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Frequently Asked Questions about
Community Sustainability

What is local sustainability?

Local Sustainability means that an area is designed, built and operates in a way that uses energy and natural resources efficiently and equitably, for both present and future generations of humans and other species.

What is the difference between sustainable development and sustainability?

The term sustainable development is the common one for this concept. For some countries, however, development usually means land development and construction. However, land development review and planning are not the only municipal responsibilities that have an impact on sustainability. For example, as a purchaser of products, and a social service provider, local governments affect other elements of sustainable development. Consequently, we use the term local sustainability to make clear that sustainable development requires attention to municipal economic, environmental and community actions, beyond land use planning.

Why is it important for local governments to include a concern for sustainability when planning and maintaining their jurisdiction?

Sustainable human communities meet their current needs without compromising other species and future generations. Cities and counties make day-to-day decisions affecting the sustainability of both their community and the planet. That is why world leaders included them in Agenda 21, the global action plan signed at the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro. The section dealing with the powers and responsibilities of cities and counties is known as Local Agenda 21.

Making a community sustainable means integrating economic development, community development and environmental protection. This cannot be achieved without the direct involvement of local government. Building sustainable communities requires a proactive, localized and highly participatory approach that depends upon the unique role and capabilities of local government.

What is Local Agenda 21?

Local Agenda 21 is a local-government-led, community-wide, and participatory effort to establish a comprehensive action strategy for environmental protection, economic prosperity and community well-being in the local jurisdiction or area. This requires the integration of planning and action across economic, social and environmental spheres. Key elements are full community participation, assessment of current conditions, target setting for achieving specific goals, monitoring and reporting.

Who developed the idea for Local Agenda 21?

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, world leaders adopted Agenda 21, the global action plan for sustainability, which calls on all countries of the world to undertake a comprehensive process of planning and action to attain sustainability. This document also detailed a role for cities and counties. Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 (known as Local Agenda 21), directs local governments to also undertake such a process.

Specifically, Chapter 28 states:

"Local authorities construct, operate and maintain economic, social and environmental infrastructure, oversee planning processes, establish local environmental policies and regulations, andÉas the level of government closest to the people, they play a vital role in educating, mobilizing and responding to the public to promote sustainable development."

The definition of sustainability used in Agenda 21 is based on the Declaration on Environment and Development, also adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It states that: "Development today must not undermine the development and environment needs of present and future generations." Only a comprehensive, long-term conceptualization of sustainability -- one that includes concern for, and work on, environment, social needs, and the economy -- can meet those objectives.

The Local Agenda 21 process, as called for in Chapter 28 of the UNCED document and as evolved by ICLEI and other local government associations, embodies this definition of sustainability.

Since the Earth Summit, local governments around the world have been undertaking Local Agenda 21 efforts. As of November 1996, more than 1,800 local governments in 64 countries were involved in Local Agenda 21 activities.

How can local governments apply sustainability principles to their operations?

Local sustainability includes a great many different themes and systems. For example, a concern for sustainability may require changes to transportation modes, land uses and their interaction; consideration of long-term as well as immediate costs and benefits; innovation in the use and disposal of resources and energy.

Many day-to-day municipal activities have long-term impacts. This means almost every local government department or agency could be involved in sustainability efforts. The following comprise a sampling, to give some indication of the many different municipal responsibilities invovled:

  • Planning might need to adjust its subdivision and zoning regulation to change how it reviews new development;
  • Purchasing could ensure that procurement policies specify post-consumer recycled content, to minimize waste and increase energy efficiency
  • Public Works might modify maintenance scheduling, revise its infrastructure planning, and explore the use of new materials containing recycled fibers;
  • Parks and Green Spaces may set aside undeveloped land as habitats for other species;
  • Economic development agencies might focus on stimulating environmentally appropriate business, and work with local citizens groups on community revitalization;
  • The city council or other legislative body could incorporate sustainability objectives and implementation measures in municipal plans and policies.

We are already doing some of these things, what is so different about sustainability?

It is true that many local governments already operate using principles, processes and practices that advance sustainability. Since much of the work on defining and implementing sustainability has been done through international collaboration, certain elements that are seen as innovative in one region are commonplace elsewhere.

Nevertheless, integrating a concern for economic-environmental-community sustainability will change some aspects of local government activities. Sustainability recognizes that our economy is a particular subsystem of the ecosystem. As such, it is dependent on the environment, both as a source for inputs (raw materials) and as a sink for outputs (waste). This means that sustainability requires increased coordination of policies and activities, broadened stakeholder involvement, and most significantly a concern for the long-term impacts of our decisions.

Must local governments do it all?

Sustainability efforts are occurring internationally and at all government levels. Individuals, local community-based organizations, industry and other groups need to do their part alongside cities and counties. Sustainability is not the responsibility of any single group or agency.

Source: International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI)
Local Agenda 21
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Contact: Hari Srinivas -