A Sustainable Development Tutorial

Moving from Theory to Practice in the USA

by Beryl Magilavy

published August, 2000

Sustainable development, which includes community development, environmental protection, natural resource conservation, and local economic development, is becoming more widely practiced in Europe, while lagging behind as a US development strategy. Since sustainable development planning requires civic planners and private developers to understand a number of new disciplines and to address their interconnections, it has been difficult for working professionals to gain an overview and access to specific implementation strategies. The author presents an outline of the key features of sustainable development that should be considered in new development, with extensive web references for more in-depth information on each topic.

Progress Toward Sustainable Development

A shift toward sustainable development as a planning model has become increasingly apparent in Europe, but it has been little embraced by cities in the US. The biggest impetus for changing the world's development practice came as a result of the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992, at which the leaders of nearly all the world's countries acknowledged that development as currently practiced is not sustainable into the future, and that society is pushing enormous social and environmental costs onto future generations. The conference resulted in the Agenda 21 treaty1, which enjoins both nations and local authorities to produce a sustainable development strategy.

The City of San Francisco took an early lead in adopting a sustainability plan in 1997, and many of the examples given here are based on its recent legislation and programs. This paper aims to support work being done in cities such as San Francisco and Santa Monica, California; Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas and to help move other cities in the US toward a more sustainable model by jump-starting an understanding by civic planners and private developers of sustainable development strategies.

Traditional approaches to improving quality of life have been uncoordinated and often in conflict. A healthy economy is critically important, but inadequately regulated free enterprise shifts pollution and resource-depletion costs of manufacturing and development to poorer members of the community and to future generations. Wealth generation in a global economy is much easier for those with a certain baseline level of income and social status—a baseline many in the society do not reach. Environmental efforts have been forced to focus on crisis management, when harm prevention is the only real way to preserve natural resources and biodiversity. Efforts to help particular needy groups in the community have fought uphill against a built environment that undermines feelings of community and ignores many social needs. Only by balancing the competing needs of community, economy and environment can there be stable, long-term quality of life improvement that recognizes that nature has value independent of its usefulness to humanity. Sustainable development meshes:

to work toward a better quality of life for everyone, in harmony with the environment. San Francisco has adopted the goals and objectives set out in the Sustainability Plan for the City of San Francisco2, which aims to provide for the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations and the natural world to meet their own needs. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency's mission, to improve the City housing, economic development and quality of life, has long acknowledged the need for an integrated approach to development. Many other cities have planning documents with similar comprehensive goals. Sustainable development strategies now rapidly being developed around the world provide a set of specific guidelines to achieve these policy objectives.

The interdisciplinary nature of sustainability planning, its requirement for addressing more issues than traditionally have been of concern to developers, and the rapidity with which new building and planning techniques appear, makes it difficult for civic planners to incorporate the approach into their work—to move sustainable development from a policy concept to one that becomes real on the ground. The following outline of strategies to achieve sustainable development takes advantage of the tremendous growth of information available on the worldwide web to provide a highly condensed summary of sustainable development practice. Its references, available instantly on the web, provide more depth on issues and practice with which the reader may be unfamiliar.

Each link opens a new window to a website that is unconnected with this paper.

All links in this paper were active as of December, 2001.

For more detailed information on the whole range of sustainability issues and for technical assistance, contact the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives3 (ICLEI) or the Local Government Commission4 (LGC).

go to top

Community Participation

Sustainable planning for the development or redevelopment of whole communities or neighborhoods entails:

  • community participation,
  • environmental protection,
  • natural resource conservation and
  • local economic development.

To ensure social progress through community participation5 in decision-making on matters that will have significant impact on the community:

  1. Provide various types of housing to meet community needs, such as cohousing6 and supervised living situations as well as conventional houses and apartments.
  2. Reflect the values of the surrounding community7 by harmonizing with existing buildings8 in materials, design and density.
  3. Ensure that infrastructure will exist to serve neighborhood needs: every neighborhood should have a primary school, library, day-care center, and clinic. It should have adequate public transportation, a park, public restrooms, bicycle parking9, drinking fountains, and attractive street furniture and light standards; with a lively commercial district with rents low enough (or subsidized) to ensure that there are day-to-day necessities such as a grocery store, hardware store, laundry, postal services and pharmacy, and low-cost space for arts, social-service providers, and religious institutions.
  4. Plan for safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and children at play outdoors with lighting and traffic calming10; place and maintain landscaping so that pedestrians do not feel threatened at night, and design for the types of retail businesses that stay open late (such as cafes) near major transit stops so that people waiting for public transportation will not feel vulnerable.
  5. Plan open spaces and development opportunities to provide for recreation for people at all stages of life, particularly for children, teenagers and the elderly.
  6. Maximize green space and make its design appropriate to the community to be served, with a balance between natural areas, landscaped parks, community gardens11, and sports fields. Green space can be increased by providing incentives for roof gardens12. Streets, walkways and pedestrian gathering-places should be landscaped to increase residents' enjoyment of the shared outdoor space.
  7. Select public art that reflects the aesthetics, values and talent13 of the local community.
  8. Provide indoor public meeting space in which local people can discuss issues of importance to the community.
go to top

