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Sustainability for Plan Commissioners

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Written by: Pete Pointner, FAICP, ALA, ITE

(Published in the April 2017 issue of Planning magazine)

“Many of us wonder if society can find a path that provides for our needs, allowing people to reach their full potential, permitting us to live comfortably, and permitting our culture to flourish - without creating deserts and toxic waste dumps in our footsteps or without turning our skies into grimy smears across the horizon”.

-- Voices for the Earth, edited by Daniel D. Chiras and the Sustainable Futures Society.

The Challenge to Sustainability

Humans are dependent on nature for air, water, food, medicine, clothing, and building materials. Human communities are less sustainable when they pollute the air and water, put buildings on the most productive soils, lose soil through erosion or over use, deplete their forests and destroy the habitat of fish, birds and animals. As nature is degraded and depleted, the social and economic base of cities will decay, and in many cases, die completely. So planning for the future requires consideration of how to make communities that use the natural resources of the region without destroying or polluting them so they are no longer of human use Therefore, a key aspect of a plan for sustainability is the environmental component.

What do we Mean by Planning for Sustainability?

Sustainability is a broad concept. The root word sustain means “provide with nourishment, keep going” as defined in Webster’s Dictionary. The United Nations’ Bruntland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The concept of sustainability is a goal that can be applied at all scales of planning from global to municipal jurisdictions and down to corridors and individual sites.

While there are many interpretations and applications of the term, it should not be defined too narrowly. While sustainability of the natural environment is basic, the concept also includes social and economic components. For instance, socially, a diversity of housing in proximity to daily needs or public transportation can impact housing opportunities and air quality. Similarly, a lack of diversity in the economic sector can have impacts on the tax base and employment opportunities.

There are a variety of concepts and principles that can be followed to achieve sustainability. Planners have smart growth, green infrastructure, complete streets and transit oriented design, architects have LEED design and landscape architects have the sustainable sites initiative. Engineers apply strategies for carbon emission reduction, alternative energy systems and low impact design. Biologists have strategies for protection and enhancement of endangered habitats and bio-diversity. There are also solutions relating to solid waste and hazardous materials.

We share a common desire to make human communities more sustainable. Everybody wants their lives to be sustainable. The problem is that sometimes what is comfortable and familiar, can impact the sustainability of our community.

What does sustainability have to do with Plan Commissioners?

Plan Commissions are typically charged, as in Illinois, with advising elected officials on the development of a comprehensive plan and the application of its core values, policies and recommendations in the review of development projects. Professional staff and consultants should translate the general guidance of the plan into working standards within the zoning and subdivision ordinances. It is hard to over emphasize the importance of having a good and up to date plan that is a basis for infrastructure and development related decisions. The cumulative impact of many small decisions can greatly impact the sustainability of any planning jurisdiction.

Sustainability in the Comprehensive Plan

Some communities will adopt an entire sustainability plan, such as “The Baltimore Sustainability Plan.” In other cases, a department, such as the Oregon Department of Transportation, may adopt a plan that impacts transportation systems in all the local communities. Planning commissioners should find out if a sustainability plan is underway that involves their community and explore ways to connect the plan to the work of the planning commission. For more information see the American Planning Association Policy Guide on Planning for Sustainability.

The plan commission should be actively involved in the development of a comprehensive plan with professional staff and/or consultants responsible for the technical analysis and production. The process should incorporate effective two way communication with all stakeholders and the public. Sustainability should be considered in all phases in the development of a comprehensive plan including:

  • The identification of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats;

  • The formulation of goals and objectives;

  • The development and evaluation of alternatives; and,

  • Strategies for implementation, including measures of progress and criteria for updating the plan.

It is important to realize that there are no perfect nor permanent sustainability plans any more than there are perfect or permanent human beings or cities. Each person and community has their own set of circumstances which shape what is desired, needed and appropriate. Secondly, circumstances (history, culture, ecology, location, resources, and priorities) constantly change due to the complex interrelatedness of a huge number of variables, social, political, environmental and economic. Sometimes factors beyond local control significantly impact plans for sustainability such as regional, national and international markets, automation and competition.

There are principles that urban planners can champion to achieve these objectives. These include:

  • Balancing jobs and housing;

  • Creating multi-modal transportation opportunities;

  • Reducing and filtering stormwater run-off and recharging aquifers;

  • Preserving natural and cultural resources and open space;

  • Implementing efficient and mixed use land use patterns in proximity to municipal services and facilities and relating housing to daily needs within walking distance; and,

  • Reduction of carbon emissions and support of renewable energy applications.


First of all, keep the comprehensive plan up to date and make it a basis for planning and development decisions, particularly in capital budgeting and project review.

Sustainability should be a shared goal and approach coordinated with all departments and agencies having programs within the planning jurisdiction. For instance, sustainability planning can help connect and integrate grants and programs in public health, housing, infrastructure and transportation.

Publicizing good examples as well as compelling elements from the comprehensive plan can help the public understand and participate in the development of goals and actions for the betterment of the community. Illinois statute ILCS 5-11-5-12 specifically lists as a function of a plan commission to promote the realization of the comprehensive plan.

Zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations are concrete implementation tools. Plan commissions can recommend amendments to the zoning and subdivision ordinances that provide a basis for development recommendations.

The zoning ordinance is a key instrument for implementing the comprehensive plan and shaping more sustainable development. Here are some elements you can consider in your zoning ordinance to further sustainability.

  • Purpose statement – identify sustainability and comprehensive plan compliance as goals;

  • Densities – permit density bonuses for special efforts to preserve natural resources and create mixed use and transit oriented development;

  • Agricultural preservation – relate to county or regional plans and resources and foster contiguous development related to existing communities;

  • Impervious surfaces – control by land use type;

  • Tree preservation and grading – preserve existing trees and character of a site;

  • Solar panels and windmills – permit to reduce carbon footprint and foster renewable energy;

  • Green roofs – permit to reduce stormwater run-off (may be building code issue);

  • Landscaping – set minimum requirements utilizing native species appropriate to various uses, functions, and micro-environments; and,

  • Planned Unit Developments – use this tool to grant exceptions from rigid standards to achieve larger scale sustainability objectives.

The subdivision ordinance governs specifications for public improvements that can also contribute to the comprehensive plan’s sustainability goals. Some key elements include:

  • Park & school donations – relate to overall plan for open space and plan objectives;

  • Street widths – consider minimum size to meet safety and operational requirements in accord with functional classification and land uses of the comprehensive plan and consider the principals of complete streets that accommodate pedestrian, cyclists, and drivers;

  • Best Management Practices (BMP’s) – bonuses for BMP’s to reduce and filter stormwater; and,

  • Stormwater and wetlands – standards to integrate these considerations into natural systems and also achieve habitat, esthetic and recreational objectives.

In Conclusion

Consider sustainability in all decisions, environmentally, socially and economically. Remember that the cumulative impact of many small actions can have an enormous influence on the environment. The Christopher’s motto represents this point when they say, “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”.

For information on the concepts mentioned in this article see Pete’s free e-book Readings in Urban Planning and Design by going to


About Pete:

After 50 years of professional practice Pete is now semi-retired and attempting to contribute to the advancement of urban planning and design through publications and public speaking. His background includes teaching at the university level, vp and department head for a large international engineering and planning firm, and founder of an interdisciplinary land use and environmental planning firm. See Pete's LinkedIn profile for more details or visit



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