Table of Contents | Chapter
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 1992, at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the countries of the world with participation from non-governmental organizations drafted and agreed to Agenda 21, a global plan of action for better integrating and resolving issues of environmental, economic, and social development. At the conference, national governments agreed to draft their own plans of action with broad participation of nongovernmental organizations. The President’s Council on Sustainable Development’s mandate from President Clinton to develop a national action strategy is part of the U.S. commitment to that pledge.
The UNCED was the beginning of a series of major international summits that included the Human Rights Summit in Vienna, Austria, in 1993; the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994; the World Conference on Social Development in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1995; and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995. This series culminated in the second U.N. Conference on Human Settlements (also known as Habitat II or “the City Summit”) in Istanbul, Turkey in June of 1996. Habitat II was intended to tie together the themes of the previous conferences and connect them to the importance of communities.
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.
”1 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. (For examples of these principles, see Appendix A.)
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.
The role of local communities is becoming increasingly important as the United States, and much of the rest of the world, move toward more decentralized decisionmaking. The federal government will continue to bear the responsibility for bringing together diverse interests to establish national standards, goals, and priorities. These federal roles are necessary because national interests may not always be represented in local decisions, and the effects of community choices are felt beyond one municipality. The federal government is providing greater flexibility and expanding the roles played by states, counties, and local communities in implementing policies and programs to address national goals. This new model of intergovernmental partnership will require information sharing, and an unprecedented degree of coordination between levels of government. Local government will play a key role in creating stronger communities - from planning and facilitating development, to creating community partnerships, to providing leadership.
It is clear that the scope of a problem designates the level at which it is most appropriately solved. For example, some issues have regional, inter-regional, and global ramifications. Air pollution is one of them. Acid rain is caused by air pollutants that manifest themselves in rain that can fall hundreds of miles from where the pollutants were emitted. The cooperation of more than one region is required to correct this type of problem.
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. The big institutions in society - including federal and state governments, businesses, universities, and national organizations - can and should provide support for local community efforts. And in some cases, these institutions need to review the barriers they have (sometimes inadvertently) erected that diminish the ability of communities to pursue sustainable development.
The task force was inspired by communities throughout the country that are using innovative approaches to reinvigorate public involvement in finding solutions to community problems. From small towns like Pattonsburg, Missouri, to cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, to large urban centers like Seattle, Washington, many communities are taking responsibility for meeting their economic, environmental, and equity objectives. While none of these communities has been transformed into a utopia, much can be learned from their efforts and progress. 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.