5. Sustainable Community Examples

5. Sustainable Community Examples

This chapter provides examples of community sustainability projects. It begins by providing a broad geographical sampling of projects under way in various communities in the United States. It follows with detailed descriptions of projects in four communities: Northampton County, Virginia; Seattle, Washington; EcoVillage at Ithaca, New York; and Presidio National Park, San Francisco, California.

A Geographical Sample of Sustainable Community Projects

There are hundreds of examples of sustainable community projects across the United States. Such projects occur in all types of communities--in large, medium, and small cities; in towns; in counties; and in rural communities. Table 1 shows the diversity of the communities by listing 30 communities across the United States that have done some sort of sustainability project.

This sample was selected from a range of sources including the PCSD community case study list, the AIA environmental design charrette projects focused on sustainability, studies by the Center for Sustainability at the University of Washington, and examples from various workshops and conferences held to help develop and implement the National Environmental Technology Strategy. Many other examples can be found in the bibliography at the end of this report.

Table 1

Examples of Communities with Sustainability Projects

Arlington, VANew Haven, CT
Atlanta, GANew York, NY
Baltimore, MDNorthampton County, VA
Brownsville, TXOlympia, WA
Charlottesville, VAPattonsburg, MO
Chattanooga, TNPortland, OR
Chicago, ILPresidio Natl.Park, CA
Cleveland, OHSan Francisco, CA
Curry County, ORSan Jose, CA
Haymount, VASanta Monica, CA
Henryetta, OKSarasota, FL
Ithaca, NYSeattle, WA
Los Angeles/Pico Union, CASteele County, MN
Minneapolis, MNWaterloo, IA
New Bedford, MAZuni, NM

These communities use different definitions of sustainable community. Some also call their efforts by a different name, such as an ecovillage or a sustainable development project. However, most ofthese efforts share the basic principles of a sustainable community, namely, trying to take a long-term systems approach to community problems by addressing environmental, economic, and social issues in an integrated manner. It should be noted that no attempt has been made to evaluate their effectiveness or their current status, since that is outside the scope of this report. Some of these community projects may even have ended, as has happened with the Arlington Community Sustainability Network. Those interested should contact the community directly or see the references at the end of this report to learn the current status of these activities.

Four Community Examples

The remainder of this chapter presents four detailed examples of sustainable community projects. These examples were chosen to reflect the communities and range of activities and issues that sustainability efforts address, from protecting birding habitat to controlling urban sprawl, from building a new neighborhood to creating eco-industrial parks. The communities and projects are:

    Northampton County, Virginia, a rural county with a sustainable economic development effort.

    City of Seattle, a comprehensive initiative to address its urban problems including urban sprawl.

    Ithaca, New York, a project to develop a new more sustainable neighborhood on previously undeveloped land.

    Presidio National Park, an effort to try to make the park into a showcase for sustainability and sustainable practices.

These efforts are currently being implemented. Most have shown some initial success, but it remains to be seen how successful they will be in the long term.

Northampton County, Virginia

Northampton County, Virginia, is often cited as a model of small-town and rural sustainable development. Northampton County is the southernmost county on Virginia's Eastern Shore, forming the gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. The county is rich in natural and cultural assets including beaches, marshes, barrier islands, tidal creeks, woodlands, historic villages, and farms. It includes a diverse habitat for over 260 species of birds and countless other fish and wildlife species. The county also has been one of the poorest in Virginia. In 1991 the Virginia Coastal Resources Management Program of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approached the county with a four-year match-free grant proposal, a Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) for sustainable development, to create enforceable policies to protect coastal habitat and promote economic development. A partnership of federal, state, and local governments was formed. With a $1 million grant from NOAA under the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Virginia Coastal Program hired a local project coordinator and a citizens' Sustainable Development Task Force was created. The task force held a series of community meetings. Northampton County's Board of Supervisors also supported this effort.

This community task force created a Sustainable Development Action Strategy based on the Special Area Management Plan. This strategy targets six industry areas for sustainable development and links each with key asset protection policies. These targets are to develop:

  1. The heritage tourism industry while protecting natural and cultural assets.

  2. Seafood and aquaculture industries while protecting water quality.

  3. New industries, including an eco-industrial park, while protecting sense of place, quality of life, and the groundwater.

