Planning for Sustainable Communities: It's More Than Being Green

October 28, 2009

The 2009 AICP Symposium focused on policies and plans for fostering sustainable communities from a variety of scales.

Paul Farmer, FAICP, former executive director and CEO of the American Planning Association, challenged participants to think critically about the term "sustainability." Planners have always employed a comprehensive viewpoint, he noted, and thinking about sustainability is at the heart of the profession.

Moderator Jason Jordan, APA director of policy and government affairs, outlined the symposium goals: to develop a dialogue between professionals at different scales; to discuss sustainability from a "triple-bottom line" perspective; and to highlight planning as a necessary part of sustainable outcomes — not a luxury.

Representing the federal perspective were Beth Osborne, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy at the Department of Transportation, and Shelley Poticha, senior advisor for sustainable communities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They spoke about their work on the new Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which also includes the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to Osborne and Poticha, this groundbreaking initiative is set to coordinate the programs and funding streams of the three agencies so, for example, funding for affordable housing might be prioritized for projects that are built on former brownfield sites. Members of the partnership have developed six livability principles that will guide the work.

Tim Brennan of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission spoke of the need to look regionally to make a sustainable impact, highlighting several innovative plans and projects of his organization, including a regional energy plan and a comprehensive plan that ties land use, transportation, economic development, and environmental stewardship.

Brennan noted the importance of local support and proudly displayed the signatures of local elected officials who had signed on in support of the region's plan. He challenged the professionals in the room to think big, noting that the planning profession is a vocation, and that we need to start thinking of innovative "22nd century plans" today.

From the local perspective, Joseph Schilling of Virginia Tech's Alexandria Center and director of the Metropolitan Institute's Green Region's Initiative spoke of producing an "Eco-City" plan for Alexandria, Virginia. He called it Alexandria's "sustainability journey," noting that while the initial impetus for developing the plan was purely environmental, the plan grew to include broader sustainability goals such as public health, green jobs, and transportation options.

While some residents were initially resistant to the term "sustainability," a process of public participation and outreach allowed residents to take ownership of the concept, and the term gained acceptance. Schilling covered eight lessons learned for local communities seeking to develop integrated sustainability plans.

In the moderated session, panelists addressed the question of rural communities, responding to critiques that sustainability initiatives are "directed toward urban centers." Osborne noted that one of the largest challenges facing rural areas is the mobility of an aging population. Poticha and Osborne outlined the importance of developing communities that allow residents to stay in place as they age, provide economic opportunity, and provide opportunities for mobility. Brennan again stressed the regional perspective, noting that the cities and rural areas are reliant on each other.


Tim Brennan
Executive Director
Pioneer Valley Planning Commission

Beth Osborne
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy
U.S. Department of Transportation

Shelley Poticha
Senior Advisor for Sustainable Housing and Communities
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Joseph Schilling
Associate Director for Green Regions
Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech

Jason Jordan, moderator
Director of Policy
American Planning Association

Symposium Podcast


Beth Osborne, USDOT

Shelley Poticha, HUD

Tim Brennan, PVPC

Joe Schilling, Virginia Tech

Panel Discussion


Tim Brennan's presentation (pdf)

Joe Schilling's presentation (pdf)