“A sustainable community is one that is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient. It meets challenges through integrated solutions rather than through fragmented approaches that meet one of those goals at the expense of the others. And it takes a long-term perspective – one that’s focused on both the present and future, well beyond the next budget or election cycle. As a result, a sustainable community manages its human, natural, and financial resources to meet current needs while ensuring that adequate resources are equitably available for future generations.”  — Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), read more.

For more on what an ideal sustainable community might look like, take a Trip to Sustainaville at the Natural Resources Defense Council and then explore its Sustainable Communities pages at the neighborhood, city, and regional levels. For another quick introduction to the issues, read the theme section – A Resilient Community – in the Fall 2010 issue of Yes! Magazine.

Sustainability began to attract a global focus in the 1980’s in the context of sustainable development, with more careful consideration given to environmental impacts and protections, generating economic sustainability and social/political sustainability. As the field of sustainability has evolved, many have added a fourth pillar, culture, to more fully reflect the realities of our culturally diverse global community. In addition, the growing awareness and impacts of climate change have brought attention to climate change mitigation, adaptation and resiliency to the fore. In response to strains such as economic decline, resource scarcity, energy dependence, population pressures, climate change and persistent social and public health problems, the number of local, national and world government and institutional leaders committed to building sustainable and resilient communities is on the increase, from mega-cities and small towns, to campuses and other intentional communities.

Within the United States, broad interest and progress on initiatives are seen in the Department of Defense and the agencies that constitute the Sustainable Communities Initiative. National and international non-profits gather and distribute information on current and future trends and needs in the field, and offer training, mentoring and direct assistance to help cities of all sizes become more sustainable and resilient. For instance, more than 30 North American cities are currently engaged in a yearlong pilot of the STAR Community Rating System, administered and managed STAR Communities, which helps cities evaluate and improve their sustainability across seven areas. Additional resources abound for policy and climate actions at the state, regional, national and international levels. Grassroots activists in communities of all sizes continue to organize, engage in the process, and urge their local governments to take action.

Many communities and regions across the country have developed sustainability plans — or are in the process of doing so — to focus their resources and energies on transitioning into more sustainable and resilient communities. A sustainability plan assesses the community’s key challenges, sets sustainability goals, and presents strategies and measures for meeting those goals. Sustainability plans are generally quite comprehensive and broader in scope than a climate action or adaption plans. For instance, a sustainability plan is likely to include economic development, jobs and training, community health and wellness, education, the arts, and civic engagement.

However, given the realities and urgencies of dealing with climate change and extreme weather events, for some communities the creation of a sustainability plan may be trumped by a need for a climate action plan addressing adaptation, mitigation and disaster preparedness. To learn more about sustainability plans, see these free ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA resources titled “What is a Sustainability Plan”?” (PDF) and “10 Keys to Sustainability Planning Success”(PDF).

Sustainability plans share many common elements, yet reflect the uniqueness of each locale and populations. Here are some examples of sustainability plans and initiatives we find inspiring:

  • Sustainable Cleveland 2019 is a ten-year initiative focused on building economic, social and environmental wellbeing for all in the Cleveland region. Key components of the initiative are: the annual sustainability summit which uses Appreciative Inquiry to identify strengths, dream of possibilities, create designs and prototypes and commit to working together; and the inclusion of Celebration Years, whereby the community focuses on a different topic each year – 2012 was local foods, and 2013 is renewable resources and advanced energy
  • Miami-Dade County Greenprint: Our Design for a Sustainable Future, the outgrowth of a collaborative process involving county staff, community groups, business and academic experts and residents. The plan includes aspirational goals in the areas of leadership, water and energy efficiency, environment, responsible land use and smart transportation, vibrant economy, and healthy communities, and culminates in the county’s first Climate Action Plan – with an eye towards the challenges associated with sea level rise.
  • Sustainable Marin is non-profit volunteer organization advocating and educating about sustainability in Marin County, CA. Sustainability groups have formed in five cities, and volunteers work with allied groups and county and city officials to advance items on their “Sustainability Agenda.”
  • The Oberlin Project is a joint effort of the City of Oberlin, Oberlin College and private and institutional partners to improve the resilience, prosperity, and sustainability of the community. The project includes commitments to becoming a climate positive community, economic development, conservation of green space, development of local agriculture and foods, sustainability education, community engagement and serving as a model that can be replicated in other communities.
  • The Corvallis Sustainability Coalition was selected by the City of Corvallis (OR) to partner with them to develop a Community Sustainability Action Plan. The Coalition’s action teams, partner organizations, and the City are now implementing the plan, completed in 2008. This excellent website shares its history and process, various action team events, resources and projects.