  4. The agriculture industry while protecting productive land, including sensitive habitats.

  5. Arts, crafts, and local product industries while preserving culturally diverse authentic communities.

  6. Research and education facilities while protecting natural and cultural systems.

  7. Northampton County has already begun implementing these projects. This initiative has shown some initial success, and the group continues to leverage resources for its project implementation. Additional support and resources have been acquired from the Department of Transportation, the Economic Development Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and industry.

    The following two examples illustrate the project's progress. The first illustrates how the Special Area Management Plan developed birdwatching tourism while protecting habitat, and the second focuses on the Port of Cape Charles Sustainable Technologies Industrial Park (STIP).

    Beginning in the fall of 1991, the Virginia Coastal Program contracted with various agencies and organizations to research bird habitat requirements in the area, particularly neotropical migratory songbirds and colonial waterbirds. In 1993, the Virginia Coastal Program initiated the annual Eastern Shore Birding Festival. The Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce now organizes the event, which is funded largely through the SAMP for sustainable development and is put on through the efforts of many federal, state, and local agencies and private citizens. The festival celebrates the annual fall migration of songbirds, raptors, shorebirds, and other birds. Over 160 species are usually seen during the Festival weekend and several hundred thousand dollars are brought in by the birdwatchers.

    The Port of Cape Charles Sustainable Technologies Industrial Park (STIP) is an eco-industrial park project. Funded by a unique partnership of federal, state, private, and county investments, the STIP is starting to attract businesses committed to profitability, the environment, and the community. The park will incorporate local enterprises as well as new industry as it tries to create more sustainable products and production practices. The STIP will attempt to demonstrate advanced facilities in resource efficiency and pollution prevention and model symbiotic relationships among industrial processes. STIP's first tenant--a manufacturer of photovoltaic energy equipment--is already in place.

    Through many different project activities and its ability to leverage support and resources from many different stakeholders and sources, Northampton County's sustainability effort illustrates how rural communities and small towns can make progress toward sustainability.

    Seattle, Washington

    Seattle was one of the first U.S. cities to explicitly incorporate sustainability concepts as an organizing principle for community planning and development. As defined by the volunteer civic organization Sustainable Seattle, "sustainability" here refers to the "the long-term social, economic, and environmental health of our community." Seattle refined its definition in two ways:

    1. "Sustainability-enhancing decisionmaking" refers to holistic and long-term choices.

    2. A "sustainable city" is one that "thrives without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."

    3. An important part of Seattle's "sustainable city" definition is the concept of the city as a system within a system--a web of social, economic, and ecological phenomena operating within a similar but larger regional, national, and global system. Neighborhoods must prosper within the web of the city. Sustainability-enhancing decisionmaking (from public policy to individual lifestyles) considers the effects that decisions are likely to have on the entire system (i.e., economic, social, and environmental issues) and on future generations.

      Since 1990, many new city policies, plans, programs, and redevelopment projects have included sustainability. For instance, the Seattle Comprehensive Plan hopes to reduce urban sprawl and traffic congestion by increasing the density of jobs, housing, and amenities around "Urban Village" centers while maintaining the unique character of individual neighborhoods. This Comprehensive Plan's development was mandated by the Washington State Growth Management Act. Furthermore, over 30 Seattle neighborhoods are nvolved in the Neighborhood Planning Project, a follow-up project to the Comprehensive Plan. This project is a two- to four-year planning process to design plans consistent with the city's overall objective of sustainability while also meeting neighborhoods' special needs.

      Seattle has also been working with industry in its sustainability efforts. For example, Boeing and the City of Seattle have agreed to use waste heat from a new sewer trunk line to provide heat for the company's major assembly facilities, saving on the cost of both heating equipment and fuel.

      Seattle is also noted for its ongoing development of sustainability indicators--quality-of-life metrics that reflect economic, ecological, social, and cultural health. For example, the 1995 metrics focused on environmental indicators related to wetlands, biodiversity, wild salmon, air quality, pedestrian-friendly streets, open space in Urban Villages, impervious surfaces, and soil erosion. The 1995 metrics for population and resources focused on population, pollution prevention and renewable resource use, solid waste generated and recycled, residential water consumption, vehicle miles traveled and fuel consumption, and farm acreage. Such metrics will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the various programs and public expenditures toward achieving sustainability.

