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The Sustainable Community Movement


This chapter attempts to dispel some of the confusion surrounding the terminology used by those involved in the sustainable community movement. It provides working definitions for "sustainability" and "sustainable community" and it describes the sustainable community movement.


What Is Sustainability?
Disagreement exists about the precise meaning of the term "sustainability." The term is used in many contexts, including development, cities, agriculture, economy, technology, environment, buildings, etc. Confusion exists about the meaning of the term, since it is used in so many different contexts and often is defined differently. The most common starting definition is the one for sustainable development from the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and Development (the Bruntland Commission) 1987 report, Our Common Future:
development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[1]

The term "sustainable development" may have a negative connotation because it is overused and is often associated with development in other countries, rather than in the United States. Also, some feel that using the word "development" overemphasizes economic issues. Furthermore, the term "sustainable development" does not necessarily recognize the importance of the local community. The term "sustainable community" is often defined slightly differently because it focuses on the sense of community and its importance. Cities and towns across the United States are often more comfortable with the term "sustainable cities" or "sustainable communities." Since rural areas, small towns, and suburban areas also implement sustainability projects, the term sustainable community applies more widely. For these reasons, the term sustainable community is used throughout this report. However, some people may use these terms interchangeably, and some of the sustainable community efforts presented here are known by one of these or some other alternative term.


What Is a Sustainable Community?
The term "sustainable community" is often defined uniquely by each community, on the basis of its individual interests, needs, and culture. Most sustainable community definitions focus on long-term integrated systems approaches, healthy communities, and quality-of-life issues by addressing economic, environmental, and social issues. The concept recognizes that economic, environmental, and social issues are interdependent and integrated. To stress the importance of addressing and balancing these issues, many have used the analogy of a three-legged stool. The legs of the stool represent economic, social, and environmental components and the seat is sustainability. If any of the three are not healthy, then the stool falls over and sustainability cannot ever be achieved.

Economic issues include good jobs, good wages, stable businesses, appropriate technology development and implementation, business development, etc. If a community does not have a strong economy, then it cannot be healthy and sustainable over the long term.

From an environmental standpoint, a community can be sustainable over the long term only if it is not degrading its environment or using up finite resources. Environmental concerns include protecting human and environmental health; having healthy ecosystems and habitat; reducing and/or eliminating pollution in water, air, and land; providing green spaces and parks for wildlife, recreation, and other uses; pursuing ecosystem management; protecting biodiversity; etc.

A community must also address social issues. If a community has significant social problems, such as serious crime, then it cannot be healthy and stable over the long term. Furthermore, such a community probably will not be able to address other key community issues, such as environmental problems, because it is so busy dealing with its social problems. Social issues addressed in sustainable community efforts include education, crime, equity, inner-city problems, community building, spirituality, environmental justice, etc. Since this report is focusing on P2 activities, the social issues are not emphasized. However, social issues are considered an important leg of the sustainability stool.

A major assumption of the sustainable community definition is that trying to address such issues in isolation eventually ends up hurting some other part of the community's health. For example, if a community focuses only on economic issues, the environment usually suffers. Only by addressing such issues in an integrated fashion can a healthy community be developed which can thrive for the next 10, 20, 50, and 100 years or more.

Most communities also recognize that sustainability is an evolutionary process. Currently, most experts agree that in the United States a sustainable community does not exist that has achieved sustainability, namely, a community with comprehensive environmental, social, and economic health and stability for many generations to come. Communities are evolving toward sustainability and more sustainable practices. Creating sustainability is a learning process.

Most sustainable community efforts also involve an open process in which every member of the community is encouraged to participate. The focus is on consensus building for the community. The emphasis is on communication and cooperation among many different interests and stakeholders from the community and also from those outside the geographic community if their actions might affect the community. Compromise by special interests is also key where necessary. All the different segments of the community at the local and regional level, including businesses, individuals, environmental and community groups, and government, need to work together cooperatively to move toward sustainability. There is also the recognition that communities are not isolated; they are interdependent with their region, the country, and the world. The phrase, "Think long term and globally, and act locally" applies.


This open participatory process focuses on communication, cooperation, and compromise by many different stakeholders to build consensus. Stakeholders include the general public, academia, industry, government, environmental groups, and community groups. Such a process frequently is very time consuming and may take years to develop. Often many public community meetings are held as part of this process as the different groups learn to trust, communicate with, and listen to one another.

Another critical dimension to creating a sustainable community is fostering a sense of community. Such sustainability activities try to enhance individuals' and organizations' feelings of attachment, value, and connection to the community. Many experts feel that only by caring about and feeling a part of their neighborhood, town, county, and/or city will individuals truly work together over the long term to develop a healthy community.

