Principles of Sustainability

The concept of sustainability is based on the premise that people and their communities are made up of social, economic, and environmental systems that are in constant interaction and that must be kept in harmony or balance if the community is to continue to function to the benefit of its inhabitants— now and in the future. A healthy, balanced society (or nation, or community, depending on the strength of one’s magnifying glass) is one that can endure into the future, providing a decent way of life for all its members—it is a sustainable society. Sustainability is an ideal toward which to strive and against which to weigh proposed actions, plans, expenditures, and decisions. It is a way of looking at a community or a society or a planet in the broadest possible context, in both time and space.

Although it adopts a broad perspective, in practice the pursuit of sustainability is fundamentally a local endeavor because every community has different social, economic, and environmental needs and concerns. And in each community the quality, quantity, importance, and balance of those concerns is unique (and constantly changing). For that reason—and because the best mitigation efforts also tend to be locally based—we tend to speak of sustainability mostly in terms of local actions and decisions.

There are six principles of sustainability that can help a community ensure that its social, economic, and environmental systems are well integrated and will endure. We should remember that, although the list of principles is useful, each of them has the potential to overlap and inter-relate with some or all of the others. A community or society that wants to pursue sustainability will try to:

1. Maintain and, if possible, enhance, its residents’ quality of life. Quality of life—or “livability”—differs from community to community. It has many components: income, education, health care, housing, employment, legal rights on the one hand; exposure to crime, pollution, disease, disaster, and other risks on the other. One town may be proud of its safe streets, high quality schools, and rural atmosphere, while another thinks that job opportunities and its historical heritage are what make it an attractive place to live. Each locality must define and plan for the quality of life it wants and believes it can achieve, for now and for future generations.

2. Enhance local economic vitality. A viable local economy is essential to sustainability. This includes job opportunities, sufficient tax base and revenue to support government and the provision of infrastructure and services, and a suitable business climate. A sustainable economy is also diversified, so that it is not easily disrupted by internal or external events or disasters, and such an economy does not simply shift the costs of maintaining its good health onto other regions or onto the oceans or atmosphere. Nor is a sustainable local economy reliant on unlimited population growth, high consumption, or nonrenewable resources.

3. Promote social and intergenerational equity. A sustainable community’s resources and opportunities are available to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, cultural background, religion, or other characteristics. Further, a sustainable community does not deplete its resources, destroy natural systems, or pass along unnecessary hazards to its great-great-grandchildren.

4. Maintain and, if possible, enhance, the quality of the environment. A sustainable community sees itself as existing within a physical environment and natural ecosystem and tries to find ways to co-exist with that environment. It does its part by avoiding unnecessary degradation of the air, oceans, fresh water, and other natural systems. It tries to replace detrimental practices with those that allow ecosystems to continuously renew themselves. In some cases, this means simply protecting what is already there by finding ways to redirect human activities and development into less sensitive areas. But a community may need to take action to reclaim, restore, or rehabilitate an already-damaged ecosystem such as a nearby wetland.

5. Incorporate disaster resilience and mitigation into its decisions and actions. A community is resilient in the face of inevitable natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and drought if it takes steps to ensure that such events cause as little damage as possible, that productivity is only minimally interrupted, and that quality of life remains at (or quickly returns to) high levels. A disaster-resilient community further takes responsibility for the risks it faces and, to the extent possible, is self reliant. That is, it does not anticipate that outside entities (such as federal or state government) can or will mitigate its hazards or pay for its disasters.

6. Use a consensus-building, participatory process when making decisions. Participatory processes are vital to community sustainability. Such a process engages all the people who have a stake in the outcome of the decision being contemplated. It encourages the identification of concerns and issues, promotes the wide generation of ideas for dealing with those concerns, and helps those involved find a way to reach agreement about solutions. It results in the production and dissemination of important, relevant information, fosters a sense of community, produces ideas that may not have been considered otherwise, and engenders a sense of ownership on the part of the community for the final decision.

Salmon, Floods, and Resilience

Coastal development in Tillamook County, Oregon, has been gradually hurting the salmon population—a hallmark of the Pacific Northwest’s culture, environment, and economy—as well as increasing the economic costs of seasonal flooding. By drawing on a wider range of information when making planning and development decisions, targeting their funds and expertise to areas of the greatest impact, and carefully coordinating the local, state, and federal agency activities over the past few years, local officials succeeded in dramatically reducing the flood damage in a recent flood. Tillamook County has discovered that what is best for the local environment can also be best for its residents and for the local economy—that is, integrating the sustainability principles of livability, disaster resilience, and environmental quality.

(Livable Communities Initiative, 2000)

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