      Seattle has built a substantial collaborative process with government and private leadership. The mayor and some members of the city council and King County Council have publicly embraced sustainability. The mayor's Environmental Action Agenda created a more "holistic" management strategy for achieving key environmental priorities defined by community consensus. This agenda also helped initiate projects to integrate environmental, economic, and social goals. Many grassroots citizens' groups and nonprofit institutions and universities also have helped in Seattle's activities, including researchers and educators at the Northwest Policy Center; the Center for Sustainability Communities (Cascadia Community and Environment Institute); and the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Washington and Seattle University. EPA Region X has also been supportive of Seattle's sustainability activities.

      Seattle's sustainability program has experienced growing pains and mixed success. Sustainability is especially difficult when it attempts to change individual behaviors, such as trying to decrease single-occupancy vehicle driving and to solve related urban sprawl issues. Seattle found that "many new programs and policies that would have the effect of promoting more sustainable behavior in the region have met with stiff opposition. Often, the object at the center of the conflict is the private automobile."[1] Because of such opposition, Seattle reworked its Comprehensive Plan, somewhat weakening and simplifying it while retaining the commitment to sustainability and the "Urban Village" strategy. Seattle learned from experience and continues to try to evolve toward sustainability, recognizing that becoming more sustainable is often a slow and incremental process.

      Many of Seattle's most successful sustainability projects have been decentralized, grassroots efforts. For instance, city- and county-sponsored programs have successfully trained and deployed volunteers throughout the region to help teach individuals about more sustainable practices. These volunteers have included "Friends of Recycling," "Master Composters," and "Master Gardeners." Many small businesses are implementing more sustainable practices, from eco-retailers to bicycling carpet cleaners.

      EcoVillage at Ithaca, New York

      EcoVillage at Ithaca, New York, is another type of sustainable community initiative where members are trying to develop a new community from the ground up. Over five years ago, a grassroots group of citizens, with assistance from the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University, formed EcoVillage at Ithaca in Ithaca, New York. The group's goal is to create a model community of about 500 residents that will exemplify sustainable systems of living. Its completed project is supposed to be a working demonstration of a community that meets basic human needs such as shelter, food production, energy, social interaction, work, and recreation while preserving natural ecosystems.

      With the help of donations and loans, the group purchased a 176-acre site less than two miles from downtown Ithaca. Through an envisioning retreat in 1991 and four land-use planning forums during 1992 and 1993, members of EcoVillage at Ithaca developed comprehensive plans for their new community. The process of developing the project included input from over 100 people including future residents, architects, landscape architects, students, professors, planners, ecologists, and energy experts. The group formed a plan to build five neighborhoods around a village green, while preserving at least 80 percent of the land as agricultural open space, woods, and wetlands.

      EcoVillage at Ithaca's plan includes an integrated strategy for addressing issues such as transportation, land use, energy, water, waste water, solid wastes, agriculture, cultural and ethnic diversity, recreation, natural resources, building materials, education, research, and residential neighborhoods. For instance, the village is building a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use multifamily development on less than 20 percent of the land while using most of the rest of the land for agriculture and natural areas. State-of-the-art permaculture techniques, including orcharding, agroforestry, and aquaculture, will be implemented to maximize the self-sufficiency of the village. Other plans include an on-site wastewater treatment via a natural marsh system, gray water recycling, and composting. To be highly energy-efficient, houses are being built with super-insulated passive-solar designs and shared hot water heating systems. A visitor center will be constructed, which will also support education and research activities. The program has already developed educational programs in ecology and agriculture for local youth.

      A group of residents formed the EcoVillage CoHousing Cooperative, a separate legal entity that is creating cohousing neighborhoods on EcoVillage's land based on the Danish CoHousing model. Private, self-contained homes are being built in clusters around shared spaces, including a pedestrian path and a common house. The common house may include optional shared space such as a kitchen, dining room, laundry facility, workshops, guest rooms, and children and exercise areas. The first neighborhood was to have been built by the end of 1996 and was to include 15 duplexes clustered around a pedestrian courtyard. In developing this project, the EcoVillage CoHousing Cooperative had to overcome some challenging zoning regulations.[2] To learn more about these and other implementation issues of the EcoVillage at Ithaca project, see the bibliography at the end of this report.

