Cover: On Common Ground

On Common Ground

Sustainable Community Activities and Pollution Prevention

Published 1997

by Beth E. Lachman

Research Brief

Communities in the United States have increasingly come to believe that environmental issues and other community problems cannot be addressed in isolation. Instead, many communities are confronting them as part of a broader approach to developing and achieving a healthy community by addressing economic, environmental, and social issues together. This new approach is typically based on the concept of "sustainability." Indeed, the growing popularity of the concept has prompted some to declare that a "sustainable community" movement is under way in the United States.

Despite its widespread use, the concept of a "sustainable community" is confusing. The term lacks a single, widely accepted definition. Likewise, the range of activities it encompasses has not been coherently mapped. Because most sustainable community initiatives are independent and unique projects undertaken at the local or regional level, there has been little broadly based effort to identify and categorize the various sustainability efforts nationwide. As a result, many communities are launching like-minded projects with limited awareness of what others are doing along the same lines. Furthermore, the relationship between sustainable community activities and other environmental efforts—especially pollution prevention—has not been closely examined. Consequently, individuals and organizations may have missed opportunities to exploit the synergy between pollution prevention and sustainable community activities or to learn from similar projects in other parts of the country.

In Linking Sustainable Community Activities to Pollution Prevention: A Sourcebook, Critical Technologies Institute (CTI) researcher Beth Lachman attempts to remedy this deficiency. The report examines and clarifies the concept of a "sustainable community" and the principal elements of sustainable community initiatives. It also serves as a reference source on these activities and describes several such efforts in detail. Finally, it examines the relationship between sustainable community activities and pollution prevention, notes synergies between the two, and provides specific suggestions for how pollution prevention practitioners can take advantage of the sustainable community movement. The report is addressed primarily to state and local government pollution prevention practitioners as they work to prevent pollution in their communities. Other organizations and individuals who are interested in sustainable communities and/or pollution prevention activities should also find it helpful because the report discusses how pollution prevention and sustainable community efforts can be more closely aligned and used to improve the long-term health of our communities.

What Is a Sustainable Community Effort?

Briefly defined, a sustainable community effort consists of a long-term, integrated, systems approach to developing and achieving a healthy community by jointly addressing economic, environmental, and social issues. Fostering a strong sense of community and building partnerships and consensus among key stakeholders are also important elements of such efforts. The focus and scale of sustainability efforts depend on local conditions, including resources, politics, individual actions, and the unique features of the community. The sustainable community approach has been applied to issues as varied as urban sprawl, inner-city and brownfield redevelopment, economic development and growth, ecosystem management, agriculture, biodiversity, green buildings, energy conservation, watershed management, and pollution prevention. Many of these issues and other community problems cannot easily be addressed by traditional approaches or traditional elements within our society. Many people feel it is better to address such problems through a more collaborative and holistic systems approach because such problems are diffuse, multidisciplinary, multiagency, multistakeholder and multisector in nature.

Hundreds of communities of all sizes and types across the United States are developing and implementing sustainability projects. The City of Seattle, for example, has explicitly incorporated sustainability concepts as part of its community planning and development, including a comprehensive initiative to address urban problems, such as sprawl. EcoVillage at Ithaca, New York, is another type of sustainable community project in which community members are building a new neighborhood on previously undeveloped land. The project incorporates sustainable principles and practices in the community design, buildings, and activities. Curry County, Oregon, a rural community whose economy has been based on logging and fishing, has a Sustainable Nature-Based Tourism Project to design, build, and implement a sustainable economic sector.

The City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee, have a comprehensive sustainable community initiative that involves many members of local government, businesses, and community groups. Their efforts include projects to reduce air pollution and congestion and to improve quality of life by reducing dependence on automobiles and by using electric transit vehicles. Activities also include preserving open space, managing watershed resources, recycling and reusing waste, and cleaning up a polluted industrial site. Another aspect of their initiative is creating an eco-industrial park—a community of manufacturing and service businesses seeking enhanced environmental quality and economic performance through collaboration in managing use of energy, water, and materials.

