Planning And Sustainable Development Research Paper

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‘Sustainable development’ or ‘sustainability’ for short simply means that in a global context any economic or social development should improve and not harm the environment. This concept has developed from a global political process over the last three decades of the twentieth century into one that now touches every part of society. Sustainability has cut across all disciplines and professions, and has developed many complexities in relation to how people plan for their futures (Pezzoli 1997). Its application to planning is full of interest and controversy.



Town and regional planning has its origins firmly in a desire to improve the environment and create a better future. The visions of Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes, and Lewis Mumford, for example, were all rooted in the need to make a greener city. Today there are many planners who use sustainability to rationalize why they are planning the way they do. This research paper will try to clarify the ways that sustainability is shaping how planning is done, as well as the differences in the ways that planners relate to sustainable development. The issues relating to sustainability that appear to be uniting planners are:

(a) How necessary it is to use holistic planning frameworks; and

(b) How planning processes must start with community/civil society perspectives.

The issues which appear to divide planners are:

(a) How planners view the size of cities; and

(b) How planners view density and car dependence.

Some resolution will be attempted on these issues.

1. The Concept Of Sustainability

Sustainable development was defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 after they were given the task of resolving the apparent global conflict between development and the environment (WCED 1987). They concluded that it is possible to develop the world in a way that improves the environment if:

(a) High income nations see their responsibility to reduce their resource consumption with every new step in the development process;

(b) Low income nations direct development to those who need it most as only then will population growth stabilize and misuse of natural resources begin to ease;

(c) All nations need to see development as meeting community goals, thus development must be inherently a ‘bottom up’ process; and,

(d) All professions and disciplines need to adjust to a more holistic, integrated approach if sustainability is to be converted into real change.

The thrust of this research paper is that, within the sustainable development framework of thinking, there are clear differences in what planners are suggesting sustainability means for cities. However, the overall situation cannot be seen as just a series of raging controversies, and indeed there are substantial areas of agreement.

2. The Agreements: Holistic Frameworks And New Planning Processes In The Age Of Sustainability

Dyck (1998) suggests that sustainability is a concept which challenges prevailing planning theory because planning has emerged primarily from a modernist social context. In this perspective, modernism has associated growth or development with increased resource use, trickle-down economics, and ‘expertoriented’ planning. Very few planners are, however, espousing a modernist view in the new millennium, and even the World Bank seems to agree with the basic conceptions of how sustainable development should now be viewed (Leitmann 1999). In particular, the areas of emerging agreement are the need for new, more holistic planning frameworks and community sensitive planning processes.

2.1 Holistic Frameworks

The principles of sustainability outlined above can be applied to cities, though the guidance on how this can be done was not very clear in Agenda 21 and other UN documents. It is probably true to say that the major environmental battles of the past were fought outside cities, but that awareness of the need to come back to cities is now recognized universally by environmentalists, government, and industry (United Nations Center for Human Settlements 1996).

Anders (1991), in a global review of the sustainable cities movement, pointed out that ‘The sustainable cities movement seems united in its perception that the state of the environment demands action and that cities are an appropriate forum in which to act’ (p. 17).

One of the strongest themes running through the literature on urban sustainability is that, to solve problems, planners need to view the city as an ecosystem. As Tjallingii (1993, p. 7) puts it: ‘The city is (now) conceived as a dynamic and complex ecosystem. This is not a metaphor, but a concept of a real city. The social, economic and cultural systems cannot escape the rules of abiotic and biotic nature. Guidelines for action will have to be geared to these rules.’

The city is an open ecosystem, having inputs of energy and materials. The main environmental problems (and economic costs) are related to sustaining the growth of these inputs, and managing the increased outputs. By looking at the city as a whole and by analyzing the pathways along which energy and materials (and pollution) move, it is possible to begin to conceive of management systems and technologies which allow for the reintegration of natural processes, increasing the efficiency of resource use, the recycling of wastes as valuable materials, and the conservation of (and even production of ) energy.