Environmental Protection

To address environmental protection as a key part of all new development:

  1. Clean up any existing pollution hazards14
  2. Provide for an appropriate drive-through space for occasional organized collection of household hazardous waste15.
  3. Reduce global warming16 impact and use of polluting fuels
    1. Where a new street grid is established, design to support a public transportation infrastructure17 shifted away from motorized transportation.
    2. Expand the public transportation system to provide residents with a level of service that will allow them to do without a car for most in-town trips. Use low-polluting transit vehicles.
    3. Minimize parking capacity to reduce the incentive for auto trips.
    4. Require utility outlets and space set aside for car sharing18 in commercial developments.
    5. Require infrastructure to be put in place for easy retrofit of parking and fueling facilities to accommodate electric vehicles19 in the future; provide for some electric recharging capacity on build-out.
    6. Plan for cyclists20 with secure parking in residential and commercial facilities, street routes, and showers and lockers.
    7. Locate taxi stands21 in retail and commercial areas.
    8. Reduce the heat island effect22 with vegetation and use of appropriate surfacing materials.
  4. Prevent pollution23 of air, water, and soil
    1. Design landscaping24 to be managed with integrated pest management25 and include a requirement in sales and tenancy agreements for on-site IPM management.
    2. Require nonpolluting vehicles26 and lowest polluting equipment27 for facilities management.
    3. Require best practice facility design28 of potentially polluting commercial and service facilities.
  5. Minimize biowaste impact29
    1. Plan for localized wastewater treatment30 and wastewater recycling31 facilities.
    2. Reduce storm water impact32 on combined wastewater/runoff systems to minimize overflows of untreated sewage into the surrounding public waters.
go to top

Natural Resource Conservation

To address resource conservation and preservation of biodiversity:

  1. Energy conservation33
    1. Maximize renewable energy sources34 and minimize conventional power generating source35 use for street lights, traffic controls, and other civic infrastructure.
  2. Water conservation36
    1. Employ water-saving landscaping techniques, such as xeriscaping37.
    2. Reduce unnecessary use of potable water with
      gray water systems38 and rainwater collection39 techniques.
  3. Materials conservation
    1. Specify building materials made from renewable resources40, and ensure that they are reusable or recyclable.
    2. For manufacturing facilities, replace a linear flow of resources with a circular flow, as in eco industrial parks41.
  4. Preservation of biodiversity42
    1. Design to include nature43 and manage open spaces for wildlife44.
    2. Favor cultivation of native species45 over introduced exotics46.
    3. Include wildlife corridors47 where possible to link natural areas.
    4. Maintain or restore wetlands48, creeks and ponds in their natural condition.
go to top

Local Economic Development

To ensure economic opportunity for all:

  1. Maximize the employment of people of all skill levels49 with situations honoring human rights, workers rights, and environmental protection.
  2. Create adequate, non polluting jobs50 in every neighborhood.
  3. Increase educational opportunities51.


