Sustainability and the Comprehensive Plan

by Larry G. Mugler, AICP, M.ASCE, Arapahoe County, Colorado

This article examines the history of the sustainability concept and, especially, its use in relationship to communities and their development, as well as examples of ways that other jurisdictions have been intentional in their use of sustainability as part of their comprehensive plans. Finally, the article proposes some approaches to incorporating sustainability into a comprehensive plan.

Reviewing and Updating Arapahoe County’s Comprehensive Plan

“Sustainability” has become a term used in numerous ways when discussing growth and development issues. Sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, sustainable economies, and sustainable communities are just a few of the terms often found in planning literature or public media reports. This paper was originally prepared for the Arapahoe County Planning Commission as part of the process for updating the county’s 2001 Comprehensive Plan. Just southwest of Denver, Arapahoe County is one of the largest counties in Colorado with a population of more than 572,000.

A review of the Comprehensive Plan found that the term, sustainable, or any variation, was used 10 times out of over 52,000 words. Four of these occurrences use the term instead of “support,” not in the sense usually associated with “sustainability.” This limited usage does not mean that the Comprehensive Plan ignored sustainable policies, since planning itself can be considered an effort to ensure sustainability. It did suggest that the updated plan should more intentionally address the concept of sustainability.

The original version of this paper was intended to provide the Planning Commission with an understanding of sustainability, especially in the context of comprehensive plans. However, the Western Planner world may find a modified version of that background paper of interest as they address similar issues in their community.

TRIPLE BOTTOM LINE

Sustainability exists at the intersection of economy, environment, and society. Source of information Introduction to Sustainable Development.2

What is sustainability or a sustainable community?

Sustainability began to be used as a concept in the late 1980s following the World Commission on Environment and Development’s report, Our Common Future, which introduced sustainable development and provided the most commonly used definition: “Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1 Since that report, many variations of the definition have appeared. Key to all of them is the concept of meeting human needs and protecting the environment that provides those needs.
More recently, sustainability has been linked to the idea of the triple bottom line – that every decision should consider the economic cost, the environmental impacts and the effect on social equity. Sustainability exists at the intersection of these three elements. We cannot understand sustainability unless we look at the connections between the three elements. For example, sustainable agriculture provides an adequate income to the farmer, protects the land from disturbance, and provides food at costs that meet the nutritional needs of our poorest families.
Another vital component to the sustainability concept is looking at the future effects. The example most often cited is the Great Law of the Iroquois. Owen Lyons, an Iroquois chief, summarizes their law as:

“We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come....”3

For a decision to be considered sustainable, the effect on those not yet born should be positive, or at least not negative. Planners have always considered this to be one of their basic functions – to be looking at the future.

When the sustainability concept is applied to the ways that people organize the places they live and work, it becomes a sustainable community issue. How do we apply the concept to a community? The following is one attempt:

The sustainability of a community depends on creating and maintaining its economic and environmental health, promoting social equity, and fostering broad-based citizen participation in planning and implementation. Communities that engage citizens and institutions to develop sustainability principles and a collective vision for the future and that apply an integrative approach to environmental, economic, and social goals are generally likely to be more successful.
Job creation, energy use, housing, transportation, education, and health are considered complementary parts of the whole. Since all issues are interconnected, they must be addressed as a system.4

One community that has been identified as sustainable is Civano, Arizona. This is a neighborhood within southeast Tucson that has been master planned. They have identified the following three tenets to help guide their overall physical, social, and economic development:

  • Create a sense of place that fosters community and connects people to one another and their natural environments
  • Tread lighter on the land through innovative design
  • Introduce sustainable construction materials and new technologies to advance the quality of life5

Tenets such as these seem to be consistent with most comprehensive plans; however, the third tenet moves into “green building” approaches that may not be as common a planning topic.
As with any aspect of sustainability, community sustainability needs to consider not only the immediate needs of the community but the expected future needs.