There may be ongoing academic debate about what constitutes sustainability and how it applies to cities (Slocombe 1993, Mitlin and Satterthwaite 1994), but what is clear is that many strategies and programs around the world have begun to apply such notions both for new development and for redevelopment of existing areas. Holistic frameworks such as the Extended Metabolism Model (Newman and Kenworthy 1999), the Ecological Footprint (Wackernagel and Rees 1996), and Local Environmental Action Planning (Leitmann 1999) are all emerging as new planning frameworks.

2.2 Planning Processes

One of the strengths of the sustainability concept is that it is not a set of regulations or even highly definitive principles. Its principles need to be examined by every local community to see how they can be applied to create better long-term futures for their children. Thus planners at the local level have often found something of the reality of sustainability through the use of Local Agenda 21 Plans which have emerged as a tool for planning since the Rio conference (ICLEI 1996, 1997, Selman 1996). Over 2,000 local governments have produced such plans. Others have adopted approaches based on sustainability indicators such as Sustainable Seattle (City of Seattle 1993) or the Local Environmental Action Plan (Leitmann 1999), and many are now using ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection system as a guiding approach.

All these new processes stress that planning has moved beyond traditional approaches such as Impact Assessment or Strategic Planning based on trend projections and functional separation. They have in common a desire to plan from a community base, integrated with the goals of the market and other levels of government, including the new global agendas generated from Rio, Kyoto, and beyond.

The stories of hope emerging at a local level are rich and diverse when examined at the grass roots level (e.g., Pathways to Sustainability Conference 1997, ICLEI 1997). The reason for this is probably that at the local level it is possible for government more easily to make the huge steps in integrating the environmental, economic, and social, in order to make policy developments that are sustainable. They are also closer to concerned people, and more distant from the singleissue powerful lobbies such as the fossil fuel and road lobbies, who are so obvious in shaping national priorities (Korten 1990, 1995).

2.3 The Disagreements: Application Of Sustainability To City Size, Urban Form, And Transportation

The disagreements that are apparent among planners, who all profess to want more sustainable cities, are reducible to issues concerning urban form and transportation. They relate to the size of cities and to their density car dependence.

3. City Size And Sustainability

Many planners subscribe to the view that, on environmental grounds (and other criteria), cities would be better if they were smaller (Troy 1996, Morris 1982). This is an old planning debate, for example, Fischer (1976) shows how optimum size cannot be found on any social or economic variable, but the debate has new currency in light of the current move to seek ‘smart growth’ and growth management. The desire to keep settlements small is seen by many to be a major part of what sustainability means.

The evidence from studies of settlements shows that as cities get larger they become more efficient in energy use per person and other critical sustainability variables (Newman and Kenworthy 1999, Naess 1993, Smith et al. 1998). This appears to be related to the economies of scale and density associated with bigger cities, which applies equally to technologies seen to be appropriate for sustainable development such as transit, recycling, or the new information industries. It does not mean, however, that larger cities do not reach capacity limits in terms of their airsheds and water systems. But it does mean that simple ideas of decanting people from big cities to smaller ones would not help to create a more sustainable global future.

The evidence suggests that smaller cities find the process of achieving efficiency in economic and resource terms harder than larger cities. The strong emotional appeal of ‘smallness’ to our age is not, however, without its basis. E. F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ approach, with its attack on modern gigantism, is still relevant as it suggests that all technology needs to be at an appropriate scale for the community that it is meant to be serving. Community-scale technology is emerging as communities begin to assert their roles—whether the technology is in villages in the Third World or modern large cities (Korten 1990). The thrust of the New Urbanism and the ‘urban village’ movement is that communities need to be physically designed for and given infrastructure at the scale of the community, in cities both large and small (Calthorpe 1993).

3.1 Density And Car Dependence

In cities across the world the issue of urban sprawl is firmly on the agenda. Associated with it are the issues of density and levels of car dependence, and hence traffic. In the USA in 1998, 240 local governments had antisprawl initiatives on their ballots, and reductions in traffic had become a top priority across the country. However, debate among planners on these issues shows little sign of resolution.

