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Sustainability 108: planning a sustainable community?

Live in harmony with nature
Painting by Rick Zimmerman

Just exactly how does one go about planning a sustainable community?

The first logical step, of course, is defining what one actually means by a ‘sustainable community’. In recent years, two quite similar definitions of ‘sustainable community’ have evolved. The first of these two posits that sustainability is best achieved at the intersection of three elements: society, environment and economy. In other words, true sustainability lies in optimizing societal benefits, while also optimizing impacts on the environment and its natural resources, and optimizing the economy or overall efficiency of our efforts. The second similar definition merely views these same three elements through the lens of limits. That is, sustainability is economic activity or efficiency constrained by what society demands, and still further constrained by what the environment and resources can support.

For my own sake, I prefer the first definition, for it seems to embody a more hopeful, optimistic and ‘limitless’ view of what might be possible. I also feel that too much concentration on limits or constraints may lead to ‘red-line’ thinking, in which we are tempted to always push to the limits of what society or the environment can endure. I would rather shift the sustainability paradigm than step right up to the sustainability brink.

Sustainability should always be forward-looking, as it must meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations meeting their needs.

Sustainable community planning therefore ramps up considerably from what have traditionally been known as urban planning, land planning or community planning. It is no longer enough to merely deal with dwelling units per acre or vehicles per mile of road lane. We must learn to measure our successes on the full range of social, cultural, aspirational, aesthetic, economic, health, energy, environmental, technological and natural resource parameters. Clearly, this is a daunting challenge.

But planners, architects, builders and social engineers of all types have fostered a broad array of incremental solutions that can become part of sustainable community planning. These include such options as: mixed zoning; increased density and sharing of infrastructure; greater diversity of housing types; increased use of such renewable energy sources as wind, solar and biomass; increased use of geothermal heating; industrial symbiosis, in which multiple industries share water, waste, energy and information; capture and reuse of rainwater; reuse of gray water; restoration of natural waterways and habitats; increased used of passive solar heating, passive ventilation, and solar water heating; local sourcing of products and services; development of intermodal transportation networks; incorporation of higher efficiency lighting, appliances and plumbing fixtures; limitations of impervious paved surfaces; design for climate change and extreme climate events; increased education and involvement of served populations; preservation of distinctive natural resources, locales, flora and fauna; striving for livable, walkable communities; reduction in crime and social friction; reduction in consumption.

None of these options, taken by itself, is inherently easy. And, certainly, trying to pursue a number of them at once is far more difficult. That is why sustainable community planning requires time and the energy and involvement of all stakeholders: residents and end-users, business leaders, planners, architects, builders, social agencies, utility companies, governmental agencies, regulators, civic leaders, and so on.

Today we are seeing some of these options incorporated in communities that are proving more sustainable than those of the past. Developments across such widely spread cities as San Francisco, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Minneapolis and Seaside, Florida are beginning to show us the way.

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