Sustainable development is a transgenerational process that must involve new generations of citizens in the enduring processes of nurturing an active and living sustainability culture and embracing the political commitments and ecological values that will infuse their everyday lives. In this sense, community sustainability cannot be a one-time, one-generation decision; it must be a living practice and a permanent revolution in character and habit, outlook and practice.6

Conditions can change, and a sustainable community has the resiliency to respond to those changes. Mr. Yanarella’s article reviewed an award-winning community, Okotoks, Alberta, at a point in time when it had decided to limit its growth to the capacity of its water supply. Now it is faced with growth from the oil and gas boom and is reconsidering that limit to its growth. This reconsideration can still address the new situation from a sustainable perspective. How will this new growth be served with water? Can the values of the community be upheld with a new assumption about community growth?7

Examples of Sustainability in Community Plans

Planning literature identifies several comprehensive plans from cities and counties around the United States as examples for incorporating sustainability. In addition, recent plans by some Colorado communities have also included sustainability, to varying degrees.

The City of Eau Claire, located in northwestern Wisconsin about 85 miles east of Minneapolis-St. Paul, is one of the communities highlighted for their inclusion of sustainability. The city, incorporated in 1872, currently has a population of over 65,000. In 2009, the city added a chapter to their 2005 Comprehensive Plan to focus on sustainability. They used a list of key issues that were determined as the fundamental aspects to making the city a sustainable community. The following list of issues led to a parallel set of goals with objectives and action steps.

  1. Energy: What should the city do to foster local energy production, conservation, and efficiency, while increasing the use of renewable power?
  2. Local Food: What should the city do to promote area food production, sales, and consumption while reducing food-related waste?
  3. Environmental Conservation: What should the city do to safeguard our ecosystems, trees, soil, and water resources?
  4. Atmosphere: What should the city do to reduce our contribution to global warming and minimize air pollution?
  5. Managing Waste: What should the city do to promote consumer product awareness, increase recycling rates, and reduce the amount of substances entering into landfills?
  6. Strong and Healthy Community: How should the city continue to protect its citizens from disease, promote healthy living, civic engagement, cultural and ethnic diversity, while partnering with others to provide these activities?
  7. Sustainable Development: How should the city guide and promote development so that buildings and neighborhoods incorporate sustainable features?
  8. Balanced Transportation: How should the city increase mobility choices by enhancing other forms of transportation besides that for automobiles? How can transportation infrastructure be designed efficiently, safely, with the environment in mind, and be connected to other local and regional networks?
  9. Greener Economy: How should the city bolster the local economy by attracting green-collar jobs and encouraging businesses to become more sustainable?
  10. Sustainable Government: What should the city do to provide good government and cost-effective services, meet the needs of our citizens, protect the environment, and cooperate with other governments?8

Planning literature does not identify many county plans as examples for incorporating sustainability. However, APA’s Sustaining Places identifies the comprehensive plan from Union County, located in Pennsylvania with a total population under 45,000, as one good example.9 The plan uses the usual definition of sustainability and lists some key principles similar to the Eau Claire plan. Then, each section of the plan includes a “sustainability key” that relates that section to a principle. For example, the plan section on Land Use uses “mixed use” as the sustainability key. The section includes this statement:

“Mixed-use can be created at varying scales (building, parcel, neighborhood) and its success depends on its ability to relate to the established development context. As a Sustainability Key, mixed-use has the ability to affect all other plan elements (e.g., by promoting transportation choices, conservation of natural and agricultural resources, and housing diversity).”10

Several recent plans in Colorado include sustainability. Douglas County, located midway between Colorado’s two largest cities, Denver and Colorado Springs, has an estimated population of 308,000. The county adopted their 2030 Comprehensive Master Plan in 2008 and included a section on sustainable development in the introduction. The plan does not include a separate set of policies for sustainability but uses the terms sustainable or sustainability throughout the plan’s various sections. This focused on the three building blocks:

  • Economic: Ensure goods and services are easily distributed. The county must have jobs to ensure a strong tax base so services can be maintained.
  • Social: Have services and governance so county residents’ needs can be met and maintained over time.
  • Environmental: Maintain or improve the quality of the environment and preserve natural resources through such means as the implementation of green infrastructure principles.11

Adams County, located in northwestern Colorado, had the 10th highest growth rate in Colorado from 2000 to 2010. Its population is estimated at 441,603. Adams County recently adopted Comprehensive Plan includes explicit goals and policies regarding sustainability. Chapter 2 of the plan is entitled, “Key Goals for a More Sustainable and Resilient Adams County.” That chapter includes six goals intended to make the county more sustainable:

