EcoIQ Magazine Features

Building Sustainable Communities
The Historic Imperative For Change

By Dennis Church, et al.
Completed In March 1990 For Earth Day

The history of humankind is a story of change - sometimes the slow change of "evolution," and sometimes the traumatic change of "revolution." Twenty years ago, the first Earth Day increased our appreciation of the value of the natural world - an evolutionary shift that began to improve our stewardship of the Earth's resources. Today we must ask if this evolutionary improvement is good enough. Can we afford to change slowly, or is the accelerating pace of environmental degradation a threat of such significance that it demands a "revolution" in our management of - and indeed in our relationship to - our endangered Earth?

It is difficult for many of us to believe that our current way of life is jeopardizing the future of mankind and of life on Earth. But if the sky is not yet falling, it is most assuredly changing. In some areas, acidic water now falls in the place of life-giving rain. The warmth and energy of the sun are now accompanied by increasing amounts of life-threatening ultraviolet radiation. And the changing composition of the atmosphere may precipitate a disruptive change in climate that would mean famine, flooding, and the extinction of countless species.

For a time, it seemed as if we could ignore ecological imperatives. But degraded air, polluted waterways, and contaminated lands stand as reminders that we have been borrowing heavily from our ecological capital.

The first Earth Day began our evolution to a more environmentally conscious society. Twenty years later, we must accept willingly the growing challenge of change and redouble our efforts to build a truly sustainable society. Our actions should begin at the local level, and spread throughout the world in a steadily expanding practice of responsible stewardship.

Cities' Concerns: Here and Now

Our newspapers and journals contain almost daily reminders of the impending collision between the demands of a burgeoning global population and our planetary environment. There is no argument that we have serious environmental problems, but how relevant are they to cities? What can cities do to help solve them? A few examples will help to answer these questions.

Global Warming will be caused by continuing emissions of carbon dioxide and several other "trace gases." Global warming threatens major worldwide climatic changes, flooding of low-lying areas, and decreased agricultural production.

Local Governments are reducing the threat of global warming by adopting more efficient land use patterns, by improving transit and transportation systems, and by developing programs to increase community-wide energy efficiency. They are also implementing policies and programs to reduce emissions of the other trace gases that contribute to global warming. Additional benefits of these efforts include decreased air pollution, less traffic congestion, more disposable income and investment capital, and an improved quality of life.

Waste Management continues to be a major challenge. Whether we speak of solid waste disposal capacity problems, more stringent effluent standards for wastewater, or preventing long-lasting toxic contamination from chemically complex hazardous wastes, we're facing growing problems and costs.

Local governments are responsible for the treatment and disposal of a large portion of our residential, commercial, and industrial wastes. Until relatively recently we buried it, dumped it in our oceans and rivers, occasionally exported it, or just plain ignored it. Today we're becoming more enlightened about waste. Local governments are developing programs to generate less of it, recycle or otherwise recapture useful resources from it, and then bury only what's left. In addition, cities are among the leaders in the effort to develop markets for goods made from recycled wastes. Converting wastes to useful resources is one of the keys to building sustainable communities.

Ozone Depletion in the Earth's stratosphere is caused primarily by continuing releases of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As a result, the atmosphere protects us less from the Sun's ultraviolet radiation.  Impacts include increased rates of skin cancer and other human health problems, as well as possible harm to fragile but important parts of natural ecosystems.

Local Governments are implementing a variety of initiatives to reduce CFCs, such as requiring recycling, banning or discouraging selected products containing or using them, and promoting the use of substitutes. Benefits include improved health and a reduction in the growth of health care costs that would otherwise occur in the next few decades.

Petroleum Fuel shortages and price increases are problems that "came home" visibly with the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. With the majority of U.S. domestic oil reserves depleted, with more than 50 percent of our supply currently imported, and without a viable alternative for adequate quantities of liquid fuel in the near term, we are not well prepared to weather another oil crisis. Substantial price increases are very likely - and are mostly a matter of time. A recent assessment of world oil markets projected a 50 percent increase in the real cost of oil within five years. Such warnings are useful. They give us a clear signal to start acting now.

