Exploring the Definition of Sustainable Development

Last Updated:  May 19, 2024

For your city or village, let us propose that you start with a practical definition of sustainable development.  Consider that for those of you active on the local level, you can think of it as examining and correcting conditions as needed to advance economic sufficiency, social equity, adequate health care and education, and cultural richness without compromising environmental quality, availability of natural resources, satisfactory climate, and biodiversity for future generations.

We talk about this topic on a community development website because in many towns and cities, this is an agenda item for some of your most vocal citizens and strongest advocates, so this subject will be raised whether you want to deal with it or not. In addition to that, we hope to convince you there is direct relevance to your other neighborhood-scale or city-scale work.

Below we will comment on the important phrases in this definition in the first paragraph, but first we want to take a brief historical detour into this concept.

We want to warn you that there is a standard definition of sustainable development, but as you will see, it is aimed at the international community. You will likely encounter this in your local community, just as I have, so we will tell you that this definition was published in 1987 by a group commonly called the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations. The real name is World Commission on Environment and Development.

This Brundtland Commission was created to work for nearly three years on the issues of global environmental pollution and rapid natural resource depletion, exploring how ecological disaster could be avoided. From the beginning the Commission accommodated economic and social meanings of sustainability as well.

The Commission report, aptly titled "Our Common Future," said that sustainable development allows people living today to use resources as necessary to the extent that that this resource expenditure does not force our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to make do with less.  If you need to see the Commission's exact words, look at their report.  

This definition of sustainable development is vague enough for an organization as diverse as the U.N.  Its very ambiguity allows people to interpret it in many different ways. But it offers no clues as to how to balance economic, social, and ecological considerations when they come in conflict. It lacks guidance as to which social needs are to be considered.

A host of United Nations work since 1987, including the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the 2002 Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, and the Agenda 21 program, continues to tie environmental sustainability back into social and economic factors, with cultural diversity increasingly thrown into the mix. United Nations efforts such as the Millennium Development Goals and now the Sustainable Development Goals continue to call attention to extremely broad concepts where work is needed. The European Union has a similarly diverse program.

Yet despite its vagueness, the Commission report helped to galvanize idealists around the world to work on projects to slow global warming, desertification, deforestation, industrial pollution, and other huge environmental trends that would produce massive social and economic suffering.

large culverts in foreground houses in background after hurricaneDrainage Pipes Await Installation in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Comments About Our Practical Definition of Sustainable Development for Cities and Neighborhoods

We have tried our best to figure out a useful definition for the presumed visitor to this website, a person active in his or her own community. First we will assume a reader from more "developed" countries and then close with a section especially about "developing" countries. But the world is interconnected, so we would expect everyone could add to his or her perspective by considering all these points.  

Like all community development advice, you must adjust this to fit local needs.

We want to issue a caution too. We see too much finger-pointing aimed at a project or practice that someone does not considerable sustainable.  We think that the concept of sustainable development cannot be couched in absolutes, as in "Your downtown is sustainable development, but the next one west isn't sustainable." Practices and materials simply contribute or don't contribute to sustainability. When we stop thinking in black and white so much, good things happen.

Let's look at the key phrases in our definition.

Economic Sufficiency

A de-growth movement world-wide states that you can't have growth and development and still have sustainability. (In fact, some people have said that sustainable development is an oxymoron, implying that all development is not sustainable. I think that is nonsense, but you will hear that.)

For example, the opening of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Maurice Strong talked about how we need to give up suburbia, air conditioning, appliances, high meat consumption, and so forth. I hope we are outgrowing this notion, but some of the most adamant advocates are slow to give up that notion.

Some people think you need to figure out how to decrease perceived standard of living before you can be sustainable!

Actually the Brundtland Commission report, p. 49, talks about the need to "revive growth" and "change the quality of growth," so you have it on good authority that sustainability is not anti-growth. But it does require us to change, something we hate to do.

Worldwide conversation frequently centers on the argument that the developed countries cannot continue their proportional over-consumption of the world's resources. 

But in the U.S. and many other advanced economies, we have trouble with any notion that seems to threaten our consumer society. 

We suggest that for many goods and services, the answer might lie in making a larger quantity of food, clothing, and shelter for everyone in the world, using materials and methods that consume fewer resources, rather than in asking wealthier nations to consume fewer products. Now of course there is a huge exception to this, which is in the consumption of non-renewable resources, or resources that are very slow to regenerate. 

Right here we should add that we can go a step beyond just avoiding consumption.  We can actually devote our attention to developing and teaching people about how to regenerate an element of the environment that already has been allowed to degenerate. You can read more about this important concept at our page on regenerative design.

How would a local community or neighborhood know if it is consuming too much? We think the answer might be that a community knows intuitively if it has a more than sufficient amount of wealth; this thought led to our use of the term economic sufficiency. Even in wealthy societies, obviously some residents in neighborhoods do not have enough, so those neighborhoods need to work toward economic sufficiency for all. 

So you see how naturally the economic sufficiency conversation leads back to the idea of ecological and social aspects of sustainability. If goods and services are sufficient in a city overall, but not distributed in such a way that all neighbors have enough, that is a social issue. If we say that consumption of renewable resources is all right, but drawing down non-renewable resources is not ethical (as we seem to be saying in the paragraph above), then the economic conversation quickly becomes an ecological conversation again.

social equity, adequate health care and education, and cultural richness

These phrases in our proposed definition of sustainable development seem mostly self-explanatory. We will just say that social equity (fairness) is a continuing struggle, despite nearly everyone understanding what it means. Folks, it's worth fighting our centuries-old prejudices against other groups. Since cities especially are diverse places, neighborhoods need to sponsor and convene events and meeting places where understanding of different cultures can begin to occur. Leaders need to take up social equity as a key issue in their communities, and work hard to include everyone. 