  • Promote coordinated and connected growth
  • Protect the health, safety, and welfare of Adams County’s inhabitants
  • Foster regional collaboration and partnerships
  • Reduce the fiscal impact of growth
  • Promote economic vitality
  • Preserve the  county’s natural resources12

The Colorado comprehensive plan that seems to have done the most to incorporate sustainability is the City Plan from the City of Fort Collins, which is located in northern Colorado with a population of 155,400. The City Plan reflects the emphasis the city is placing on sustainability throughout the city’s activities. In fact, the city in 2012 combined three departments (Economic Health, Environmental Services, and Social Sustainability) into a new department called the Social Sustainability Area. Each of the seven sections of the City Plan addresses the relationship of that topical area to the three aspects of sustainability: economy, environment, and human resources. This reflects the community’s definition of sustainability, “to systemically, creatively, and thoughtfully utilize environmental, human, and economic resources to meet our present needs and those of future generations without compromising the ecosystems upon which we depend.”13

Options for Incorporating Sustainability into a Comprehensive Plan

As can be seen from the examples above, the concept of sustainability can be incorporated into a comprehensive plan in several ways. The following discussion suggests three approaches that a planning commission could use to include sustainability in a comprehensive development plan. In shorthand, these might be called: minor modification, intentional consideration/new chapter, and countywide effort.

A planning commission could follow the Douglas County example and add the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” in appropriate places in the plan. For example, the Comprehensive Plan Principles section of the Comprehensive Plan lists eight principles intended to guide the rest of the plan. The Arapahoe County Planning Commission could review and modify each of these principles to reflect sustainability. To illustrate this approach, the first principles could be modified:

APPROPRIATE LAND USE PATTERNS

Arapahoe County will have a compact development pattern that encourages growth to locate within well-defined growth areas, and balances development and conservation of the natural environment. Development will occur in a sustainable manner that supports the urban pattern of the western portion of the county, seeks to ensure the viability of the eastern communities along the I-70 corridor, and maintains the eastern area’s open rural character, viable agricultural operations, and natural areas.

This approach assumes that the plan’s goals, principles, policies, and strategies generally are consistent with sustainability. The modifications do not change the intent but would recognize the current emphasis on sustainability. However, this approach may overlook some significant new policies that would support a more sustainable community.

Many communities have taken a much more intentional approach to sustainability that goes well beyond land use issues. Boulder County, located in Colorado with the county seat as the City of Boulder, does not include sustainability in their land use plan but has an entirely separate Environmental Sustainability Plan, an 110-page document addressing nine different areas.14 The Adams County, Colorado Plan section on sustainability is a result of a much larger county effort to incorporate sustainability to all activities of the county. Their program states:

“Adams County, a leader in the community, is committed to developing and implementing initiatives, programs, and projects that will save taxpayer dollars; assure clean land, air, and water; and ensure the community thrives today as well as in the future.”15

A community could pursue the same type of program. However, this would go well beyond the prerogatives of a planning commission. If a planning commission believes that the community needs such a program, they could suggest that action step as part of a plan policy or strategy.
The third approach would involve an effort between these two. A planning commission, with input from community residents, would review a set of questions similar to those used by Eau Claire, WI. These would lead to a set of policies and strategies. Some of the policies and strategies might fit within existing sections of the Comprehensive Plan, but others might be grouped into a new “Sustainable Community” section of the plan.

Listed below are questions similar to the Eau Claire set but modified to more general community issues. This is only an initial attempt at such a list of questions. A planning commission should review, modify and expand the list as they consider incorporated sustainability into their comprehensive planning efforts.