      This example demonstrates how a small city with a grassroots effort can start to build a new village within the city to create a model for sustainable living.

      Presidio National Park

      Another sustainability initiative is the Presidio of San Francisco, a former Army base in the heart of San Francisco. It is now a National Historic Park operated by the National Park Service (NPS). However, the Presidio is a unique national park. Besides preserving and interpreting history and protecting the environment for millions of visitors to enjoy every year, this park is also trying to become a center for sustainability. The Presidio is developing and implementing projects to demonstrate more sustainable practices. Teaching about sustainability and transferring its sustainable practices to other communities are major goals of this initiative. The Presidio is developing special educational projects, such as special visitors' tours of Presidio grounds and sustainability projects, to teach visitors about sustainability.

      In October 1995, in cooperation with the AIA, the Department of Energy, and the NPS, the Presidio held an environmental design charrette to develop sustainability projects for the Presidio. Over 100 people, including architects, environmental consultants, engineers, exhibit designers, members of the neighboring community, developers, students, and NPS personnel, spent three days developing demonstration projects. Their goal was to create a sense of community and to develop plans for specific sustainability projects at the Presidio. This community's members include federal and local government, private businesses, NGOs, and private citizens.

      The demonstration projects were organized by six focus areas, with a team of volunteers working in each area before and after the charrette. The focus areas were:

      1. Historic residential building rehabilitation;

      2. Historic non-residential building rehabilitation;

      3. Waste prevention;

      4. Natural habitat preservation and restoration;

      5. Transportation; and

      6. Total site concerns.

      7. Projects are currently being implemented in all areas. For instance, participants are trying to protect and enhance Mountain Lake, the only natural lake at the Presidio. This project includes educating the general public, and especially school children, in lake and riparian area ecology, hydrology, biology, and management. The transportation team's projects include acquiring electric transit vehicles, improving bike and pedestrian trails, and establishing information kiosks with educational exhibits. The waste prevention team is assisting the park in implementing source reduction projects in all operations and reclaiming construction debris for reuse in other areas of the park. Again, educational exhibits and tours will be a key part of the projects.

        The park has many historic buildings, which are being rebuilt and thus pose special challenges because of their historic status. The two building rehabilitation teams have been designing special demonstration projects for rehabilitating historic buildings. These projects will be economical for the tenants, more resource-efficient and energy-efficient, and educational for the public.

        The total site team helped facilitate a process for creating a sense of community for the various stakeholders involved with the Presidio. These stakeholders include workers, residents, neighbors, visitors, recreational users, and interested members of the general public. This community also includes private businesses, such as Burger King and golf course managers, NPS personnel, and military personnel and families who still live at the park. Other community members include NGOs that are tenants on the Presidio, such as the Tides Foundation, and those who have a special interest in it, such as local Sierra Club members. There is now a designated community center where regular meetings are held.

        The Presidio teams hope that they can create sustainability models to be transferred to private and public communities worldwide, such as towns, cities, other national parks, and military bases that are being converted and reused.

        These four examples illustrate ambitious plans for different sustainable community efforts. Each community has experienced some initial successes; however, it remains to be seen how successful they will be at meeting their longer-term sustainability goals. Hopefully, these efforts and other new sustainable community approaches will be successful in creating long-term healthy communities.

        Next, this report discusses pollution prevention and explores the relationship between P2 activities and sustainable community activities.


        [1] Sustainability in Seattle 1995, A Report to the President's Council on Sustainable Development, A Joint Project by the Center for Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Seattle, and AtKisson & Associates, Inc., 1995, p. 11.

        [2] Many times sustainable community projects may need to overcome barriers in traditional government policy and regulations that encourage unsustainable practices or prohibit the type of innovation that sustainability projects are trying to test. Another example of such a barrier for eco-industrial parks is environmental regulations, such as permitting procedures, that hinder the free flow of certain waste maerials from one company's facility to be used as inputs at a different company's adjacent facility.


        Previous Chapter
        Next Chapter
        Table of Contents



        CTI Environmental Home Page
        CTI Home Page
        RAND home page


        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