Flourishing communities are the foundation of a healthy society. One important measure of America's potential for long-term vitality will be the emergence of communities that are attractive, clean, safe, and rich in educational and employment opportunities. But before engaging in any discussion about sustainable communities, an understanding of the shared concepts and definitions of sustainable development must exist.
What is Sustainable Development?
The term "sustainable development" and its definitions originated in an international context. The term was popularized by the World Commission on Environment and Development, which is also known as the Bruntland Commission, named after its chair Gro Harlem Bruntland. Established by the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly in 1984, the commission was asked to learn about the connections between the issues of environment and development. It held meetings on every continent with people from all walks of life and presented its final report, Our Common Future, to the U.N. General Assembly in 1987.
In Our Common Future, the Bruntland Commission defined sustainable development as development that allows people "...to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition was adopted by the President's Council on Sustainable Development in 1993 as it initiated its work.
Although the Bruntland Commission's definition addresses the intergenerational and long-term aspects of sustainable development, alone it is not a comprehensive definition of the term and its affiliated concepts.
Sustainable development has been described as the integration of the three e's environment, economy, and equity. In addition, a variety of themes have become closely associated with the concept of sustainable development. For development to be sustainable, it must satisfy five criteria. Decisions must consider and account for:
Long-term impacts and consequences Sustainable development requires the use of a long-term horizon for decisionmaking in which society pursues long-term aspirations rather than simply making short-term, reactive responses to problems. By keeping an eye out for the long-term, sustainable development ensures that options for future generations are maintained if not improved.
Interdependence Sustainable development recognizes the interdependence of economic, environmental, and social well-being. It promotes actions that expand economic opportunity, improve environmental quality, and increase social well-being all at the same time, never sacrificing one for another.
Participation and transparency Sustainable development depends on decisionmaking that is inclusive, participatory, and transparent. It recognizes the importance of process and decisionmaking that includes the input of the stakeholders who will be affected by decisions.
Equity Sustainable development promotes equity between generations and among different groups in society. It recognizes the necessity of equality and fairness, and it reduces disparities in risks and access to benefits.
Proactive prevention Sustainable development is anticipatory. It promotes efforts to prevent problems as the first course of action.
Sustainable development is one of those rare ideas that could dramatically change the way we look at "what is" and "what could be." It is about doing things in ways that work for the long run because they are better from every point of view better economically, environmentally, and socially. It provides a new framework for working together to expand economic opportunities, rebuild communities, revitalize democracy, develop a new generation of environmentally superior technologies, link entrepreneurship to environmental stewardship, and bring our increasingly urban way of life into balance with nature. Sustainable development challenges us to envision a society superior to today's society, and to make it a reality for our children and grandchildren.
What are sustainable communities?
Sustainable communities are cities and towns that prosper because people work together to produce a high quality of life that they want to sustain and constantly improve. They are communities that flourish because they build a mutually supportive, dynamic balance between social well-being, economic opportunity, and environmental quality. While it is not possible today to point to a list and say, "These communities are sustainable," the emerging ideal of sustainable communities is a goal many are striving to achieve. And while there is no single template for a sustainable community, cities and towns pursuing sustainable development often have characteristics in common. Generally speaking, they integrate the five concepts outlined above and demonstrate their application locally. Some communities have adopted sustainable community principles through legislation, executive order, or other actions.
The concept of sustainable communities should be viewed as an ideal for communities to pursue an ideal whose possibilities are enormously exciting.
In sustainable communities, people are engaged in building a community together. They are well-informed and actively involved in making the decisions that affect their lives. In making decisions, they consider the long-term benefits to future generations as well as themselves. They understand that successful long-term solutions require partnerships and a process that allows for representatives of a community's diverse sectors to be involved in discussions, planning, and decisions that respond directly to unique local needs. They also recognize that some problems cannot be solved within the confines of their community, and that working in partnership with others in the region is necessary to deal with them effectively.
In sustainable communities, people use this participatory approach to make conscious decisions about design. The concepts of efficiency and livability permeate decisions about physical structure. Development patterns promote accessibility, decrease sprawl, reduce energy costs, and foster a human-scale built environment.
