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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

(Still) Searching for the sustainable city formula

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 14, 2013

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  Freiburg, Germany (by: Thomas Totz, creative commons)

I’m obsessed with trying to find just the right set of goals to define urban sustainability.  Professionally, the world of smart growth has been my home base for two decades – since before we even called it smart growth – and, for a long time, the classic “ten principles” of smart growth framed by an EPA-led consortium seemed a great answer.  But that list, which stressed many important values such as walkability, housing opportunities, mixed uses, preserved natural areas, and transportation choices, grew stale in its implementation.

In particular, smart growth advocates soon coalesced around the development and transportation side of the agenda, failing to place due emphasis on coequal values contained in the original list such as conservation and equity.  Meanwhile, as I last wrote earlier this year, the “ten principles” agenda fails altogether to account for lessons learned in the last two decades about newly emerged topics such as green infrastructure, food, health, green buildings, the merits of moderate density, revitalization and gentrification, and more.

I made a run at creating an updated list of smart growth principles a couple of years ago, and for a short while there was a low buzz in the smart growth community about whether we should actually do such an updating.  (My new list placed more emphasis on equity, healthy living, nature, and resource efficiency.)  More recently, Bill Adams came up with his own list of new principles for “smarter smart growth.”  site plan, Crown Farm, Gaithersburg, MD (courtesy of Crown, preceding all these definitions and lists was the Charter of the New Urbanism, about as good and complete delineation of excellent urban design principles as you will ever find.  (To the extent that I have occasional quarrels with new urbanist practitioners, it is when the Charter’s principles are violated in practice.  It was, and is, a magnificent document.)

Are such definitions important?  Well, yes, because we advocates are a self-referential sort, and we need to have a vision to advocate.  When we do, we reinforce each other and become stronger and more effective.  And principles articulate that vision.

But, ultimately, I think I have decided that no definition of smart growth or “urbanism” (or even “placemaking”) that focuses primarily on the built environment gets us close enough to sustainability to cheer about.  Those things are essential, but not enough.  We need a bigger toolbox and, to risk extending the metaphor, a more diverse set of carpenters to employ the tools.

What else belongs in the toolbox besides smart growth, urbanism, and placemaking?  Well, I’m working on it, but I think one set of tools has something to do with stewardship of our natural and cultural environments.  Without using the term, Lee Epstein did a terrific job of capturing stewardship in his nine "essential elements" of green cities in his post on Switchboard earlier this year:

  • Committing to green;
  • Building green;
  • Buying green;
  • Powering green;
  • Conserving nearby (and creating internal) green landscapes;
  • Protecting green:  both water quality and water quantity;
  • Locating green:  creating a compact, walkable, interconnected, mixed-use community;
  • Moving green:  diversifying transportation and increasing accessibility; and
  • (Not) wasting green:  getting to zero on the production of waste.

I think that's a great list.

This leads me to yet another set of principles, this one originating from the UK and aiming for a more locally focused,"deep green" ethic containing not just suggestions for municipal undertakings but also for changes in individual responsibility and behavior.  It is related to the concept of "one planet living," or the idea that, if all the world lived this way, the planet could be sustained.  (Most Americans and other westerners are said to be currently engaged in multi-planet living, meaning that it would take resources equivalent to several earths to sustain our lifestyle if it were universal.) 

  invest in transit (by: TransFormCA, creative commons)

The new concept is “conserver cities,” defined last week in a provocative article posted on the Sustainable Cities Collective as “efficiency replacing waste; renewability replacing resource squandering; living within biophysical limits replacing pollution; implementing socio-economic goals geared to wellbeing for all, not more and more money for a few and for a limited period; this generation and those to come, the world over, getting their dues; empowering local communities within urban areas; operating a cyclic economy.”

That’s a little broad but the author, Bristol-based Glenn Vowles, does have a somewhat more specific list:

Getting around

  • The retention and improvement of locally available facilities, services, and jobs and the availability and use of local resources.
  • Far better, cheaper, more extensive public transport; much better cycling and pedestrian provision.

Environmental quality and quantity

  • Protecting, enhancing and if possible increasing open, green, natural spaces; biodiversity enhancing developments.
  • Adopting and achieving high land, air, water and environmental quality standards.


  • Education for sustainable living.

Waste and energy

  • Innovative low carbon and low waste systems and designs; local energy saving and the micro-generation of energy.
  • Waste avoidance, reuse and recycling.

Corvallis local foods (by: Pat Kight, creative commons)Food

  • More local, ethical and organic food availability; more home and allotment grown food.  