Local Governments are helping conserve liquid fuels by planning land uses to shorten commutes and support mass transit, by investing in transit systems and promoting ridesharing and telecommuting, by synchronizing traffic signals and better maintaining efficient roadways, and by promoting more energy efficient auto use. Such actions improve local prosperity, reduce future economic dislocations, and concurrently help mitigate the air pollution that shrouds most of our major cities.

Is Protecting the Environment a Job for Cities?

At times, the inventory of our environmental ills will cause the eyes of a local leader to glaze. Environmental problems sometimes seem so abstract, so remote from the day-to-day concerns of governing a city.

But local governments in fact make many of the most important decisions that shape our environmental future. While other government institutions are vital players in environmental protection, cities and counties plan land use and transportation systems, manage solid and liquid wastes, often operate water and energy utilities, administer building codes, build and maintain infrastructure, and more. These functions are too important not to be used in the cause of environmental protection. How skillfully they are used will strongly affect a community's quality of life, as well as its ability to attract and maintain a stable employment base. Cities will either use these powers to protect the environment and conserve natural resources, or higher levels of government will dictate how to exercise them - perhaps in more regulative, bureaucratic, and inefficient ways.

The logical starting point for an improved environment is at the local level. Local governments are flexible, and their programs can account for local conditions. In addition, urban areas provide unique opportunities - opportunities that require a strong local government role. For example, industrial waste heat may be used for space and water heating and cooling, and land use strategies may be devised to bring employment locations and residential centers closer together. Implementing such strategies requires decentralized efforts that are sensitive to unique local needs and wants. In addition, many useful conservation measures must be implemented with a wide array of consumer and industry investments at the local level, rather than producer investments by national or regional corporations and governments.

The importance of the environmental role of cities is illustrated by the rising proportion of total environmental spending that occurs at the local level. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, local government spending during the early 1980s accounted for slightly less than one-half of all U.S. national resources expended for environmental protection. This proportion rose to 55 percent by the mid-1980s and is projected to account for 65 percent by the year 2000, while Federal support will drop from 12 percent to less than 6 percent.

Local authorities are experts at integrating seemingly conflicting economic, social, and environmental interests - and this experience speaks highly of the prospect of finding workable solutions to environmental problems at the municipal level. Integrative efforts, such as linking infrastructure investment with environmental objectives and social considerations, are a daily exercise. Local government leaders know how to combine skills and resources to build viable and effective programs with consensual support from citizens, private organizations, and business.

The city remains the chief symbol of human civilization, a center of culture, incubating innovation and radiating ideas. In this tradition, local leadership has a long and proud history of applying its powers to meet necessity, which in this case is a healthy regional and global ecology.  Many cities and towns are now - and more can easily become - "urban laboratories" and showcases for innovation in environmental management.

How Can Cities Afford To Tackle Environmental Problems?

Most local governments are struggling with severe financial burdens. They often don't have the resources needed to adequately maintain their infrastructure, face the drug crisis, fulfill rising urban service expectations, and meet the needs of their homeless, sick, elderly, handicapped, and unemployed residents. With federal and state governments continuing to shift a larger share of these and other obligations to local government, taking on additional responsibility for environmental management appears virtually unthinkable - until you realize that acting more vigorously to protect the environment can actually help cities and counties accomplish their traditional responsibilities more effectively and efficiently.

The traditional roles of local government are twofold: protecting public health and safety, and promoting local economic development and prosperity.

We are accustomed to thinking of protecting health and safety primarily in terms of public sanitation, fire trucks, and police cars. We are likewise used to the idea that economic development and environmental protection are conflicting objectives, and that the task of policy is to identify appropriate trade-offs between the two. But stepping back from these familiar assumptions, we can see a different reality emerging.