  • 1 For the United Nations Environment Programme's discussion of its international institutional arrangements, including Agenda 21: http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=52&ArticleID=88&l=e
  • 2 For the sustainability plan text: http://www.sustainable-city.org
  • 3 For a wealth of information from an international organization that works with local authorities: http://www.iclei.org
  • 4 For information from a USA organization that works with local governments: http://www.lgc.org
  • 5 For case studies of community participation in urban governance: http://www.unesco.org/most/bpcomm.htm
  • 6 For general information on cohousing: http://www.cohousing.org/
  • 7 For the Prince of Wales' superb speech on the mistakes of modern English city planning, applicable elsewhere as well: http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/speeches/architecture_01121987.html
  • 8 For the Prince of Wales' speech on sustainable community design: http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/speeches/architecture_17021999.html
  • 9 For bicycle parking criteria: http://www.ibike.org/parking.htm
  • 10 For information on all aspects of traffic calming: http://www.trafficcalming.org/
  • 11 For more information on community gardening: http://communitygarden.org/
  • 12 For a general description of roof gardening and links to more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roof_garden
  • 13 For one example of a community participation organization: http://www.publicdreams.org/about_us.html
  • 14 For EPA's pollution clean-up programs: http://www.epa.gov/ebtpages/cleanup.html
  • 15 For the EPA's discussion of the issue: http://www.epa.gov/msw/hhw.htm
  • 16 For a United Nations discussion of climate change and the Kyoto Protocol: http://www.globalissues.org/EnvIssues/GlobalWarming.asp
  • 17 For an overview of the principles and practice of New Urbanism: http://www.newurbannews.com/AboutNewUrbanism.html
  • 18 For information on San Francisco's nonprofit carshare organization: http://www.citycarshare.org/
  • 19 For a guide to preparing a community for electric vehicles: http://www.eere.energy.gov/cleancities/index.html
  • 20 For a thorough discussion of planning for bicycles, pedestrians, and other non-motorized forms of transport: http://www.ibike.org/engineering/index.htm
  • 21 For a description of a taxi booklet offered by the Design Trust for Public Space: http://designtrust.org/publications/publication_05destaxi.html
  • 22 For a description of the causes of and ways to ameliorate the heat island effect: http://eande.lbl.gov/HeatIsland/LEARN
  • 23 For an overview of pollution prevention: http://www.epa.gov/ebtpages/pollutionprevention.html
  • 24 For a detailed discussion of design issues to reduce the need for pesticide use: http://www.efn.org/~ipmpa/des-cnsd.html
  • 25 For a searchable database of IPM resources: http://neipmc.org/ipm_searchform.cfm
  • 26 For information from the European Union on incentives for less-polluting vehicles: http://www.civitas-initiative.org/measure_sheet.phtml?lan=en&id=99
  • 27 For information from the EPA on reducing pollution from non-road engines: http://www.epa.gov/nonroad/
  • 28 For the Best Manufacturing Processes program (USA) and links for more information: http://www.bmpcoe.org/index.html
  • 29 For the EPA's discussion of biosolids, with links to more information: http://www.epa.gov/owm/mtb/biosolids/index.htm
  • 30 For the Stockholm Environment Institute's discussion of ecological sanitation: http://www.idswater.com/water/europe/Stockholm_Environment/Ecological_Sanitation_Treatment/239_0/g_supplier_1.html
  • 31 For information on alternative wastewater systems: http://www.waterrecycling.com/overview.htm
  • 32 For EPA's Urban Storm Water Best Management Practices Study: http://www.epa.gov/OST/stormwater
  • 33 For fact sheets on sustainable energy: http://www.sustainableenergy.qld.edu.au/html/factsheets.html
  • 34 For a selection of clean energy factsheets: http://www.infinitepower.org/factsheets.htm
  • 35 For the Canadian government's discussion of pollution prevention in conventional power plants: http://www.cleanenergy.gc.ca/tech_dict/index_e.asp?ac=101&ac_i=3
  • 36 For a water conservation portal and search engine: http://www.waterconserve.info/
  • 37 For information on xeriscape gardening: http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/organics/Xeriscaping/
  • 38 For an overview of graywater and other collection systems: http://ag.arizona.edu/AZWATER/publications/sustainability/report_html/chap3_09.html
  • 39 For a discussion of rainwater collection by the Rocky Mountain Institute: http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid121.php
  • 40 For links to a technical manual on materials choices and a database of recycled-content product manufacturers: http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/GreenBuilding/default.htm
  • 41 For a discussion of eco-industrial-parks by an independent research organization: http://www.rti.org/page.cfm?objectid=84D6DC4A-5216-4351-BD4159BE548814A5
  • 42 For a description of biodiversity's importance by the Center for International Environmental Law: http://www.ciel.org/Biodiversity/WhatIsBiodiversity.html
  • 43 For a link to a downloadable brochure on achieving high levels of biodiversity in urban developments: http://www.tcpa.org.uk/projects.htm#design
  • 44 For a discussion of Manhattan's efforts to increase biodiversity in its parks: http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_divisions/urban_park_rangers/biodiversity_team/pd_ur_biodiversity_team.html
  • 45 For an overview of the benefits of using native plants: http://www.for-wild.org/land/ecotype.htmls
  • 46 For a discussion of the problem of exotic plant proliferation, and ways to slow it down: http://www.cnps.org/archives/exotics.htm
  • 47 For a discussion of a wildlife corridors program—bush is the Australian term for a natural area.: http://www.brisbane.qld.gov.au/BCC:STANDARD:2087143111:pc=PC_679
  • 48 For information on the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, describing the importance of wetlands: http://www.ramsar.org/key_conv_e.htm
  • 49 For information from the UN: http://www.unglobalcompact.com
  • 50 For a rated guide to community economic development resources: http://www.enterweb.org/communty.htm
  • 51 For links to numerous adult, career, English-as-a-second-language, and training organizations: http://www.ed.gov/offices/OVAE/AdultEd/WebLinks