Sustainable Development: Municipal Services with Broad Appeal

By Brown, Rhonda; Green, Bruce et al. | Nation's Cities Weekly, April 17, 1995 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Development: Municipal Services with Broad Appeal

Brown, Rhonda, Green, Bruce, King, Lynn, Nation's Cities Weekly

Science fiction novels and movies often depict a dismal future that lacks resources necessary to sustain life. However, many cities are taking steps today to ensure that tomorrow's urban centers remain livable for generations to come. Collective efforts to accomplish this mission are referred to as sustainable development, or sustainability.

Sustainability has become an increasingly popular concept in local governments. The United Nations defines sustainability as development that meets "needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." In theory, sustainability means:

* more jobs

* more efficient energy use

* cleaner air and water

* less waste

* less traffic congestion

* less dependence on imported fossil fuels.

The employment and economic development benefits of sustainability, especially as it relates to energy, have become more clear within recent years. By importing less energy and materials, and by developing and using local resources, more money is retained within the local economy. These same dollars are subsequently used to foster local economic development. The local economic ripple effect of this change in spending patterns often leads to local business development and job creation. Yet many local governments are not aware that these dollar flows can have far-reaching effects on their communities' economic well-being. Sustainability means achieving these economic and employment benefits.

But visualizing practical applications of sustainability may be difficult. To improve understanding, it may be helpful to hypothetically consider how a nonsustainable city would differ from a sustainable city.

Leaders of modern urban areas strive to enhance the quality of life for residents by providing much-needed and desired services such as transportation systems and waste disposal. Many nonrenewable resources are extracted from the environment to help provide these services. Because no practical process exists to replenish the supply, these nonrenewable resources grow more scarce each year.

In a nonsustainable city, no attempts are made to reduce reliance on nonrenewable resources, to use those resources more efficiently, or to mitigate harm to the environment caused by those resources. On the other hand, a sustainable city takes only the resources that are needed and that can either be continuously recycled or returned to the environment in the least harmful way to help generate more resources.

In reality, no city is truly sustainable. However, across the country, more and more cities are recognizing the need to become sustainable. This article describes some communities that are putting the concept of sustainability into practice.

Laying the Groundwork: The Sustainable City Project

Local governments are in a unique position to contribute to the sustainability of their communities. Recognizing this inherent potential in city governments, in the late 1980s the Urban Consortium Energy Task Force (UCETF) funded a project to create sustainability planning guidelines for local governments. The guidelines developed are included in Sustainable Energy--A Local Government Planning Guide for a Sustainable Future, available from UCETF (see box on "Where To Go For More Information" in this special report).

This Sustainable City Project included Portland, Ore., and San Francisco and San Jose, Calif. For two years, these cities collaborated, yet pursued independent solutions that were most appropriate for their local needs.

Portland, Ore.

For Portland, the issue was creating a new energy policy that would go beyond energy efficiency to include planning goals in areas such as transportation, waste management, housing, and economic development. The city's first energy policy, adopted in 1979, had stipulated an evaluation 10 years later, which coincided with the time frame of the Sustainable City Project. …

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