Despite its increasing popularity, the sustainable community "movement" consists of a diverse set of activities in an early stage of development with no overall national strategy, framework, or common measures of success. Since many sustainable community efforts have just begun, it is unclear whether this new approach will be successful. However, this integrated systems approach has promise, and some of the sustainable community efforts are making initial progress.

Relationship Between Sustainable Community Activities and Pollution Prevention

Pollution prevention involves changing policy, practices, behaviors, and/or processes to reduce pollution at the source before it is even generated. These kinds of activities have been going on in this country for many years, frequently without any specific connection to sustainable community activities. Recently, pollution prevention efforts have begun to merge with sustainable community activities. This is true in large part because pollution prevention is a major building block for many communities' sustainability projects. Pollution prevention is frequently a goal or guiding principle for communities and may also provide a focus for specific activities. Moreover, the vision of sustainable community projects can provide a broader vision for pollution prevention activities. These pollution prevention activities are incorporated into the broader community perspective for developing a healthy community over the long term. Sustainability projects also offer a way of harmonizing industry, government, and general public efforts to address environmental issues, including pollution prevention activities. The CTI report points to a vast range of information and resources for pollution prevention practitioners and other individuals who want to implement more sustainable practices in their communities.

Opportunities to Increase the Success of Sustainable Community Activities

The sustainable community approach is an exciting experiment for addressing environmental and community problems. By analyzing these efforts and their relationships to pollution prevention activities, the author identifies the following general implications for taking full advantage of sustainability activities and potentially improving community health:

  • All levels of government have important roles to play in supporting sustainability efforts. As this fledgling "movement" grows and evolves, it is important that all levels of government provide encouragement and assistance. For example, the federal government helps facilitate the transfer of information between communities and provides technical assistance to communities through such programs as the Department of Energy's Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Sustainable Ecosystems and Communities. State governments also provide important support. For example, Minnesota's state environmental agencies have staff members assisting local governments and communities in developing and implementing sustainable community projects.
  • Private-sector organizations and the general public also have critical roles. Businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and universities are among the organizations whose participation can be central to such activities. Businesses, for example, are the cornerstone of eco-industrial park efforts. Community and environmental groups often generate significant public enthusiasm and support. Individual volunteers and the general public can also contribute significantly.
  • Collaboration and cooperation among the various players are key factors. In sustainability efforts, community members work together, often forming unique partnerships of individuals; environmental and other nongovernmental groups; industry and businesses; academia; and local, state, and federal governments. Most of these communities feel that only the combined skills and cooperative effort of every segment of the community can solve the unique and difficult problems that our communities face.
  • Government and private organizations need to break out of traditional stovepipe operating modes and take a broader view in balancing different interests and goals; across organizations, disciplines, and stakeholders; and in addressing environmental and other community problems. Many government and private organizations are accustomed to addressing environmental problems based on traditional media, organizational, or disciplinary perspectives. This new integrated approach often requires change in how individuals act and view others in government and other sectors of the community. For example, sustainability activities enable government pollution prevention practitioners to work more easily with individuals in other departments in addressing environmental and community problems. The local environmental agency might work with the transportation, planning, and economic development departments to address urban sprawl. The agency also could work with community groups, businesses, and other relevant stakeholders in addressing this difficult community issue.
  • There is no single or simple mechanism to solve the community problems that sustainability projects address. Creating a sustainable community—a community with comprehensive environmental, social, and economic health and stability for many generations to come—is difficult. Many problems may be solved only through a mix of policy mechanisms, actions, and technological solutions across a range of governmental departments and functional areas based on local conditions. Communities may focus on education, technology, development, and implementation or on changing the practices and behaviors of individuals, government, and/or businesses.

In addition, more systematic analysis of sustainable community efforts is needed. The CTI research represents a first step in this direction. We need a better understanding of how to measure these programs' effectiveness, how to evaluate implementation strategies and progress, and how to transfer lessons learned. Of course, conducting this work will present analysts with a difficult challenge. The highly individualized nature of each sustainable community project—reflecting localities' unique circumstances—complicates the task of quantifying, analyzing, and comparing projects. However, confronting this challenge should prove worthwhile in the long run because such analysis will help sustainable community activities evolve and increase their potential for success.

This report is part of the RAND research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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