In sustainable communities, all people have access to educational opportunities that prepare them for jobs to support themselves and their families in a local economy that is dynamic and prepared to cope with changes in the national and global economy. In sustainable communities, partnerships involving business, government, labor, and employees promote economic development and jobs. They cooperatively plan and carry out development strategies that create diversified local economies built on unique local advantages and environmentally superior technologies. These efforts can strengthen the local economy, buffering the effects of national and international economic trends that sometimes result in job losses in a community. Such partnerships also invest in the education and training necessary to make community members more productive, raise their earning power, and help strengthen and attract business. Use of environmentally superior technologies for transportation, industry, buildings, and agriculture boosts productivity and lowers business costs while dramatically reducing pollution, and solid and hazardous wastes.
Businesses, households, and governments in sustainable communities make efficient use of land, energy, and other resources, allowing the area to achieve a high quality of life with minimal waste and environmental damage. These communities are healthy and secure and they provide people with clean air, clean water, and safe food.
Why are communities key to sustainable development?
Whether the United States and other nations will achieve a sustainable future largely depends on how well the concepts and principles of sustainable development are integrated into decisionmaking at the community level. If efforts to build a sustainable future are to take hold, they must do so in the day-to-day lives of people in their workplaces, stores, neighborhood associations, community organizations, local government, labor unions, schools, and religious institutions.
It is in communities where people work, play, and feel most connected to society. Problems like congestion, pollution, and crime often seem abstract when they appear as national statistics, but they become personal and real at the community level. In the same way, sustainable development may remain a remote theoretical concept for many people until it is described in the context of community. Then it becomes more clear that sustainable development is directly related to aspects of people's daily lives and their fundamental needs, such as educational and job opportunities, health care, affordable housing, clean air and water, and convenient transportation. It is within communities that children the basic education and skills that will allow them to thrive in the changing marketplace.
It is within communities that people can most easily bring diverse interests together, identify and agree on goals for positive change, and organize for responsive action. While the challenges facing the nation are difficult to resolve at any level of government, local communities offer people the greatest opportunity to meet face-to-face to fashion a shared commitment to a sustainable future. Nothing could do more to foster sustainable development than a nationwide effort to apply this idea at the community level.
Much of what is needed to create more sustainable communities is within reach if people and their community institutions join forces. Many communities are beginning to use sustainable development as a framework for thinking about their future. By building upon their leadership and innovation, marshaling and reorienting government resources, and creating new standards for process and participation, strengthened communities can provide the foundation for a stronger, revitalized America.
Task Force Recommendations
policy recommendation 1
policy recommendation 1
Community-Based Public Dialogue, Planning, Priority- Setting, and Implementation
Bring people together to identify, prioritize, and learn about key issues in their community; develop a vision of what they want their community to be; set goals for realizing that vision; establish indicators for measuring progress; identify the resources needed to reach the goals; and implement actions that will advance them.
Action 1. Community-based coalitions can create educational, media, and civic journalism campaigns to encourage participation in civil life and voting, disseminate high-quality information on community issues, and promote public discussions that will lead to the
resolution of these issues. Coalitions should be as broad as possible, including industry and business, schools, newspapers, television and radio stations, community groups, labor, local government, religious institutions, and organizations working on social, economic, and environmental issues.
Action 2. As part of the dialogue and planning process, community-based coalitions can work to draft an economic development strategy that will fulfill basic human needs by taking advantage of local and regional opportunities and new economic trends, such as the opening up of global markets and the improvement of environmental and communications technologies. Coalitions should include businesses, employees, unions, chambers of commerce, local government, community groups, and residents.
Action 3. Federal and state governments in consultation with local government, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations should support local planning that integrates economic development, environmental protection, and social equity concerns and should promote public participation in planning efforts. For example, they should reaffirm the value of such planning through the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, and they should apply the requirements of such planning to federal and state funding and incentives for economic development, housing, transportation, and environmental programs.
Policy recommendation 2
Open and Inclusive Decisionmaking
Encourage and facilitate open and inclusive decisionmaking processes.
Action 1. All levels government should ensure substantial opportunity for public participation in all phases of planning and decisionmaking to allow those affected by decisions to have a voice in the outcome. Governments should create new methods and expand existing ones for getting the public involved in planning and development decisions, as well as in the legislative process, taking steps to ensure that historically under-represented groups are involved.