Learn More

AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, provides best practices, resources and professional development for colleges and university administrators, faculty, staff and students. Online resources include general resources for campus sustainability, education and research resources, and the wiki “Cool Campus! A How-To Guide for College and University Climate Action Planning.” Also online, a listing of student-focused campus sustainability organizations, including National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology and Sierra Student Coalition (SSC)

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), formerly the Pew Center for Climate Research, is a good resource for information about policy and climate actions at the state, regional, national and international levels.

The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) has pooled the best practices from city governments worldwide, some 450 cities in 84 countries around the world. The USA website shares some free resources as well as blogs sharing success stories and local actions. Full services and resources are available to member local government and regional planning organizations.

The Institute for Sustainable Communities brings together best practices from the public and private sectors and offers training, mentoring and direct assistance to help communities achieve sustainability. Recent and ongoing works include collaborations with the Gulf Coast Sustainable Communities Network, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, and the launching of the Resilient Vermont project.

The Post Carbon Institute aims to lead the transition to a more resilient, equitable and sustainable world. To help individuals, communities, businesses and governments understand and respond to current interrelated economic, energy, environmental and equity crises, it provides resources through it’s website, blog, publications and speakers

The Sustainable Communities Online website (formerly the Sustainable Communities Network) pools information on sustainability and offers a variety of resources for communities large and small. The creating community section shares information on approaches and techniques used successfully in communities to involve citizens.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an interagency partnership of the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, the US Dept. of Transportation and the US Environmental Protection Agency, was formed to help communities and regions develop in more environmentally and economically sustainable ways.   Emphasis is on coordinating federal housing, transportation, water and other infrastructure investments to improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs and pollution. Online resources include case studies, information on grants, and a guide to Federal Resources for Sustainable Rural Communities. The US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s also continues to maintain its online Sustainable Communities Resource Center.

Transition United States serves as a resource and catalyst for the Transition Town movement. Transition initiatives seek to mitigate challenges such as peak oil, climate change, and economic crisis by working at the grassroots level to increase local self-reliance and resilience. Blog, resources, and information about trainings are available online. Print publications include The Transition Companion” (2011) and the original The Transition Handbook (2008). Here is a great article on the Transition initiative from Orion Magazine.

Some Actions To Get You Started

  • As an introduction to sustainable and resilient communities, offer the Northwest Earth Institute discussion course Choices for Sustainable Living to your church/community members.
  • Find out if your town, city or region has a sustainability plan or initiative. Explore opportunities for your congregation to join the conversation, generate support and engagement for the plan, collaborate with other participants, or bring attention to issues and needs not addressed.
  • Find out if there is Transition Town movement in your area. If so, join in! If not, consider convening discussions to explore the possibility that your town, neighborhood, or faith community could initiate the process, using the resources below.
  • Investigate what sustainability plans, initiatives, or resources are present in the colleges, universities, and schools in or near your community. What collaborative learning and service opportunities are possible?
  • Host a book or study group using one or more of these suggested titles. Take an armchair travel tour and meet the people behind sustainability in Las Gaviotas,Colombia (more herebook) or Ithaca, NY (book). Or, come along on process-oriented journeys that may challenge your assumptions and ways of thinking in Walk Out, Walk On (website). Tour the University of New Hampshire and their Sustainable Learning Community, or pore over The Transition Companion to find inspiration.