Uncovering JAPA

Sustainable Development: Vision or Policy?

Sustainability and green rhetoric are common in 21st century planning, featuring promises of environmental stewardship and coexistence. Quantitative and longitudinal studies can cut through greenwashing and identify effective policies. Although rare in planning literature, these studies reveal how community intentions change over time.

In "Are We There Yet? Revisiting 'Planning for Sustainable Development' 20 Years Later" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 90, No. 2) Maria Manta Conroy and Jessica Pagan Wilson apply a seminal sustainability scoring system to revised municipal plans. Their longitudinal study complicates expectations of progress toward sustainable planning policies.

Scoring Sustainability

In 2000, Philip R. Berke and Maria Manta Conroy published "Are We Planning for Sustainable Development? An Evaluation of 30 Comprehensive Plans." This pioneering study, the first to quantify sustainable development in comprehensive plans, continues to shape planning, public health, policy, and business fields.

This study examined the adherence of planning practices to the sustainable development directive from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Earth Summit. The authors defined six sustainability principles—livable built environment, harmony with nature, place-based economy, equity, polluters pay, and responsible regionalism.

They used these principles to evaluate the policies of 20 high-quality (non-integrated) and 10 explicitly sustainability-focused (integrated) comprehensive plans across the United States. Their findings indicated no significant difference in how effectively the two sets of plans promoted these principles.

The scoring system measured the direct association between principles and policies. Sustainability principles categorized plan policies and then grouped them into plan elements (housing, transportation, environment, etc.). Each policy was also linked to one of 27 development management techniques.

If a specific combination of sustainability principles, plan elements, and development management techniques had no corresponding policy, it received a score of 0. If multiple policies supported the same combination, only the strongest score (either 1 or 2) was counted.

Following this original method, 20 years later, Conroy and Wilson totaled scores for each of the seven plan elements within each principle.

Effectiveness of Updated Planning Policies on Sustainability

Conroy and Wilson posed a direct question: Do the updated planning policies in each community, as examined in the Berke and Conroy study, promote sustainability principles more effectively or in a more balanced manner compared to their original counterparts?

The authors conducted a longitudinal analysis of policy updates in the Berke and Conroy plans using the original coding framework, comparing scores with those of the original plans. The study subjects are the original 30 communities. In this way, the authors aimed to evaluate how effectively updated plan policies promote the six sustainability principles.

Most plans (20 out of 28) consistently scored lower on harmony with nature compared to the original study, making it the only principle that saw a decline on average. The principle of a livable built environment showed the largest overall gains, with equity presenting the second-largest increase, particularly stronger in the non-integrated group compared to the integrated group.

Integrated plans in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Teton County, Wyoming, showed lower or unchanged scores across all principles, potentially indicating a reduced commitment to sustainability due to fewer or weaker policies. In contrast, San Antonio, Texas, demonstrated higher or steady scores, suggesting enhanced or increased policies promoting sustainability in its updated plan.

Meanwhile, other integrated plans exhibited a mix of higher and lower scores across principles, reflecting varied outcomes in their efforts to integrate sustainable development goals. These results highlight the diverse approaches and challenges faced by different regions in effectively incorporating sustainability into their planning strategies.

Non-integrated plans, which are high-quality but lack explicit focus on sustainable development, showed varied performance. Five plans (Annapolis, Maryland; Arlington, Texas; Champaign, Illinois; Georgetown, Texas; and Nantucket, Massachusetts) consistently scored lower or stagnated, while two (Bozeman, Montana; and Windsor, Connecticut) saw higher or stagnant scores. Gains were notable in equity and responsible regionalism, with declines mainly in environmental harmony.

Stalling on Sustainability

Sustainability scores in comprehensive plans have remained largely unchanged over the past 20 years, despite a heightened emphasis on sustainability as a guiding principle. While many updated plans now include broad sustainability goals, they have not consistently led to higher scores. The authors' analysis shows progress toward stronger sustainability scores in plans is slow and uneven.

Conroy and Wilson observe that the scoring system favors a balance between principles. This implies that a plan solely emphasizing equity, for example, may not enhance its overall score. This aspect could be considered a weakness in the scoring system.

While progress has been made in adopting sustainability visions, implementing robust supportive policies in comprehensive plans remains a challenging issue for practitioners. Continued longitudinal studies are crucial to track the evolving impact of these efforts as more communities adopt sustainability frameworks.

Top image: Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus

Grant Holub-Moorman is a master's in city and regional planning student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

June 27, 2024

By Grant Holub-Moorman