Uncovering JAPA

Sustainability Plans Can Be More Than Just Talk

With growing concerns over climate change and inequality, cities are leading the way in addressing sustainability concerns. Although many cities have not yet adopted sustainability plans, those that do, implement more sustainability actions.

In "When Do Plans Matter?" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 1), Lu Liao, Mildred E. Warner, and George C. Homsy find that the significance of sustainability plans comes from not only their presence but also the processes and goals which underlie them.

The authors evaluated 651 governments for actions in 34 areas of energy efficiency, water, social equity, transportation, and waste. Their comparison of 242 governments with plans to 409 without from 2010 to 2015 reveals that governments with plans take almost twice as many actions as governments without in the years immediately following the plan’s introduction.

This indicates that the plan-making process itself might generate mechanisms to spur sustainability actions.

Increase in number of sustainability actions (N = 34) by U.S. municipalities between 2010 and 2015. N = 651 U.S. municipalities. Of these, 409 places do not have a plan; 89 places have had a plan since 2010; 153 places adopted a plan between 2010 and 2015. Source: ICMA, 2010, 2016. From "When Do Plans Matter?" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 1).

Increase in number of sustainability actions (N = 34) by U.S. municipalities between 2010 and 2015. N = 651 U.S. municipalities. Of these, 409 places do not have a plan; 89 places have had a plan since 2010; 153 places adopted a plan between 2010 and 2015. Source: ICMA, 2010, 2016. From "When Do Plans Matter?" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 1).

Yet the initial benefit of plan-making seems to decline over time. Promoting governments’ long-term commitment to sustainability requires a comprehensive approach in the planning process, rather than the mere presence of a plan.

As the authors demonstrate, the process and intentions behind the plan affect its results. More actions were taken by governments that engage the public, promote interdepartmental coordination, and devote staff and budget resources towards their plans. Governments that prioritized social equity in creating their plans were also more likely to take more actions.

Plans matter, especially in their ability to encourage initial action. However, this initiation effect declines over time.

It is our collective responsibility to ensure that government leaders, planners, and residents remain committed to sustainability in the long term. We need to hold each other accountable for making progress towards the goals of sustainability plans, towards our future.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image: Green roof on Chicago City Hall. Wikimedia Commons photo by Conservation Design Forum (CC BY-SA).


About the Author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.

June 11, 2020

By Kyle Miller