Sustainable Development in American Planning: A Critical Appraisal

By Staley, Samuel R. | The Town Planning Review, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Development in American Planning: A Critical Appraisal


Staley, Samuel R., The Town Planning Review


This paper provides a critical review of sustainable development practice in US town planning. Sustainability has become intellectually embedded in American planning, but implementation and practice remains problematic. Little attention has been given to the institutional context in which sustainable development planning takes place. Few cities have attempted to develop and implement a broad-based sustainable development programme. Those that have, most notably Portland, Oregon and Santa Monica, California, have fallen short of their goals and their progress has been uneven. This reflects fundamental flaws in the sustainable development framework, including a lack of appreciation for economic markets and their ability to efficiently allocate resources in an intertemporal setting, a failure to recognise the role technology plays in changing relative resource endowments at any given time, and a failure to appreciate the complexity and dynamics of urban communities. Sustainable development practice would be improved if planners would take account of these weaknesses and recognise town plannings inherent inability to manage urban settlements as comprehensively as the sustainable development framework implies.

'Sustainable development' has emerged as the cornerstone of environmental science and environmental policy (Brennan and Withgott, 2005). Increasingly, the concepts underlying sustainahle development also have become enmeshed in town planning (Berke et al., 2000; APA, 2000; Calthorpe, 1993; Pennington, 2000). On one level, this should not be surprising; the concept is intuitive enough - natural resources should not be consumed at such a rate that the health and welfare of future generations is compromised.

However, in practice sustainable development has proven problematic. One reason is the nature of the concept and developing practical working definitions. Sustainability remains an ambiguous term subject to many interpretations, and a consensus on what constitutes an overarching framework has not emerged. Thus, identifying specific goals and objectives tied to tools and strategies has been problematic. Moreover, relatively little attention has been given to the institutional context in which sustainable development goals would be realised, or the types of economic, social, cultural and political institutions necessary to achieve them.

The lack of a widely aceepted policy framework for achieving sustainable development has resulted in ad hoc approaches tailored to specific localities and regions. In the USA, this diversity of approaches is complicated by a strong cultural ethic that supports freedom of choice, individual liberty, local control and federalism - a system that assigns rights, duties and obligations, as well as limits on intergovernmental involvement, to national and state (or provincial) government. As a result, few cities have attempted to apply sustainable development concepts broadly, and, for those that have, strategies have focused on implementing environmental policy objectives and largely ignored the potentially contradictory effects of moving away from market-based institutions.

This paper's primary focus is not on the theoretical foundations and definitions of sustainability. Instead, the following sections focus on its application in the US context, with a particular focus on the institutional mechanisms used to achieve sustainable development outcomes. The discussion draws on a limited but growing literature on sustainability in American planning as well as a detailed case study of Santa Monica, California, a city often used as a national model. The cases are particularly useful in highlighting apparent contradictions in sustainable development planning, at least in the context of a decentralised, market-based system such as the USA.

Political and institutional context

While some planners contend that sustainable development has emerged as an important organising principle (Berke et al. …

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