This new reality requires that protecting public health and safety, promoting economic development, and protecting the environment must be approached as complementary objectives. 

In most communities, the primary threats to public health are no longer such vector-borne diseases as diphtheria, dysentery, and tuberculosis. The primary threats to public safety are no longer fires and violent assault. Instead, the principal threats to public health are diseases such as cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, and these are associated with lifestyle choices or with such environmental problems as pollution and toxic contamination of our air, food and water. Automobile and other accidents and natural disasters are the principal threats to public safety. Reducing these threats to public health and safety either requires environmental protection per se or involves preventive efforts that parallel and reinforce environmental policy objectives.

Likewise, economic development is dependent upon (rather than in conflict with) environmental protection. Economic gains based on environmentally harmful resource depletion or on neglecting other negative "external effects" will not translate into an improved standard of living in the long run.

In turn, efficient use of natural resources increases productivity and competitiveness. Preserving living natural systems is essential to assure the continued supply of food, timber, fiber, and other essential raw materials upon which economic activity depends. Protecting our air and water quality is essential to maintaining the overall quality of life, and the viability of communities as places to live and do business increasingly depends upon a high quality of life.

Protecting the environment is highly dependent on economic development, especially where governments are struggling with poverty and unmet social needs. Without strong local economies, we will be unable to invest in the new generation of vastly more efficient buildings, vehicles, and equipment we need. We may even be unable to afford to retrofit and properly maintain those structures and other items we already possess.

In this emerging reality, environmental protection is an inevitable, unavoidable role for cities. Indeed, local governments that ignore or skirt issues of environmental concern are likely to lose their ability to attract or retain those residents and businesses who desire a community with strong environmental protection. As this occurs, they will find themselves increasingly unable to maintain even their traditional responsibilities.

Protecting The Environment: Painful Or Rewarding?

We can see that local government will have little choice about accepting a larger environmental protection responsibility, and we can acknowledge that protecting the environment will be essential to the continued adequate performance of cities’ traditional duties. We still must ask whether protecting the environment will be primarily a painful necessity with a few rewards thrown in or primarily a rewarding opportunity with a few relatively minor aches and pains attached.

Structural change has always been a challenge - and often a problem - for those who have to change habits and take risks to adjust to new conditions. Undoubtedly, some difficulties will need to be overcome, and not all decisions will be painless. But the preponderance of evidence and experience suggests that protecting the environment will yield rich rewards.

If officials carefully evaluate the economic costs and benefits of their environmental initiatives, they can choose strategies that will benefit the local economy. These initiatives can in turn produce positive results for local government tax revenues. Saving millions of dollars that would otherwise have been spent to purchase energy, for example, stimulates a local economy - much like bringing in a new employer with a multimillion-dollar payroll. By practicing what they preach, local governments can cut millions from their utility and waste disposal budgets.

Programs to protect the environment and conserve resources greatly enhance the real and perceived quality of life in a community. Listing just a few of the many ways illustrates the point:

Improving mass transit cuts air pollution, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions, but it also reduces congestion, noise, and cut-through neighborhood traffic.

Conserving energy by weatherizing homes produces several environmental benefits, but it also helps young, low-income, and senior residents afford to acquire and keep homes, promoting community stability and helping to reduce social problems in the community.

Maintaining streets in good condition improves fuel economy, cuts air pollution, and reduces greenhouse gases, but it also improves neighborhood quality, increases riding comfort, and saves in citizens' auto maintenance and repair costs.

Planting shade-giving trees cools buildings and reduces outdoor temperatures - thereby saving energy and helping ameliorate the greenhouse effect. But it also beautifies the community and increases property values.

In cities that have offered curbside recycling, distributed water-conservation devices, started tree planting programs, or offered household hazardous waste turn-in days, these programs have been extremely popular. Local officials are reporting overwhelmingly positive feedback from their communities.