For example, regional planning organizations, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), zoning boards, and other government entities that are active in the design of communities should take responsibility for ensuring that local residents have a substantive opportunity to participate in crucial early planning and development decisions.
Action 2. All levels of government, but especially local government, should identify impediments to greater public involvement in decisionmaking such as language barriers and lack of child care and transportation and develop strategies to overcome them.
Action 3. Businesses can encourage their managers and employees to participate in community affairs and can establish advisory boards to recruit residents to provide input to the company on issues relevant to the community. In addition, businesses can give employees flexibility to increase the time that they and their families can devote to community activities.
Action 4. While working to minimize all unacceptable environmental risks, all levels of government should work with community groups and the private sector to ensure that environmental risks and benefits are more equitably distributed among and within communities.
Policy recommendation 3
Access to Information on Sustainable Communities
Increase the ability of communities to improve their economic, environmental, and social well-being by improving access to usable information about sustainable communities initiatives, and disseminating that information to interested parties and key decisionmakers.
Action 1. Institutions and individuals with knowledge or expertise in sustainable community development should coordinate efforts to share and provide information to communities, decisionmakers, and other relevant constituencies. They should explore ways to link currently existing databases; coordinate technical assistance; co-sponsor conferences and other meetings; take advantage of emerging communications technologies, such as the Internet; and provide easily accessible points of entry for those interested in this information.
These institutions and individuals include government agencies, elected officials, nonprofit organizations, businesses, academic institutions, economic development and environmental organizations, community groups, and professional associations (from planners, architects, and engineers to ecologists and economists).
Action 2. All levels of government should improve the user-friendliness of government-collected information and technologies to help communities use them to solve problems and to educate the public. Potentially useful information includes census data, Toxics Release Inventory data, other right-to-know statistics, public investment and lending information, economic statistics, and data derived from remote sensing and satellite technologies. Potentially useful technologies for manipulating this data include mapping tools, geographic information systems (GIS), and customized GIS application databases (e.g., LandView II).
Action 3. Community-based coalitions should work with companies, federal and state regulatory agencies, and health risk assessors to develop profiles of neighborhoods that are environmentally high-risk as a tool for setting pollution abatement priorities.
Policy recommendation 4
Cooperation Among Communities
Encourage the communities within a region to work together on issues that transcend their political boundaries.
PRESIDENT'S COUNCIL ON SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
Action 1. Communities should collaborate to identify, prioritize, and learn about key problems in their region; develop a vision of what they want their region to be like; set goals for realizing that vision; establish benchmarks for measuring progress toward these goals; ascertain the resources needed to reach the goals; and determine the actions that will advance them.
Action 2. States, counties, and municipalities should collaborate to create a system of regional accounts that measures the costs and benefits of local land use, development, and economic trends, and show how these benefits and costs are distributed in the short and long run. The federal government should work with state and local governments to ensure that federal statistical resources are available and used appropriately to support the measurement of benefits and costs.
Action 3. Federal and state governments should provide incentives for communities to collaborate on issues that transcend local political jurisdictions, such as transportation, land use, economic development, and air and water quality. Federal and state agencies responsible for environmental protection, economic development, land use, and transportation policies should work with one or more selected geographic areas to develop integrated planning and development activities, and to require region-wide cooperation in these areas.
Policy recommendation 5
Building Design and Rehabilitation
Streamline processes and encourage design and rehabilitation of new and existing buildings to use energy and materials efficiently, enhance public health, preserve historic and natural settings, and contribute to a sense of community identity; and discourage zoning and construction practices that do the opposite.
Action 1. Builders, architects, and engineers should design new buildings and rehabilitate existing ones to be healthy, livable, resource-efficient, and adaptable to new uses. These buildings should feature energy efficiency, daylighting, non-toxic recycled and recyclable construction materials, and designs that promote human interaction. They should also recognize the importance of historic preservation capturing the resource of the embodied energy of existing buildings and promote zero-waste building practices.
Action 2. Builders and landscape architects should encourage building design that recognizes the integration between the built and natural environments through landscaping techniques such as the use of native plants, which can reduce the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and water; and shade trees which can reduce energy use.
