3. Elements of Sustainable Communities

3. Elements of Sustainable Communities

To better understand the relationship between sustainable community and P2 activities, it is important to understand how communities develop and implement their sustainability projects. This chapter presents an illustrative process for developing a sustainable community and describes two organizational concepts, illustrating them with examples from two communities.

Process of Developing a Sustainable Community

Communities develop sustainability initiatives in many different ways. However, to illustrate this process, a sample of some of the most common steps is discussed in this chapter.

Below are seven procedures that communities often go through as they develop sustainable community efforts:

  1. Developing ongoing governance structure for the sustainable community efforts;

  2. Creating a sustainable community vision;

  3. Setting goals and objectives along with indicators;

  4. Developing sustainability guiding principles;

  5. Designing and prioritizing potential activities;

  6. Choosing and implementing activities; and

  7. Evaluating progress and revising activities accordingly.

  8. Each of these seven steps for this sample process of developing a sustainable community is briefly discussed.

    Developing an Ongoing Governance Structure

    Many sustainability efforts are started by enthusiastic individuals or organizations who want to help their community and environment. Such individuals or groups help motivate other members of the community to participate in the process. Often the process begins with a core group of volunteers and organizations meeting in a committee or workshop fashion. The group begins to organize a structure for the ongoing sustainable community effort, such as a steering committee that meets regularly and is open to the public. As the effort progresses, special subcommittees or task forces are created to develop and implement specific projects.

    Creating a Vision

    As a common first step, the sustainable community committee or group will first develop a vision for their sustainable community. This process typically includes reaching out to a wide range and large number of community stakeholders to help in developing the community vision. In developing this vision, community members often are asked by the sustainable community group questions such as: What does sustainability mean for my community or what do I want my community to look like in 20, 50, or 100 years? This development process frequently includes many discussions, public forums, and consensus building to create a common community vision. In this vision-making process, communities often create their own unique definitions of sustainability, as will be illustrated in Chapter Five with the City of Seattle's sustainable community effort.

    Setting Goals and Objectives

    Next, the group defines goals and objectives for their sustainable community and develops specific indicators to measure progress toward the community goals. Such a process may be time consuming, especially when it includes many different stakeholders and attempts to build community consensus. For instance, an indicators development project in Seattle took over three years. Seattle-area volunteers spent thousands of hours designing and researching the integrated "report card" on long-term trends in their region.

    Developing Guiding Principles

    Some communities also develop sustainability guiding principles to help individuals and organizations within their communities. For instance, Portland, Oregon, has developed sustainable city principles as guidelines for city elected officials and staff. Burlington, Vermont, has developed six principles of sustainable community development. Examples of these principles include: "Encourage economic self-sufficiency through local ownership and the maximum use of local resources"; "Equalize the benefits and burdens of growth"; and "Protect and preserve fragile environmental resources."[1]

    Choosing and Implementing Activities

    Once the sustainable community group has defined its vision, principles, goals, and objectives, it develops and prioritizes specific projects and actions to meet its goals and work toward the vision. Often the committee or subcommittee and/or task forces meet and brainstorm to generate ideas and analyze and discuss them. Key issues discussed include political and economic feasibility and resources available for implementation. After this discussion and analysis process, the ideas are prioritized for implementation. Then the community begins to choose which ones to implement and how to implement them. Some of the larger longer-term activities may require generating outside support and interest. Such a need occurs frequently when developing an eco-industrial park, as in Northampton County, Virginia, which attracted businesses to participate in its Sustainable Technologies Industrial Park. Short-term and low-cost projects may be started immediately, such as holding an educational meeting about home sustainability practices for local residents.

    Evaluating Progress and Revising Activities

    Communities evaluate their progress and revise activities accordingly. This evaluation and revision step is especially important since sustainability is an evolutionary process. Some have criticized sustainable community activities because some communities have underemphasized the importance of measuring the actual effect of their activities. It is important to include a program evaluation process within such activities to measure the effectiveness of the program and to make necessary changes to improve it.

    Not all sustainability processes happen this way; each community has unique elements in its process. This sample was presented to illustrate the general process that communities go through in developing sustainability efforts.

    Organizing for Sustainability

    How communities organize themselves for sustainability and how they organize their sustainability issues are both important parts of how sustainable communities develop. Communities tend to organize their functional structures and activities around sustainability issues. Specifically, they organize to address the economic, social, and environmental issues that are most pressing or most highly valued in their community. Many times they also address governance and management issues, such as fairness in their community, fairness in their sustainabilty process, and basic management logistics for the process. Integrating these issues is key, since communities are trying to address their problems in a more holistic and integrated fashion.