People and participation

  • People taking personal responsibility to be more environmentally-friendly.
  • Inclusive, informed, genuine public participation in community life.

Policies and performance

  • Open, involving, accountable, ethical attitudes and policies.
  • Broad-based measures of progress - social, economic and biophysical.

Vowles elaborates upon the list in his article.  What’s completely missing, however, is anything having to do with the built environment.  I do not believe one can have true urban sustainability without attention to walkable streets and densities, compact development footprints, a diversity of neighborhood housing choices and amenities, and so on - the elements of smart growth and urbanism that began this article.  Is the omission due to the much lesser amount of sprawl to cure in Britain, or perhaps did Vowles make an assumption that the development pattern was a given and thus not his focus?

I don’t know, but aside from that omission I do think he is on to something, addressing many of the issues that smart growth and new (or old, for that matter) urbanism leave out.  If one were to marry Vowles’s list with a tightly articulated built-environment document such as the Charter of the New Urbanism, that might be a powerful combination indeed.

Living up to the ideals is another matter, of course.  We call them ideals for a reason.  But it’s something to shoot for.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Andrew AurbachAug 14 2013 08:39 AM


I would agree that just focusing on TOD and development miss critical elements of Smart Growth, and I think you have outlined some excellent thought points. I would also add an element of adaptive reuse of existing building stock, where it can be optimized, as well.

I know this is coming in LEED, but thought it would be important to note in any comprehensive list.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 14 2013 09:58 AM

I strongly agree, Andrew, for all sorts of reasons.

H. Pike OliverAug 14 2013 11:22 AM

Thanks for this post. Lately, I find myself going back to several books that framed my thinking as a young student. One of the most influential is Design with Nature, written by Ian McHarg in 1969. In it, he suggests that we start by classifying land into three categories: 1) Natural; 2) Productive (agriculture, mining and forestry) and 3) Urban. This, of course, puts environment at the forefront and more needs to be done to address economics and equity. But I think it is a good place to start for any attempt to seriously address sustainability.

Donovan GillmanAug 15 2013 05:20 AM

It is great to see the evolution of this thinking moving from a set of rigid principles that are promoted "top-down", as it were, by the "experts, " to a more open engagement with different points of view. In my view, one of the most difficult challenges for sustainable/resilient urban planning and development is for the experts in any field, as well as the politicians, to appreciate the intelligence and "savvy" of locally embedded knowledge. This then means that all of these lists and formulae are only a starting point and that while the process can (possibly) be defined e.g. co-creation, co-design, integral design, transdiciplinary design, whose proponents all have their own sets of design methodologies and use different methods and tools, it seems it is always necessary to engage all the actor-networks that include the living and the dead - the dead are after all not really dead - they live on in the urban fabric, both as the built morphologies we inherit ,as well as the laws, regulations, fences, old freeways and the conditioned preconceptions and desires of the people we so dutifully want to engage and get to participate.
It is thus not only futile to think one has the answers, but in fact is a certain recipe for disaster - how many times have the plans been carefully crafted and sent backwards and forwards for public /political consultation etc. etc. and the when the dozers arrive or the hoardings are set up on site, only then is the resistance of hidden threads of diverse actor-networks revealed, be it in corrupt politicians and developers (not all are), invisible publics that were busy elsewhere and never attended the meetings, or conflicts in international relations /economics that come up unseen as it were.
By this skepticism of planning's efficacy, I do not mean to say that we should not have guidelines and processes, but we should realize that everyone (planners included) have self-interest's, as in the words of former president Nelson Mandela: "(Ubuntu) does not mean people should not address themselves, the question is are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you?"
Without a change in how WE do business - it will just become business as usual -so I think that the concepts of "conserver cities" would be more likely to become reality if the truth of the matter were visible to all that and to borrow a little ancient Indian wisdom we understand "Karma" and why we shouldn't be fouling our own back door - it will be coming back to bite us - after all we all breathe this same air.

Glenn VowlesAug 15 2013 03:18 PM

Very interesting and perceptive article Kaid. I agree with your conclusion, though I did not really have a formula in mind but something a little more fluid and able to evolve through social learning.

I did had the built environment in my mind (along with a lot of other aspects!) when writing my piece about conserver cities but, whilst there are implications for the built environment implied in several places, I have not included anything specific enough.

Patterns of development are very important for sure though on the density/compactness issue I've not satisfactorily resolved my own position on what the optimum(s) would be for sustainability. Perhaps this is one reason why I've not said much about this in my articles or on my blog! I'd be very interested in your view, and the view of others, on this in particular.

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