Sustainable Development Practices for Communities

Last Updated: May 18, 2024

This page emphasizes sustainability concepts that your neighborhood might become involved in. Many of you think that sustainability is more of a worldwide or nationwide issue, but actually there are a number of sustainable development practices that are applicable to the planning, functioning, and renewal of communities.

Bellow I include experience-based opinions on the first things you should consider if you are relatively new in considering how you can encourage green building at the local level, create entire green communities, involve your local business community in sustainability, and generally enhance resilience. These topics are vital to community work in many locales these days.

As currently understood, green building entails both sustainable development practices and environmentally sound operation.

Even demolition procedures are important in a green community. Demolition is now called de-construction if it involves carefully taking apart the building to salvage and recycle materials.

Your community organization or neighborhood association is an ideal platform for becoming active in promoting green building, green remodeling, and many more issues that could be part of the definition of sustainable development.

If you're in an urban neighborhood where reinvestment is occurring, the numerous building projects can expose residents and workers to all kinds of nasty chemicals. The toxic waste has to be removed, but your emphasis on sustainable development practices may assure that at least environmentally superior materials are coming into your neighborhood.

So whether for your neighborhood, community policy, or your own personal use, below we will discuss some key green building principles.

1. Where you build makes a tremendous difference. Try to build on an infill site, meaning a site that already was developed at least once in recent human history. Infill housing not only is an environmentally sound policy, but also a practical way to improve the appearance of a neighborhood and the supply of any housing type that is needed in your region.

If you're a business, probably the number one thing you can do is to reduce energy use on the part of your employees getting to work and your suppliers and vendors providing goods and services to you in an energy-efficient manner. Yes, build close to your frequent business contacts and to the airport, if those things are important to your business, but try not to build on greenfields (a term that means land not previously developed).

2. In fact, re-use a building if you possibly can. Some brainstorming and a small amount of an architect's time could unearth options you never thought you'd have.

3. During the development process, practice construction material recycling, including scraps, whenever possible. Be mindful of how rain might erode away exposed soils or carry pollutants where you didn't intend them to be.

4. Use local materials where possible. The cost of transporting granite from New Hampshire or marble from Italy to your building site could be considerable.

5. Design and build for energy conservation. Heating and cooling are your major targets, so consider non-traditional systems such as geothermal, as well as passive solar and just plain smart orientation toward wind and sun. Programmable thermostats and appliances will help.

Windmills and photovoltaic cells aren't practical for some building situations, but you can certainly choose Energy Star appliances.

6. Substitute fast-growing woods for slow-growth woods when choose building materials. In the trade they call this selecting "resource efficient" materials. That's what's behind the popularity of bamboo flooring.

7. Choose materials, methods, fixtures, and appliances designed for longevity and low maintenance. Rapid replacement and trashing of building elements are wasteful.

8. Select non-toxic materials as much as possible. Chemicals in common cabinets, paints, and carpets give off VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and not only lead to allergic symptoms while in use, but also linger around for a long time in the afterlife.

9. For unique and interesting features in the home, including mantles, doors, windows, bathroom fixtures, and so forth, visit an architectural details salvage company.

10. Make your building project use water efficiently. You can capture rainwater in rain barrels and re-use that untreated rainwater for irrigation, if you are so silly as to choose plants that need irrigation. Use low-water showers, dishwashers, toilets, and so forth.

11. For your parking lots and driveways, try to use a permeable paver block or permeable asphalt or concrete. Build the minimum amount of parking your municipality will allow, especially if your soils and climate would permit parking on grass or other plant materials for rare overflow occasions.

12. Detain stormwater runoff on individual parcels of property as long as possible.  The theory of how to do this is called low-impact development (LID). Some towns require this practice, but if not, on their own, businesses can especially practice LID in parking lots. Instead of mounding up the earth between rows of parking to plant trees and other landscaping, make the tree islands depressions and plant species that like to be wet. It's a simple switch that will reduce the quantity of runoff and improve its quality. 

13. Both homeowners and businesses can develop a rain garden to receive and cleanse the stormwater your rooftop guttering system collects. Some will evaporate, and in any case the water that eventually finds its way to the municipal system will be much cleaner.

How Local Governments Can Promote Sustainability

Many municipalities and counties are getting on board with the whole green movement, for a variety of reasons. Usually one or two leaders feel strong about this issue personally, and sometimes a smart department head figures out why green is actually more economical in the long run for the local government.

Municipalities approach the topic in a variety of ways. The U.S. Conference of Mayors appears to have scaled back its climate change initiative, but the organization may still be a resource for mayors.  The National League of Cities offers assistance to its member cities (this probably includes your city if you are in the U.S.) too.

In addition, an organization called ICLEI--Local Governments for Sustainability is an international group of cities concerned with climate action.   This organization has put together a greenhouse gas emissions inventory software program that a municipality can obtain at modest cost. College interns make completing the program in summer a realistic goal. This serves as a baseline measurement for a community.

If you are not as interested in the quantification that marks the sustainable development practices movement as in just going green, my thought is to concentrate on a few basics in your neighborhood first. Below is a list to use as a starting point.

• Provide neighborhood recycling containers if you don't have mandatory curbside recycling. Contact the dealers, who will provide the containers. It takes some labor to keep a recycling center tidy though, so it's not as easy as it seems. In addition to the actual products physically recycled, it's great to build awareness that yes, this is something that can be recycled, and also the awareness that wow, we used that much paper.

• Emphasize a walkable grid, which also will be a bikeable grid. Then plan a mix of land uses that allow people to purchase their most frequent needs very close to home, and allow others to work from home or very close to home.

