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Sustainable Development Practices for Communities

house perched atop a steep hill landscaped with bushes

Sustainable development practices highlighted on this page will include our own thoughts on green building, creating entire green communities, and involving your local business community in sustainability.

Green building, as currently understood, 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 there is reinvestment, the numerous building projects can expose you to all kinds of nasty chemicals. The toxic waste has to be removed, but your publicity about 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, here are some 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 apperance of a neighborhood.

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 important to your business, but try not to build on greenfields (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 most building situations yet, 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, try to use a permeable paver block or permeable asphalt or concrete, and build the minimum 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 your property as long as possible.  The theory of how to do this is called low-impact development (LID). 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 runoff and improve its quality. 

13. 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 Nurture More Earth-Friendly Living

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 now houses a Sustainable Cities Institute that we recommend.

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.

For more ideas, see our interview with Randy Rodgers on the sustainable cities page.

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. Here 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 of OMG, 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 some 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.

• Investigate whether electricity generation, wastewater treatment, and drinking water treatment can become less energy-intensive. These processes require huge quantities of our energy. 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 generally reduce the length of the commute to work. Providing affordable housing or workforce housing and 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 be exposed to 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.

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 pooling, and "green" building when new construction occurs. Some are trying to buy their utility’s "green energy" credits to offset their carbon footprint.

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 a growth area, the business community also may have some justified fear of the need for new capital investments, which might require a long time to amortize.

To counter this argument, 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.

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. 

Details or Other Angles:
row of many garbage cans
Waste Reduction

bamboo as a green material
Green Home Construction

cluster housing rural area houses lake
Cluster Housing

tall building being constructed and oriented to transit stop
Transit Oriented Development

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 in some ways, their large management staffs make it easier to find one individual who will be your champion.

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. 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.  

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’s 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.

So become a researcher-inventor-sustainability proponent-entrepreneur if you're interested in business leadership on sustainable development practices.

A More International Context

This page emphasizes sustainable development practices applicable to Westernized and developed countries. For a better perspective on how the entire  international community views sustainability, you'll need to see our page about sustainable development in general.

> > Sustainable Development Practices

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