  1. Energy: What should the community do to foster local energy production, conservation, and efficiency, while increasing the use of renewable power?
  2. Local Food: What should the community do to promote area food production, sales, and consumption while reducing food-related waste?
  3. Ecosystems: What should the community do to ensure healthy and vibrant ecosystems that sustain all naturally occurring species, along with our human population?
  4. Water: How should the community provide ongoing leadership for water efficiency and water quality efforts to ensure sufficient clean water for current and future generations?
  5. Atmosphere: What should the community do to reduce our contribution to climate change and minimize air pollution?
  6. Managing Waste: What should the community do to promote consumer product awareness, increase recycling rates, and reduce the amount of substances entering into landfills?
  7. Strong and Healthy Community: How should the community continue to protect its citizens from disease, promote healthy living, civic engagement, cultural and ethnic diversity, while partnering with others to provide these activities?
  8. Sustainable Development: How should the community guide and promote development so that buildings and neighborhoods incorporate sustainable features?
  9. Balanced Transportation: How can transportation infrastructure be designed efficiently, safely, with the environment in mind, and be connected to other local and regional networks? How should the community increase mobility choices by enhancing other forms of transportation besides that for automobiles?
  10. Greener Economy: How should the community bolster the local economy by attracting Green-collar jobs and encouraging businesses to become more sustainable?
  11. Sustainable Government: What should the community do to provide good government and cost-effective services, meet the needs of our citizens, protect the environment, and cooperate with other governments?

Conclusion

Sustainability is one of the “hot topic” areas in planning today. In fact, the term itself can generate conflict, similar to “climate change.” This paper should provide a foundation for a reasoned discussion in a community about ways to face the issues regarding the future of that community. The examples of the use of sustainability in other places may provide a starting place for that conversation.


Larry G. Mugler, AICP, M.ASCE, is currently working part time for the Arapahoe County planning office, helping with an update to their comprehensive plan. He has also worked for the U.S. Census Bureau as a Partnership Specialist, working with communities to ensure a complete count for the 2010 Census. He previously worked for the Denver Regional Council of Governments from 1974 to 2009 in a variety of positions including the Planning Services Manager in the Customer Resource and Support Division.


ENDNOTES

  1. World Commission on Environment and Development. “Our Common Future.” 1987. http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf (accessed April 29, 2014).
  2. Sustainability Measures. Introduction to Sustainable Development. 2010. http://www.sustainablemeasures.com/node/42 (accessed April 29, 2014).
  3. Lyons, Oren. “An Iroquois Perspective.” In American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History, by Christopher Vecsey, & Robert W. Venables (Editors), 171-175. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1980.
  4. Sustainable Communities Online. About Sustainable Communities. n.d. http://www.sustainable.org/about (accessed April 30, 2014).
  5. Buntin, Simmins B. UnSprawl Case Study: Community of Civano, Arizona. n.d. http://www.terrain.org/5/ (accessed April 8, 2014).
  6. Yanarella, Ernest J. Sustainability Comes to the Canadian Prairie. 2005. http://www.terrain.org/articles/18/yanarella.htm (accessed April 30, 2014).
  7. Frazer-Harrison, Alex. “Growth the focus as population cap lifted.” Calgary Herald, February 26, 2014.
  8. Eau Claire, City of. Comprehensive Plan: Sustainability Chapter. Eau Claire, WI: City of Eau Claire, 2009.
  9. Godschalk, David, and William Anderson. Sustaining Places: The Role of the Comprehensive Plan. PAS Report 567, Chicago: American Planning Association, 2012.
  10. Union County, PA. “Part I: Vision and Framework for the Future.” Cultivating Community: A Plan for Union County’s Future. 2009. http://www.cultivatingcommunity.net/materials/draftplan/Part-1-Vision-and-Framework.pdf (accessed May 14, 2014).
  11. Douglas County. “2030 Comprehensive Master Plan.” Douglas County. May 12, 2008. http://www.douglas.co.us/cmp2030/documents/cmp-2030.pdf (accessed May 13, 2014).
  12. Adams County. Comprehensive Plan. 2012. http://www.co.adams.co.us/index.aspx?nid=1086 (accessed May 13, 2014).
  13. Fort Collins. City of. “City Plan.” City of Fort Collins. February 15, 2011. http://www.fcgov.com/planfortcollins/pdf/cityplan.pdf (accessed May 13, 2014).
  14. Boulder County. “Environmental Sustainability Plan.” November 26, 2012. http://www.bouldercounty.org/doc/sustainability/sustainplanwebv.pdf (accessed May 21, 2014).
  15. Sustainability Program. n.d. http://www.co.adams.co.us/index.aspx?NID=890 (accessed May 21, 2014).

Published in October/November 2015 Journal

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