Action 3. Federal, state, and local governments should work with builders, architects, developers, contractors, materials manufacturers, service providers, community groups, and others to streamline regulations that allow builders and architects to implement the above-outlined sustainable building and construction practices. They should publish or otherwise make available information about model building codes, zoning ordinances, and flexibility for better building permit approval processes for residential and commercial buildings so that local decisionmakers can adapt them to reflect local conditions and values.
Action 4. Lenders, community groups, and historic preservation groups can work together to identify financing for retrofitting buildings to be energy-efficient and for rehabilitating historic buildings. Local governments can enact ordinances to preserve historic buildings, adapting them for new uses whenever possible, and removing incentives for demolishing them.
Action 5. Educational institutions at all levels, particularly technical and graduate schools, should provide interdisciplinary training to encourage engineers, architects, landscape artists, and other design professionals to integrate sustainable building and construction practices, as outlined above, into common use.
Policy recommendation 6
Design new communities and improve existing ones to use land and infrastructure efficiently, promote mixed-use and mixed-income development, retain public open space, and provide diverse transportation options to integrate the places in which people live and work with the natural environment.
Action 1. Local jurisdictions should structure or revise local zoning regulations and permit approval processes to encourage mixed-used, mixed-income development co-located with diverse transportation options in areas that are already developed and especially where transit infrastructure is already in place.
Action 2. Federal and state governments and the private sector should form teams to help local jurisdictions reduce sprawl, and design developments that are resource-efficient and livable.
Teams should include design and financing professionals, engineers, transportation specialists, land use experts, economic development and energy-efficiency experts, retailers, natural resource managers, and others.
Action 3. The federal government should change federal tax policy to provide the same tax treatment of employee parking benefits and employee benefits relating to the use of mass transit, walking, and bike riding. For example, employers currently receive a tax deduction for providing parking and most do not charge for employee parking. While a much smaller tax-free benefit (less than half the amount) is also available for transit, no such incentive exists for those who neither drive nor take transit.
Action 4. The federal government should give credit toward attainment of national Clean Air Act Amendment ambient air-quality standards to communities that lower traffic by adopting zoning, building code, and other changes that encourage more efficient land use patterns that reduce air pollution from motor vehicles.
Policy recommendation 7
Reduce Sprawl and Promote Smarter Growth
Reduce sprawl and promote smarter geographical growth of existing communities and the siting of new ones to enhance economic opportunities and meet future needs while conserving open space and respecting the carrying capacity of the natural environment.
Action 1. The federal government should redirect federal policies that encourage low-density sprawl to foster investment in existing communities. For example, it should encourage shifts in transportation spending toward transit, highway maintenance and repair, and expansion of transit options rather than new highway or beltway construction. It should also change the capital gain provision in section 1034 of the Internal Revenue Service code to allow homesellers to defer tax liability even if they purchase a new home of lesser value. Currently the code allows deferred tax liability on capital gain realized during ownership only if homesellers purchase another home priced at least equal to the one sold.
Action 2. Federal agencies should work with states and communities to develop ways to evaluate the costs of infrastructure in greenfield or relatively undeveloped areas to examine subsidies and to correct market incentives in the financing of capital costs of infrastructure, such as sewers and utilities, for development of land bordering metropolitan areas. In addition, local governments and counties can work together to use community impact analyses and other information on the environmental carrying capacity of a region as the foundation for land use planning and development decisions.
Federal and state governments should also help local governments develop a metropolitan or regional planning instrument to evaluate alternative modes of development, accounting for the present value and costs of infrastructure, transportation inefficiency, land consumption, provision of social services, environmental quality, congestion, and fiscal impacts, as well as the impact on access to jobs, services, open space, and social and cultural amenities.
Action 3. All levels of government, policy experts, residents, and community organizations can work together to conduct analyses of how public resources for infrastructure are spent to benefit different communities for example, comparing the center city, outer suburbs, and rural areas. These analyses can be used to reorient priorities, if necessary, and direct future expenditures.
Action 4. Local governments and counties can create
community partnerships to develop regional open space networks and
urban growth boundaries as part of a regional framework to
discourage sprawl development that threatens a region's environmental
carrying capacity. These partnerships can conserve open space through
acquisition of land and/or development rights. For example,
public water departments can budget to acquire land necessary to
protect public water supplies. Private land trusts can expand their
acquisition of wetlands or other valuable open space.