Now just because groups get along with one another does not mean that things are equitable, but an atmosphere of working together toward fairness to everyone will help figure out ways to equalize opportunities. (We could easily derail and talk more about this topic, but please see our page on racial equity and community development.)

What constitutes adequacy in health care and education could be an all-day discussion, and one that some of your communities need to have. But we won't dwell on those rather self-evident concepts.

We will mention that we have used the term cultural richness to highlight the fact that when we try to dilute or get rid of a cultural custom, we need to make sure that we preserve those customs that actually could add richness, variety, texture, and character to our lives. Yes, some customs of oppression, tyranny, torture, blame, and deliberate cultivation of conflict need to die, but others can help explain the history of groups and should be respected and savored.

Environmental Quality, Natural Resources, Climate, and Biodiversity 

Damage to the earth and depletion of natural resources obviously are not responsible actions for our generation to take. Yet just as we saw in talking about economic sufficiency, it is tough to convince people to sacrifice short-term satisfaction for the sake of long-term gain. But it is the adult thing to do. 

In the U.S. right now, much of the discussion of environmental issues at the community level seems to have focused on the idea of green communities. Green communities are communities developed and redeveloped on the principle of minimizing and then ideally eliminating environmental damage due to human activity. Insisting on developers and residents using the best available sustainable development practices means that a green community will not use up its natural capital faster than it is generated. (Natural capital is a term used to refer to the total of Mother Nature’s resources.)

Often the concept of green communities is built on a set of quantifiable goals ("metrics" is the popular term now  for measurement of goal attainment) that are primarily environmental. Measurement at your local level can help people visualize how their tiny daily actions add up to an important impact. A good example is providing data on how much solid waste of different types your community is generating.

We should comment on the idea of biodiversity, which may be less familiar to some of our readers. Think of the diversity of plants and animals as something supportive of both our health and our enjoyment, in ways that sometimes we cannot imagine until scientific evidence emerges or someone figures out how to make a new medicine based on plants. Even cities, or we should say especially cities, can nurture biodiversity by paying attention to animal or plant populations that your local scientists have identified as being in danger in your area. 

Your local community may play a role in preserving or creating habitat necessary for endangered species. This is such a practical step for those who are concerned with land use planning, open space preservation, or fighting sprawl on a local level.

Lastly, let's look at climate resiliency as a key component of sustainable development in the 21st century. Both warming and its related sea level rise, and the potential for larger and more traumatic storms, are of huge relevance to many communities. 

You city dwellers can protect and nurture your tree canopy, while enjoying the shade and beauty, along with the ecological benefits.

Definition of Sustainable Development in "Developing" Regions of the World

The word "development" on much of the world stage is a post-colonial era idea about eradicating poverty and disease to the point that nations can become equally wealthy, self-sufficient, and intelligently self-governing.

Thus the economic, social, and cultural overtones are likely to outweigh ecological aspects of the definition of sustainable development in developing nation circles.

Many would say that development of a nation means an increase in human quality of life, indicated by increased health, more education, better nutrition, increased wealth for individuals, larger GNP (gross national product) for the nation, and a fair distribution of that wealth. Cutting down a forest or ignoring tomorrow's soil fertility for the sake of today's crop may make perfect sense to people whose daily existence is threatened. Extreme poverty has made it more difficult for some developing nations and less-privileged groups elsewhere to deal with some environmental aspects of sustainability.

Of course we should hasten to say there are exceptions. The Menominee Indian Tribe in Wisconsin has argued that its forest resources should be protected forever. See information about the Menominee Sustainable Development Institute.

Sustainability is closely linked with such long-range thinking, rather than day-to-day thinking, which is why the conversation arises when people move out of a hunter-gatherer society into more centralized methods of producing wealth.

The acceptability of the notion of sustainability thus is linked to optimism as opposed to nihilism. In the Western nations, educated people may be more capable of appreciating this long time horizon than those without as much formal education. But many indigenous peoples around the world believe deeply in sustainability. It is this cultural tradition of connection with plants and animals that must be cultivated.

To keep reading about worldwide sustainability, see the website of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Two More Useful Sustainable Development Concepts

In closing, we want to point out two ideas that may be powerful for your community in interpreting the definition of sustainable development.  First, a Native American concept of assessing the impact of one's actions out to the seventh generation may be helpful in thinking about whether a particular decision to exploit or harvest a natural resource is wise, or whether an investment in education or health care can be expected to transform a society or just your neighborhood.

Second, developed nations would do well to adopt a triple bottom line approach, in which not only financial costs and benefits are measured, but also the more difficult to quantify long-run environmental costs and social costs of inequity between groups or between individuals.

Read About Some Possible Sustainability Action Steps

Of necessity this page has been pretty abstract and theoretical. But most of our site visitors actually want to improve their communities right now. As you see, there are many possible ways to interpret this definition of sustainable development to fit your particular situation.  Below we provide just a few of the dozens of possible links to pages on our website that would enable you to plan a first action step for your location. If none of these work for you, poke around in general on the site, look at the Sitemap, or use our search box till you find something  a useful first step.

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