August 19, 2011

How Can Communities Assess Sustainability?

A New Report from APA's Planning Advisory Service

CHICAGO — Gauging sustainability efforts and successes is a challenge facing many communities. Assessing Sustainability: A Guide for Local Governmentsis a new report from the American Planning Association (APA) that assists local governments in measuring and assessing existing sustainability efforts.  

PAS 565 coverEstablishing a benchmark for gauging sustainability efforts is important for communities to determine what efforts are working, how they compare to neighboring communities, and where improvements can be made.

Written by Wayne M. Feiden, FAICP, director of planning and development for the City of Northampton, Massachusetts, with Elisabeth Hamin, associate professor of regional planning and director of the PhD program in regional planning at the University of Massachusetts, the report strives to help local governments and planners assess sustainability in a manner that is both legitimate and useful for making comparisons.

The process of assessing sustainability can be as challenging as defining sustainability. According to the authors, sustainability involves the balance and combination of the three "Es" or "Ps":

  • Environment/Planet — Conserving natural systems and minimizing ecological impacts;
  • Equity/People — Focusing on people and communities and their needs; and
  • Economy/Prosperity — Creating a vibrant economy through the creation of wealth, prosperity, and jobs.

The report details a variety of methods communities and local governments can use to measure and assess sustainability, including indicators, benchmarks, assessments, carbon or ecological footprints, and basic principles used on a daily basis by planners. The report provides a sampling of wide range of model indicators, benchmarks, and metrics. Highlighted model indicators include the UN-Habitat Urban Indicators; the performance and urban indicator program of King County, Washington; and Minneapolis's Sustainability Indicator program.

While many existing indicators for assessing sustainability are currently available, a number of future instruments are being tested or are starting to be implemented. These new indicators include community health standards, Heath Impact Assessments, social networks, and climate adaptation plans.

The authors caution against using just any tool or indicator. To produce a relevant assessment, it is necessary to understand a local community's precedents, trends, needs, and opportunities. The authors recommend using a combination of indicators, benchmarks, checklists, and footprints that best fit the community and satisfy its goals.

Assessing Sustainability: A Guide for Local Governments (ISBN: 978-1-61190-000-2; 108 pp.) is available through for $48 (PAS subscribers $24).


Roberta Rewers, APA Public Affairs; 312-786-6395;