    Many communities also organize their activities around basic community elements. These elements refer to the five functional and physical components that are the basis for our modern communities. Major community elements include the built environment, transportation, energy, water and wastes, and flora and fauna.[2] "Built environment" refers to buildings, such as residential, businesses, and other structures, and issues related to such structures. Issues addressed in this area include building materials, safe and affordable housing, and urban design. Transportation includes issues related to mobility and access to transportation. Water and waste includes issues such as drinking water, waste water, solid waste, and hazardous waste management. Flora and fauna refers to issues regarding natural resources and habitat such as green spaces, parks, species protection, agriculture, habitat restoration, and ecosystem management. Many communities try to address these elements in their organizational structure and activities. Again, in addressing these elements most communities consider the environment, economic issues, and social aspects and how they are interrelated.

    This functional approach based on community elements is important for assessing the comprehensiveness of a sustainability activity. Some activities address one or two areas; others are more comprehensive and address all five. This structure also illustrates some of the confusion around the definition of sustainability and overuse of the term. If a project focuses only on energy issues, is it truly a sustainable community effort or just an energy activity? Such a judgment falls outside the scope of this report. However, it is important to be aware of such issues when thinking about the relationship between community activities that are called "sustainable" and P2.

    In practice, most communities combine the issue and functional approaches. To illustrate this combination of such approaches, consider two different community organization examples: EcoVillage at Ithaca Guidelines for Development, and the Civic Forums in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    EcoVillage at Ithaca

    EcoVillage at Ithaca created its Guidelines for Development over the course of nine months with input from over 100 people. These ideas are meant to be taken as guidelines rather than specific requirements. The Guidelines for Development were written for the following ten areas:

    1. Residential neighborhood;

    2. Village Center complex;

    3. Agriculture;

    4. Transportation and circulation;

    5. Natural resources and recreation;

    6. Water and wastewater;

    7. Solid waste;

    8. Energy;

    9. Building materials; and

    10. Social elements.[3]

    11. The focus areas of these guidelines address all five of the major community elements as well important social elements of the community, including the Village Center. The guidelines focus on practical goals and objectives, such as the goal, "To maximize open space" and the objective, "Neighborhoods will surround an open, vehicle-free village green." Most of the guidelines are focused around the specific functional elements of the community that is being built.

      Cambridge Civic Forums

      The second example is from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge Civic Forums are a joint project of the Center for Civic Networking, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, and the Sustainable Cambridge Coalition. The Civic Forums bring together Cambridge citizens to envision a healthy sustainable future for their community. In the forums, community members attempt to engage in a constructive dialogue, collaborate on defining a common vision, and participate in generating an action plan for the city's future. The Civic Forums have been organized around seven areas of conversation. These seven areas are:

      1. Ecology;

      2. The built environment;

      3. Health and well-being;

      4. Education and training;

      5. Business and employment;

      6. Social justice and governance; and

      7. Arts and transcendent values.[4]

      This example illustrates how the City of Cambridge focuses on a wide range of social, economic, and environmental issues in its discussions about the future. It places a great emphasis on social issues, such as justice, health, and the arts, in its process. For instance, health and well-being issues include citizens' physical well-being, which also may include mental issues such as stress and anxiety, health services delivery issues, and community access issues.

      These two examples illustrate how each community takes its own approach to organizing environmental, social, and economic issues. The EcoVillage at Ithaca organizers have placed a greater emphasis on the practical functional elements of the community in providing their community guidelines, while Cambridge Civic Forums are organized around broader social and philosophical community issues. These differences also make sense given the nature of these two different sustainable community efforts: EcoVillage at Ithaca and its guidelines are focused on implementation (i.e., building a new neighborhood), whereas Cambridge Civic Forums are currently focused on a community visioning and planning process. An effort focused on the planning and visioning process may require a different structure from an effort focused more on implementation of specific projects, especially projects that focus more on technological and infrastructure changes. Note that if an effort's focus changes and evolves, such as moving from a visioning process to an implementation process, the organizational structure may also evolve.

      This fundamental point about differences in approach may seem frequently repeated, but one should remember that sustainable community efforts are unique, because each community's interest, goals, objectives, problems, members, and physical location are unique. Understanding this uniqueness means that the type of opportunity for P2 practitioners varies as well.


      [1] The President's Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable Communities Task Force Report, Final Draft, October 1996, p. 47.

      [2] These community elements were originally discussed by Jim Waddell and the author based on his 1995 NSTC draft white paper called "Reinventing the Urban Environment: The Role of Science and Technology."

      [3] For more information, see EcoVillage at Ithaca, New York, WWW page: http://www.cfe.cornell.edu/ecovillage/.

      [4] For more information on the Cambridge Civic Forums, see its WWW page: http://civic.net/cambridge_civic_network/ccf/ccf.html.


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      When making comments about this document please remember to include the publication number MR-855-OSTP and the title: Linking Sustainable Community Activities to Pollution Prevention: A Sourcebook. This document is also available as a printed RAND report.

      Document created April 1997