• Be bold and call for narrowing of some streets as a traffic calming measure. Rip out that concrete or asphalt, recycle it, and make rain gardens instead. Rain gardens slow stormwater runoff, which carries pollutants into our water and which can result in damaging flash flooding incidents.

• Investigate whether electricity generation, wastewater treatment, and drinking water treatment can become less energy-intensive. Many of these processes require huge quantities of our energy. In fact, dramatically lower energy input in electrical generation argue for more embrace of solar and wind technologies. Sustainable development practices certainly should be followed when replacing any utility capacity.

• Reinvigorate your land use and zoning processes to assure that they promote mixed use development, transit-oriented development if you are fortunate enough to have a transit system, and reduced commutes to work. Providing affordable housing considering wages in your area and providing high-quality transit to major employment centers are critical sustainable development practices.

• Remember to reserve open space whenever possible. Open spaces filter water runoff, support biodiversity that it useful to both the health and pleasure of humankind, relieve air pollution, and allow people to interact with  nature without taking long trips.

• In urban areas, encourage parks that are designed with current resident preferences and maintenance requirements in mind. With some education, the populace will tolerate the idea of replacing turf grass with native plantings that require less fertilizer, maintenance, and energy-intensive mowing.

• Maintain your trees, and where they are lacking around parking lots, along streets, and within public and private spaces, plant new ones.  Learn more about the idea of the tree canopy of your entire community.

It's a short list, but if you engage in all of these sustainable development practices wholeheartedly, think of the impact of becoming a green community.

How Businesses Can Take the Lead in Sustainable Development Practices

Some business leaders have been adopted a "triple bottom line" approach in which the corporation's environmental and social impacts are considered to the same degree as financial results.

Mostly I hear this happening in terms of emphasis on recycling, improving energy efficiency of the building and vehicles, encouraging car pools or transit use,  providing EV charging stations in business parking lots, and "green" building when new construction occurs. Some buy their utility’s "green energy" credits to offset their carbon footprint.

A more sophisticated approach calls for a group of businesses figuring out how what is a waste product to one can become an input for another. This is way beyond the scope of this website, but local economic development officials in either the governmental or business association platforms can help connect you to state economic development officials who can provide the expertise for how this is done. Bear in mind that just providing an occasion for these conversations can result in business leaders figuring it out for themselves. I had just such a happy result.

We hope the practices can be broader and more innovative, but certainly starting with this checklist is far better than ignoring such important symbolic gestures.

Businesses may or may not be on board with any definition of sustainable development you can forge. Fear of change would be their biggest reason to oppose your becoming a green community and embracing a modest definition of sustainable development as your city's standard.

In the business sense, the changes would provide exciting new challenges for employees who have become bureaucrats. The retraining effort, while vast, also could be reinvigorating and just plain fun for the blue collar crowd. So it's mostly fear of the unknown that would keep a utility out of the game.

If your area is not growing, the business community also may have some justified fear of the need for new capital investments, which might require a long time to pay for themselves

To counter this argument, I think you must step up your economic development game in a major way. Try first to motivate your largest employers, hospitals, universities, school systems, and utilities toward sustainable development practices. I find that the little guys often imitate the big guys.

Have your chamber of commerce or small business organization set up an interest group for greening in general and sustainable development practices for the smaller businesses.  Small business owners often don't have much time for learning the fine points of how they are impacting the environment, and they certainly don't have the benefit of sustainability officers and the like that larger corporations have hired.

Your community group could go door to door to local restaurants to urge them to learn about green dining. Set up a program so that your restaurants pledge to recycle, reduce waste through measures such as banning styrofoam, and increase the energy efficiency of their lighting and food preparation systems. We are including this on the sustainable development practices page because it is easier for restaurants to implement these procedures as they start up. So reach out to the new restaurant that you see being built.

But if you're trying to make a city-wide impact, work hard at picking up large business converts first. Their sheer scale will make a world of difference, and I find that their large management staffs make it easier to find one individual who will be a champion. In fact, that champion might already be in place. Larger businesses sometimes don't network much with the small business players in the local community.

Look for a local angle as to why environmental sustainability is important.  If you live in a coastal area, you need look no further than climate change and sea level rise. Perhaps you can point to degradation of a beloved body of water, alteration of habitat for fish or wildlife in an outdoorsy community, or the looming need for major tax or fee increases to support new landfills or pay off environmental fines.

Perhaps local businesses could explore how one industry's waste is another industry's input.   If your local chamber of commerce is not organizing this kind of information exchange, a city or nonprofit organization could take the lead.

Of course many businesses are stuck in the era before the first Earth Day. Just the other day I watched a light industry throwing various waste products directly into a creek, presumably because it's easier. I didn't think the material was anything particularly vile, but then I don't really know what kind of paint is on those boards either. So whether business wants to embrace sustainable development practices will vary widely.

But I can tell you that understanding sustainable development practices can provide entrepreneurs with a new business idea. There’s even a term for it. Are you ready? It is called sustainopreneurship. This merits two thumbs down from the linguistic standpoint, but the idea is great.

The connotation is that this entrepreneur not only makes or sells something related to sustainable development practices, but also that the business somehow drives innovation.

If you're interested in business leadership on sustainable development practices, encourage and invent venues and forums for the networking and information sharing that will promote local innovation in sustainability.

For More Detail on Aspects of Sustainability

Check out the pages below. If none of these particularly fit your interest, explore the contents of other sections of the site through using the Sitemap, reached from the navigation menu. Near the top of that page, look in the yellow box to see if any of those cross-cutting links point out where to go on our website. For example, there you can find a link to a handy pdf of pages on the site relevant to greenway planning. Of course you can also use the search bar at the top of the page.

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