Sure, we can all reduce, reuse, and recycle. We can add rainfall cisterns beneath all of our downspouts. Or add solar panels to our roofs. We might even install a geothermal heating/cooling system. But what if we, as planners or designers, want to contribute on a much larger scale to a more sustainable planet? Can we create wholly sustainable communities?
Let’s explore how we might do just that.
First, we must develop a perspective that is global in reach and universal in application. That perspective was perhaps first defined most effectively by the United Nation’s Bruntland Commission of 1983, which posited that “sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Knowing what we know of projected population growth, climate change, and the natural human aspiration for a continually improving quality of life, we might better state that sustainable communities should not only meet the needs of the present, but also not compromise, but in fact enhance, the ability of those who follow to meet their own needs. Thus, the ever-shrinking computer chip with its ever-expanding capacity not only meets our present needs, but displays trending that will enable it to continue to meet ever-growing demands of the future. So too our communities should be developed to incorporate the ‘trending’ that will allow future generations to thrive.
All communities — sustainable or not — are constructs that meld three primary facets of human experience: the socio-cultural, the economic and the physical/environmental. In other words, we must all live our lives comfortable with family, friends and faith; we must support ourselves economically as we do so; and we are limited by, and must interact with, our physical and environmental surroundings. For us to be happy, and for our communities to be sustainable, we must seek the greatest efficacy and efficiency along all three of these facets, while incurring the least possible cost or damage. Many in the sustainability field refer to such optimization as the ‘triple bottom-line approach’.
By examining in detail each of these three facets of community life, one can see the way toward optimization. For example, a richer social and cultural life may be offered by a community with a mix of residential, religious, educational, cultural, recreational and commercial uses than by a single-use residential (or ‘bedroom’) community. Likewise, denser, more modestly-sized dwelling units of varied design, character, features and price ranges may make for a much more affordable and appealing community than one in which all dwelling units are luxury mansions or cheap apartments. The availability of ranges of jobs and options of public transport and education may also assist in the community’s economic sustainability. A community that integrates greenspaces, wetlands and nature preserves may not only be more pleasant, recreational and healthful to its residents, but may also better weather floods, handle drainage and support biodiversity.
Current consensus holds that sustainable communities are best achieved by the application of six basic planning and design principles:
One: There must be significant citizen participation in the planning, design and management of the community, and there must be substantial public outreach and education to involve participants. Only when citizens become true stakeholders can long-term sustainability be achieved.
Two: The community should ideally be complete and completely livable. That is, it should contain all of the land uses, building types, amenities, facilities, jobs, workplaces and homes necessary for its continuing viability.
Three: The community must strive for the greatest possible improvements in efficiencies, and the greatest possible reductions in energy use, resource consumption and carbon footprint. By living more frugally, the community can ‘bank’ for the future.
Four: The physical and natural environment (or ecosystem) within which the community resides must be protected. Once the natural environment and its multitude of resources are gone, they may never be replaced. We must therefore be wise stewards of the land’s riches.
Five: To the greatest degree possible, we should plan for emergent green technologies and highly efficient systems.
Six: We must hold our community to a standard of improved economic performance overall. Only if we save money and/or improve the lot of our citizens will our actions become self-replicating.