Academic journal article Cityscape

Local Sustainability Policies and Programs as Economic Development: Is the New Economic Development Sustainable Development?

Academic journal article Cityscape

Local Sustainability Policies and Programs as Economic Development: Is the New Economic Development Sustainable Development?

Article excerpt


Common wisdom suggests that local efforts to protect or improve the biophysical environment will inevitably undermine efforts to engage in economic development. Using research on the effects of smart growth and the Environmental Kuznets Curve as the foundation, this article examines the empirical relationship between cities' pursuit of sustainability and their economic growth. Results suggest that cities that take sustainability policies and programs the most seriously, particularly if they have relatively large "creative class" populations, tend to be the cities that have experienced the greatest growth in personal incomes since 1990. Cities that have done the least to pursue sustainability tend to have experienced the least growth in personal incomes, which is taken as evidence that a new model of local economic growth may well be emerging-a model that emphasizes quality of life as a driver of economic development.


One central political challenge to advancing the cause of sustainability in cities is rooted in understanding the relationship between the pursuit of sustainability and local economic development. Traditional approaches to local economic development have typically accepted the idea that development depends on limited government and policy restrictions. Any local policies or programs, including zoning and land use policies, that restrict the way land is used undermine the ability of the local economy to grow. Moreover, so the argument goes, any effort of local government to protect and improve the local biophysical environment represents a restriction on economic development. The result of restrictive policies is less economic development, a smaller employment base, lower property tax revenues, lower local public goods expenditures, and, ultimately, a lower quality of life. On the other hand, local environmental advocates seem to accept this tradeoff, as well. Such advocates seem willing to accept lower levels of economic growth if such levels are required to protect the biophysical environment. The no-growth sentiment has long been associated with proenvironmental interests and policies.

Although the tradeoff between local economic development and environmental protection may well have previously served as an accurate description of the realities that local governments face, evidence suggests that this description has changed. Perhaps starting with the seminal works of Jacobs (2001, 1970), understandings of the potentially symbiotic relationship between the quality of the biophysical environment and local economies began to emerge. For at least the past 20 years, advocates have suggested an alternative prescription that unfettered growth (with environmental degradation) and no growth (with environmental protection) are not the only two alternatives. Focusing on what has become known as smart growth, arguments emerged that local economic growth is still possible, even at fairly high levels, without sacrificing the quality of the biophysical environment. Smart growth represents one key policy mechanism underlying the nexus between sustainability and local economic development (Blakely and Leigh, 2010; Greenwood and Holt, 2010; O'Connell, 2008). If cities are going to protect their biophysical environments without forgoing economic growth, so the argument goes, they must pursue economic development through smart growth. Although the local pursuit of sustainability has numerous components (including protecting and improving the biophysical environment, environmental equity, and energy efficiency, to name three), the smart growth component speaks most clearly to the connection between environmental protection and economic growth (Saha and Paterson, 2008).

Met with much initial skepticism, smart growth approaches to economic development seem to have increasingly taken hold in practice as an alternative model of sustainable economic growth. In short, the relationship between the pursuit of sustainability and economic growth seems to have changed. …

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