The Sustainable Community
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
What Is Sustainability?
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.
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
What Is a Sustainable Community?
"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
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
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.
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
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. 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
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."
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, 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.
Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development (the
Bruntland Commission), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, p. 43.
 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.
 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.
 "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
Eco-Efficiency Task Force Report, 1996,
Appendix B4, p. 4.
An eco-industrial park (EIP) is also called an ecological industrial