To summarize, a sustainable community effort consists of a long-term integrated and systems approach to developing and achieving a healthy community by addressing economic, environmental, and social issues. Fostering a strong sense of community is also an important part of such efforts. This definition is the one used throughout this report. Note that others may not define this term in quite the same way.


What Is the Sustainable Community "Movement?"
Hundreds of communities throughout the United States and the world are developing sustainability projects and implementing more sustainable practices because of critical environmental and community problems facing them locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. They recognize that many of these problems, such as urban sprawl, cut across many different segments of the community and society. These problems cannot easily be solved by traditional approaches or traditional elements within our society. Many people feel it is better to address such problems through a new collaborative and holistic systems approach because such problems are multi-disciplinary, multi-agency, multi-stakeholder, and multi-sector in nature. The sustainable community approach--in a collaborative process focused on current and future generations' needs by integrating social, economic, and environmental issues--provides a promising opportunity to address such problems.
Since many sustainable community efforts have just begun, it is unclear whether this new approach will be successful. However, some efforts are making initial progress.[2] Evaluating the success of such efforts, however, is outside the scope of this report.


The focus and scale of sustainability efforts depend on many factors, including resources, how the effort was started, local politics, individual actions, and the unique needs and wants of the community. To illustrate this point, consider sustainability activities in Arlington, Virginia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Arlington, Virginia, has had a grassroots neighborhood sustainability effort, called Arlington Community Sustainability Network, without any official government participation. Small groups of community members met monthly and developed and implemented projects that made their community more sustainable. Their activities primarily focused on the behavior of individuals in their homes and schools. For example, they focused on public schools as users and teachers of sustainable practices, such as installing solar hot water heaters at schools and a "Neighborhood Backyard Program" for children. They also sponsored an Arlington Energy Fair in 1993 and drafted the document "50 Things You Can Do to Build a Stronger Community."[3]


The City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee, have a comprehensive sustainable community activity which involves many members of local government, businesses, and community groups. In response to the dual problems of inner-city decline and severe environmental degradation, the City of Chattanooga has incorporated sustainable community concepts into its development planning process. By focusing on the region's natural assets in its rivers, mountains, and waterfront area, all community members--citizens, business leaders, government, and community organizations--try to pay close attention to the interconnectedness of all aspects of community life. For example, Chattanooga is implementing projects to reduce air pollution and congestion and improve quality of life by reducing dependence on automobiles and by developing and implementing electric transit vehicles as part of an innovative transportation plan. Its activities also include preserving open space, watershed management, waste reuse and recycling, and cleaning up a polluted industrial site and creating a zero emissions manufacturing zone, also called an eco-industrial park,[4] at that site.


As these two examples illustrate, the types of issues addressed in sustainable community projects can vary significantly. Issues addressed by sustainability projects include urban sprawl, new economic development, inner-city and brownfield redevelopment, environmentally sound local small businesses, a strong local economy, eco-industrial parks, environmental justice, ecosystem management, recycling, watershed planning, agriculture, biodiversity, lifestyles, green buildings, energy conservation, pollution prevention, etc. Most sustainable community efforts try to address a range of such issues, recognizing the complexity and range of issues that need to be addressed in evolving to sustainability.

To address such issues, communities may focus on education, technology development and implementation, and changing practices and behaviors of individuals, government, and/or businesses. Again, communities recognize that creating sustainability is difficult and will require a range of mechanisms and actions to be successful.

Another key element of such activities is the fact that community members work together often forming unique partnerships of individuals, community environmental groups, industry and businesses, academia, and local, state, and federal governments. Most of these communities feel that only through the combined skills and cooperative effort of every segment of the community can they become truly sustainable, especially given the unique and difficult problems that our communities face.

[1] Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development (the Bruntland Commission), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, p. 43.
[2] Public Technology, Inc. (PTI) has created a Sustainable Communities Database, which includes descriptors of over 1,450 initiatives in 744 U.S. cities and counties. PTI has identified progress in some of these community efforts. Furthermore, for ten case studies of these sustainable communities projects, PTI briefly assesses their performance and transferability. Public Technology, Inc., Cities and Counties: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, Sustainability in Action, 1996. For other examples of initial success see the bibliography at the end of this report.
[3] The Arlington Community Sustainability Network no longer officially exists. However, some of the ideas and activities started by this group have been incorporated into other community group activities.
[4] "An eco-industrial park is a community of manufacturing and service businesses seeking enhanced environmental and economic performance through collaboration in managing environmental and resource issues including energy, water, and materials. By working together, the community of businesses seeks a collective benefit that is greater than the sum of individual benefits each company would realize if it optimized its individual performance." The President's Council on Sustainable Development, 


Eco-Efficiency Task Force Report, 1996, Appendix B4, p. 4.
An eco-industrial park (EIP) is also called an ecological industrial park.


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