practices. Portland, Oregon, launched an initiative for carbon dioxide reduction based on sustainable changes to the built environment. And, Valmeyer, Illinois, used sustainable planning practices to relocate outside the Mississippi floodplain and to mitigate future flood damage.

These communities and others demonstrate the multiple goals of sustainable development. Sustainable development can enhance a sense of place, reduce crime, mitigate natural hazards, conserve energy and resources, preserve culture and heritage, improve traffic circulation, and reduce waste. It can attract more viable economic development as competition among communities for high-quality businesses becomes more intense. Perhaps most important, it can help relate and integrate the many components of a community to achieve a synergistic whole.

Role of the Built Environment in Sustainability

"We shape our buildings and then they shape us," said Winston Churchill, in the context of post-World War II reconstruction, speaking as much of neighborhoods and communities as of buildings. Therein, said Vincent Scully, is "read their sense of their own identity... [and] their relationship to fate." Frank Lloyd Wright considered the built environment to be "frozen music." Even more than that, it is frozen philosophy, a manifestation of what the community believes, values, and strives to be, as well as an archive of its own development as a civilization.

The built environment is the infrastructure, civic and service centers, parks and planned open spaces, neighborhoods, landmarks, roads and walkways, and all those public and private places that compose the community and constitute a critical frontier. It is necessary to understand the interactive relationship between people and the built environment and to unite these two elements in a way that optimizes each. The actual physical medium through which sustainable communities are realized is in fact the built environment.

An integral relationship exists between how a community is planned and developed--its form, configuration, and use--and its capacity to meet its social, environmental, and economic needs. Community form, which represents the needs and priorities of the community, directly influences community capacity to sustain itself into the future.

The process for planning and developing a community--how the components and systems of its built environment are created, shaped, and managed--greatly influences the goals that the community can achieve. The planning and development process is an invaluable resource, one that has been vastly underused in the past. Above all, it is a management tool with great potential to aid communities in achieving their goals. This process is guided by local decision making and policy creation and implemented through the tools of the planning development process--development guidelines, comprehensive planning, capital budgeting, zoning, subdivision regulations, and building codes. Local governments make decisions every day, based on the needs and priorities of their communities. Nearly every decision and resulting action at this level affects community form and in turn the community's capacity to serve complex and growing needs.

This integral relationship, as well as how the planning and development process figures in that relationship, gives rise to certain critical planning considerations. Among the numerous components and systems that must be considered during this process are: size, scale, height, and density of buildings and infrastructure; ecological considerations like flood zones and indigenous species; meteorological considerations like rainfall and high winds; the role of neighborhoods within the community; arrangement and mix of activities, land uses, developed versus open spaces and public versus private spaces; visual relationships among landmarks, streets, buildings, and other elements of the built form; presence, location, and vitality of community facilities and service centers; public transportation and pedestrian systems; the relationship among urban, suburban, and rural surroundings; and the cohesion of the region in which the community fits.

Research and practical experience over the past few decades have taught us a great deal about the role of the built environment and the potential for this process to create a sustainable community. Natural hazard mitigation, crime prevention, energy conservation, and viable neighborhood development are practical examples of how this process can be used. In short, planning and development are the processes of shaping and managing the built environment to achieve community goals--in this case, a sustainable community.

Envisioning the Sustainable Community

Rather than trying to define sustainability, local governments should instead begin to envision it. This approach allows the concept to remain flexible and applicable to a community's unique qualities. Out of that vision come the goals and priorities of the community, which represent the needs it must meet through its planning and development process.

In Lewis Carroll's story Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" The Cat answers, 'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." "I don't much care where," replies Alice, only to be answered by the Cat: "Then it doesn't matter which way you go." "As long as 1 get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation. "Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

Most of America, like Alice, has known or cared little where it was going with regard to planning and development. Communities have gotten somewhere after walking, or rather driving, a long time. But "getting somewhere" is not good enough: it has, in many cases, been counterproductive and just plain bad planning. Communities need to clarify where they want to go. The clear formulation of goals and priorities is the key to sustainable success.

A sustainable community formulates goals that are rooted in a respect for both the natural environment and human nature and that call for the use of technology in an appropriate way to serve both of these resources. Without this important principle, failure is guaranteed, and with that principle go the fundamental characteristics of a sustainable community. This kind of community must, therefore, strive to achieve the following characteristics and goals:

Places a high value on quality of life. A sustainable community accepts that communities are first and foremost for people and that the primary objective of the planning and development process is to improve the quality of life of its residents, socially, economically, psychologically, and spiritually. It implements policies to achieve quality of life and does so in a fair, open, and democratic manner.

Respects the natural environment. A sustainable community recognizes its relationship to nature and sees nature's systems and components as essential to its well-being. It provides access to nature through metropolitan parks, open-space zones, and urban gardens. It understands the sensitive interface between the natural and built environment, develops in a way that will support and complement-not interfere with--nature, and avoids ecological disasters.

Infuses technology with purpose. A sustainable community uses appropriate technology, while ensuring that technology in the built environment is a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself. It emphasizes learning and understanding how existing and new technology can serve and improve communities, not vice versa. It sets clear and measurable goals for what it wants technology to achieve.

Optimizes key resources. A sustainable community takes an inventory of its human, natural, and economic resources and understands their finite quality. It ensures that forests are not overused, people are not underemployed, and the places of the built environment are not stagnant and empty. It reduces waste and reuses resources: it creates conditions in which all these resources can be used to their fullest and best potential, without harming or diminishing them.

