What Does a 'Sustainable Community' Actually Look Like?

Imagine a suburb—but probably not like any suburb you've ever seen. Welcome to Sustainaville.

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One thing that I have learned in six months in my new position as director of sustainable communities at NRDC is even a lot of environmentalists don't quite know what to make of the phrase. This may be particularly true for my fellow travelers in the legal profession, who tend to think in terms of statutory mandates and causes of action and have little patience with the fuzzy stuff.

So in this post I am returning to the basics, which bear repeating. Let's begin by borrowing from a definition I found in a planning document from the state of Maryland. It packs a lot into one paragraph:

Sustainable communities share a common purpose: places where people thrive to enjoy good health and create a high quality of life. A sustainable community reflects the interdependence of economic, environmental, and social issues by acknowledging that regions, cities, towns and rural lands must continue into the future without diminishing the land, water, air, natural and cultural resources that support them. Housing, transportation and resource conservation are managed in ways that retain the economic, ecological and scenic values of the environment. And they are communities where the consumption of fossil fuels, emissions of greenhouse gases, water resources and pollution are minimized.

Note the emphasis on places; to a great extent, this is about what many of us have come to call "placemaking." It starts with the built environment, but doesn't end there.

Utopian? Maybe so, but since when has the environmental community not been idealistic?

More specifically to an environmental group such as NRDC, where I work, we use the phrase to describe places where per capita use of resources and per capita emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are going down, not up; where the air and waterways are accessible and clean; where land is used efficiently, and shared parks and public spaces are plentiful and easily visited; where people of different ages, income levels, and cultural backgrounds share environmental, social, and cultural benefits equally; where many needs of daily life can be met within a 20-minute walk, and all may be met within a 20-minute transit ride; where industry and economic opportunity emphasize healthy, environmentally sound practices.

For a feel of what this looks like on the ground, let's take a short journey together. On the way to our destination on the high-speed train, we pass through a rolling rural landscape dotted with farms, forests, and windmills, until we come to the urban growth boundary of the Sustainaville metro region. The landscape abruptly changes to well-ordered development.

At the first stop inside the developed area, we can tell that we are in a suburb, but it doesn't look like suburbs built in the 1960s and 1970s. For one thing, there is a lot more green space, not so much in private yards, but in neighborhood-sized green squares around which are clustered different types of homes—apartments, townhomes, and single-family, offered at different price points and mixed together, not separated. Some of the squares also have neighborhood shops, including in one instance a dry cleaner's, a café, a convenience store, and a pharmacy on the first floor of a five-story apartment or condo building. A light rail line runs down the center of the main commercial street. (We may be in a place similar in some respects to Orenco Station, Portland's iconic transit-oriented suburb.)

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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