In addition, environmental programs can help strengthen community identity and spirit, as well as the relationship between local government and the community. Many environmental programs depend upon widespread citizen participation, and this requires building a working partnership between the community and the local government. For example:

Recycling programs, toxic waste turn-in days, water-conservation efforts, and related environmental programs appeal to community spirit and individual social responsibility - and their visible success reinforces these values. While government provides services to support these activities, the community itself does a lot of the work.

Ridesharing programs protect the environment but also encourage communication between neighbors and co-workers. The programs are usually built by partnerships between local government and community employers.

Neighborhood beautification programs (planting trees, cleaning up litter, improving neighborhood parks, and similar efforts) protect the environment but also build community pride. They draw residents into their front yards, where they interact with neighbors. The programs are often partnerships in which government provides materials and tools and citizens provide labor.

What Does A "Sustainable Community" Look Like?

Sustainability is a powerful concept, but achieving it will not be a simple task. The challenge of sustainability is to modify our social and economic institutions and living patterns so that the way in which we go about meeting the needs of the present does not compromise - and indeed supports - the ability to meet our own future needs and those of our children. 

In general, sustainability requires a much longer-term perspective than most political programs tend to have. It requires a focus on improved construction, preventive maintenance, reuse and recycling for the existing "built environment" - I.e. all things built or manufactured. It also requires reshaping land use and transportation systems into far more resource-efficient and less polluting patterns, as well as a stronger stewardship of the natural environment. It requires a technological base built on improved efficiency and recycling.

To act within the framework of sustainability, urban governments must develop integrated (inter-disciplinary) management approaches.  Governments are typically organized sectorally: Agencies and departments operate independent of one another. However, major environmental problems cannot be solved sectorally. Much is said these days about the need for a horizontal or cross-sectoral policy approach, in which different agencies or departments communicate and combine resources. To integrate planning for development, redevelopment, utilities, transportation, and other infrastructure, the community must be seen - and managed - as a whole, as a system of built, natural, and social activities and structures whose parts are directly interrelated. Some requirements of building sustainable communities include:

Land is planned for employment, housing, and other uses so that the number and length of auto trips is reduced. Higher densities are situated to support efficient transportation systems.

Energy and material resources are used as efficiently as possible. When any product reaches the end of its useful life, it is treated as a resource to be recycled into another useable product or service. Non-renewable energy and materials supplies are systematically replaced with renewable alternatives.

Natural systems - those forests, fisheries, agricultural and range lands, and water resources adjacent to or impacted by cities - are used only in ways consistent with their continued health and productivity.

Producers and consumers cannot discharge by-products into the environment in a greater quantity or at a greater rate than the environment can safely absorb.

Strategies to improve the standard of living and the quality of life emphasize goods and services that minimize resource consumption and environmental impact.

Government services emphasize decentralization and community involvement. Crime prevention, fire prevention, disaster preparedness, resource conservation, and ridesharing - these are accomplished in partnership with the community and replace an exclusive reliance on governmental provision of more police, fire services, utilities, roads, and so on.

Dependence on vulnerable sources of supply of critical raw materials - such as fossil fuels - is systematically reduced, and secure sources of supply - such as renewable energy sources - are systematically developed.

Changing Values And Commitments

Earlier, we emphasized the need for change and a major re-evaluation of our values and beliefs. The Global Cities Project of Earth Day 1990 is based upon the following principles:

That the patterns of our social and economic development must be sustainable.

That such patterns will enhance and are necessary to urban prosperity and public health and safety.

That the power to affect such change lies within our grasp.

No local government can single handedly protect itself or change the world. But there are many things local governments can do… if their leaders have the vision and the will.


Dennis Church, the founder of The Global Cities Project of Earth Day 1990 and principal author of this article.

Dr. Siegfried Brenke, Head of the Urban Affairs Division of the Environmental Directorate of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, Paris.

William Hansell, Executive Director of ICMA, the professional association of appointed administrators serving cities, counties, regional councils, and other local governments.

Dr. Edward Vine, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL).

Richard Zelinski, Director of Research for Public Technology, Inc. (PTI).

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