Maintains scale and capacity. A sustainable community recognizes the importance of scale and capacity, with regard to the natural and human environment. It ensures that the environment is not overdeveloped, overbuilt, overused, or overpopulated. It recognizes the signs of tension that indicate when the environment is overstressed and can adjust its demands on the environment, to avoid pollution, natural disaster, and social disintegration.

Adopts a systems approach. A sustainable community understands that the natural and human environments make up a holistic system, comprising individual components that interrelate and affect the whole. Beaches are a part of coastal systems, families are a part of social networks, particulates and currents are a part of air systems, and bus routes are a part of transportation networks. It reviews and implements policies in light of these systems to maintain harmony and balance within the environment.

Supports life cycles. A sustainable community recognizes life cycles and the functions and elements that support them. It takes into account natural cycles like hydrology and photosynthesis; human cycles like friendship, family, and association; basic cycles like birth and death. It sees the role that the built environment can play in supporting the viability, continuity, and renewability of these cycles, whether through neighborhood preservation, wetland management, or habitat conservation.

Is responsive and proactive. A sustainable community responds to changing community needs and can change or make new priorities. Whether by mitigating natural hazards, preventing crime, or attracting economic development, it does not simply react to circumstances or events but takes action to prevent threats to community well-being and to maximize good opportunities through the built environment.

Values diversity. A sustainable community understands that a cross section of the human and natural environment reveals one constant: diversity. Human diversity and biodiversity are essential to a thriving social dynamic and web of life. A sustainable community promotes and implements this truth through its policies regarding the built environment. It does not segregate or segment populations or elements of nature but integrates them into the fabric of the community.

Preserves heritage. A sustainable community values the indigenous and time-honored aspects of its culture and history. It understands that the built environment grows up through and around such traditions as the village green, the local church, the town library, and Main Street. It celebrates its past and considers it when making the changes necessary to modernize the community.

What implications do these characteristics hold for the built environment? In other words, what needs to be accounted for in the planning and development process for a community to be sustainable? These considerations will vary from community to community, but generally they will include the following: ecological systems like forests, deserts, and wetlands; cycles of geology, hydrology, and meteorology; protection of resources like air and water; habitat conservation and preservation of indigenous flora and fauna; waste management; appropriate management of population; maintenance of the scale of the built form; nearness to nature; security and health; opportunities for solitude, congregation, and recreation; educational and economic opportunities; accessible location of services and mix of uses; access to transportation and communication systems; pedestrian systems and spaces; historic preservation; and cultivation of a sense of community and a sense of place.

Implementing Sustainability

Sustainable community planning and development can provide direction by asking what communities should achieve; by initiating a goal-oriented process of planning and development; and by maximizing the existing development tools and local decisionmaking process. A local government should begin as the Cheshire Cat advises Alice to do: determine where to go, and recognize the importance of getting there. Then map out a number of practical steps:

  • Establish community goals, general as well as specific.
  • Assess specific areas of the community to target them for sustainable development, for example, a series of neighborhoods, a downtown commercial area, or a transportation system.
  • Identify indicators of success, and ensure that these indicators are clearly linked to the community's goals.
  • Build consensus and collect input on the goals from throughout the community, that is, from residents, media, businesses, grassroots organizations, civic groups, schools, and so on.
  • Develop a strategic plan for achieving these goals. This plan should detail specific objectives, the time frame for accomplishing them, the process through which they will be accomplished, people who will be involved, and ways to build support and publicize accomplishments.
  • Develop a set of design guidelines to use in the planning and development process. These guidelines should include state-of-the-art knowledge, literature, personnel, and other resources as needed. Each guideline should relate clearly to the community's goals.
  • Identify and acknowledge potential barriers to success. It is essential in this process to be aware of the barriers as well as the opportunities, if constructive dialogue and consensus are to occur.
  • Adapt community processes to act as tools to drive sustainability. Identify the day-to-day decisions and procedures that will implement sustainability both incrementally and over the long term. These tools of sustainability include development guidelines, capital budgeting, the comprehensive plan, zoning, subdivision regulations, codes, and other aspects of the community's planning process.
  • Maintain open lines of communication with the public, and keep the process accessible and flexible. Members of the public can provide "buy-in," but even more important, they can afford constructive, grassroots advice about necessary changes or adaptations to the plan.
  • Document and publicize results and successes, and recognize those people who have assisted in achieving those results.

While the tools and the process will need to be adapted, the community now has a mutually agreed-upon set of goals and a map for getting there. Soon, the community will begin to see results that will indicate a higher quality of life for residents, a more effective use of resources, and an attraction for the kinds of businesses and economic development that will sustain it long into the future. The Sustainable Imperative While this concept is spreading, it has yet to become a part of the national culture and consciousness. The tendency has been more to view things separately and independently. But fragmented thinking cannot support the holistic approach necessary to the planning and development of sustainable communities. As Churchill's philosophy implies, if we shape our built environment appropriately, based on what we want to achieve as a Community, then that environment will produce a sustainable future for us in our communities.

Perhaps the most important step toward meeting this challenge is simply to raise sustainability as an issue. Sustainability will and should be a goal-oriented process. This process will at times be controversial because at its heart, says Professor D. Sterman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, "it questions the purpose of society [and] the relationship between humans and nature, and demands social justice and equity." But although sustainability is controversial, it also is restorative and therefore essential to guiding communities into the twenty-first century.

Don Geis is program director and Tammy Kutzmark is project manager, Local Government Planning Programs, ICMA, Washington, D.C.

Reprinted with permission from Public Management magazine,
published by the International City/County Management Association, Washington DC

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