Memo: Sustainable Cities 3

Part of a series of “reading memos” that offer a brief summary of interesting academic content along with my personal reflections. This one covers Chapter 6 and 12 of Planning for Sustainability by Stephen Wheeler.


Planners and citizens have a large toolbox of strategies for promoting sustainability, including: Plan-making (i.e., General, Specific, and functional plans), visioning, proposal reviews (EIRs, cost-benefit analyses with non-economic dimensions, and sustainability appraisals), global best practices, sustainability indicators, standards (zoning, Energy Star, or LEED guidelines), ecological footprint analyses, carbon calculators, GIS/mapping, environmental assessments, policy development at the institution level, education (“communicative action”), and coalition building. Not all these options are appropriate for every situation, but each can influence different groups of stakeholders to gradually make incremental progress on sustainability goals.

Transportation is one area where there are clear challenges to sustainability, due to the historical prioritization of private motor vehicles on roads. Proper sustainability planning requires prioritizing human-powered modes of travel first – designing safe, convenient, and intimate pedestrian and bicycling experiences. Services like BRT and light rail can also encourage more compact land use development, and such land use changes reduce the number and overall length of trips. Policies to raise the cost of driving and reduce the cost of alternative modes (e.g., with the politically difficult expansion of the gas tax and other Transportation Demand Management strategies) are also helpful. Finally, the author argues that society should rethink the need for rapid mobility altogether, since high degrees of mobility undermine attachment to place and community. A slower-paced and more local lifestyle would be much more sustainable in the long-run.


It’s great to learn about the wide variety of tools available to planners to promote sustainability, but it’s also clear they are not all equally effective for all purposes. Planners should be judicious about what to use and when, and the criticism of certain tools (e.g., the vagueness of General Plans or the limitations of purely analytical tools) do seem valid when considering the non-sustainable outcomes we see in North America (and especially here in California). With regards to education of the public, I intuitively agree with the need but sometimes I have doubts about its efficacy when I see how the primary factor in play during community meetings is often strong emotions.

I was a bit taken aback at the author’s dismissal of California’s High Speed Rail project due to high costs and doubt around meeting the urban densities required to support the service. While there are fair criticisms of the project, I don’t believe uncertainty around station-area development is a strong enough reason to halt the project – the project’s equity benefits alone are still worth keeping it on-track. The author also makes clear they are coming from a perspective where such long-distance travel should be discouraged (which has some merit), but we can’t realistically expect people to change their demand for mobility in the foreseeable future given the severe, pervasive jobs-housing imbalances across the state.

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