FAQ: Sustainability and Local Governments
- What is sustainability? What is a sustainable community?
- Is sustainability a trend?
- Why are local governments interested in sustainability?
- How do local governments approach sustainability?
- What are examples of local sustainability goals?
- How does ICLEI support local sustainability?
Sustainability is often defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So from this definition, we can say that certain activities are sustainable, like replanting trees or investing in education, while others are unsustainable, like massive deficit spending or dumping harmful pollutants into waterways.
Sustainability balances the aims of three interrelated pillars: environmental, economic, and social. Sustainability promotes the idea of viewing issues holistically, rather than just through narrower environmental or economic lenses.
A “sustainable community,” therefore, is an urban, suburban, or rural community that has more housing and transportation choices; is closer to jobs, shops or schools; is more energy independent; and helps protect clean air and water.
According to a 2010 Ford Foundation survey conducted by Harris Interactive, nearly 80% of Americans are in favor of sustainable communities (according to this definition).
Sustainability has evolved over several decades to become a mainstream concept. For example, countless corporations, such as Walmart and DuPont, now recognize the benefits of sustainable practices that minimize environmental impacts, use resources more efficiently, and save them money to increase profits. Individuals, small businesses, universities, local governments, national governments, and the United Nations have all adopted or promoted sustainability in different ways.
A sustainable community is a livable, resilient community. It is one where people want to live and businesses want to establish roots. That's why a growing number of local government leaders—from Portland to Grand Rapids to Philadelphia—see sustainability as an opportunity they cannot afford to ignore:
- Sustainability is an economic development strategy: a more livable community attracts more businesses and jobs; local clean energy and energy efficiency projects also create local jobs as they create a healthier environment.
- Saving resources is necessary to save money in an era of tight municipal budgets.
- Developing local energy sources offsets high energy costs and promotes national energy independence.
- Preparing for local climate change impacts like floods and heat waves is critical to protecting the health and safety of community members.
It is the responsibility of a local government to address issues that may affect local health and safety, cost of living, and quality of life in the near future or the long term.
In recent years, more local governments have embraced the principles of sustainability and incorporated them into their traditional planning processes, or even developed community sustainability plans. Through sustainability planning, local governments recognize their power to address global challenges (climate change, energy demand, access to education) and in the process, make their communities better places to live.
Local governments can make their communities more sustainable in a variety of ways, especially because they provide many of the essential services that community members need, such as water, electricity, and waste removal. Local governments can take steps to improve efficiency, save money, and conserve resources. They are also responsible for the long-term planning for the community—from land use and zoning decisions to building codes and licenses, infrastructure investment, public transit options, municipal service delivery and management of infrastructure, schools, parks and recreation areas.
A key tenet of sustainability planning is involving community members, businesses, and other stakeholders in the process, so that each community can define sustainability for itself and set sustainability goals that are meaningful and appropriate to local circumstances.
- Increase the number of affordable housing units by 200 by June 30, 2015.
- Increase the number of youth engaged in City projects by at least 1,000, by June 30, 2015.
- Reduce total direct and indirect CO2 emissions by 10,000 metric tons by June 30, 2013.
- Create 25,000 clean tech jobs as the wold center of clean tech innovation by 2022
- Receive 100% of our electrical power from clean, renewable sources by 2022
- Plant 100,000 new trees by 2022
ICLEI provides tools, resources, and services to help local governments create sustainablity plans and measure the effectiveness of their sustainability and climate initiatives. ICLEI’s Five Milestones for Sustainability is a simple planning process that local governments can follow to assess their sustainability, set goals, develop a plan, implement the plan, and reassess and report progress.In 2012, ICLEI, the U.S. Green Building Council, the National League of Cities, and the Center for American Progress will support the release of the STAR Community Index, a national framework for sustainability, national rating system, and performance management system to help local governments meet their sustainability goals.