The divide continues to widen between those advocating more compact cities and transit-oriented reurbanization (e.g., Cervero 1999, Whitelegg 1993, Roseland 1998, Newman and Kenworthy 1999, Calthorpe 1993, Elkin et al. 1991), and those advocating reduced densities and only technological changes to cars (e.g., Gordon and Richardson 1989, Troy 1996, Wachs and Crawford 1991, Johnson 1993). Another category of planners sit on the density car dependence fence (e.g., Haughten and Hunter 1994), while others see the problems but tend to avoid the planning implications in low density, car-dependent planning (e.g., Leitmann 1999, World Bank 1996, Stren et al. 1992).

The data on density and car dependence is very clear. All cities appear to lie on the negative exponential curve of density and gasoline per capita (Newman and Kenworthy 1999). The same relation- ship is seen across cities, so that as density increases, per capita energy goes down, well beyond any income factors, for example, Manhattan uses 500 percent less energy per capita than the outer suburbs of New York. The mechanism is understood easily in terms of the relative ability to use different modes as distances between land uses spread out. It suggests that density is a powerful determinant of gasoline use, and hence if cities are to develop sustainably they should be facilitating reurbanization rather than new fringe development. Other planning studies have also shown over many decades the link between low urban density and a range of environmental problems (RERC 1974, Berry et al. 1974).

Despite this kind of evidence there is a long tradition of planners seeing density as a problem (Newman and Kenworthy 1989). Those planners advocating the benefits of sprawl who are associated with land or automobile lobbies can be discounted in debates about urban sustainability (STPP 1994). However, there are many environmental planners who also adopt the benefits of low-density planning (e.g., Gordon 1990, Todd and Tukel 1981, Coates 1981). This suggests that there may be a deeper issue in this debate; an issue that also lies behind the question of city size and sustainability.

Radberg (1995), when reviewing the form of cities required to achieve sustainability, described the rationale for a more compact city which can conserve energy. He then set out the form of a city for achieving green objectives that are ‘related to the ecological perspective’ for ‘recycling and cultivation’; this city is ‘greener, more ruralized, more spread out.’ He therefore raised the questions: Is there a conflict between the low-energy city and the green city? Is there a fundamental conflict between the need to have more urban land for the green city in order to do local ecological processing, and a low-energy city with its need to minimize travel distances and hence have a frugal use of land?

The resolution of this issue as suggested by Radberg (1995) was to enable some parts of cities to be developed more intensely for reductions in energy, and other parts to be more reduced in their density so that ‘greener’ activities could occur there. The evidence, however, is that those planners who support the reduction of density are not able to accept that any density increases are worthwhile (e.g., Troy 1996). On the other hand, studies of urban ecology innovations by Scheurer (1999), confirmed by Beatley (2000), found that there are no increases in ecological activity in low-density areas. Indeed, the best examples of urban ecology (recycling, solar design, storm water retention, permaculture … ) occurred in denser developments, mostly in inner city areas where communities were able to create innovative experiments, or in intentional rural or urban-fringe communities. In the car-dependent suburbs urban ecology innovations are rare.

Newman and Kenworthy, (1999) tried to resolve the issue of density and the green city. They suggest that green innovations can indeed occur anywhere in a city, although experiments may best be applied in rural areas, especially in places where rural population decline is occurring. However, the broader global sustainability agenda cannot be subsumed by this new rationale for density-lowering; cities need to reurbanize while conducting simultaneous improvements in urban ecology. They suggest that the difference in attitude between the two groups is as much due to confusion over where different approaches to sustainability should be employed. In simple terms, the city should be allowed to become more urban, and the countryside more rural, if the multiple goals of planning and sustainability are to be met.

A resolution of this issue may not occur while people still use the word ‘sustainable’ to describe extensions of low-density, car-based development (even if designed with New Urbanist principles). The strong emphasis on reductions in energy that is now associated with sustainability will probably mean that car-based development increasingly will have to be described using other words that are less demanding of their global contribution.


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