Planning for Sustainability— A Conventional Perspective

This account of planning for sustainability is organized around what can be regarded as the conventional perspective, as depicted in Figure 1 below. It echoes core features of long-standing rational planning models; exhibiting the procedural stages of “survey-analyze-plan-monitor,” and with a clear relationship between means and ends. Although this traditional, instrumental view of planning has come under criticism from various directions,1151 it still provides a useful structuring device for this review. Moreover, this perspective remains deeply entrenched in planning practice in many arenas, and concern for sustainability has arguably reinforced its position.1161 Problems with this perspective are discussed later in this entry.

The conventional approach to planning for sustainability and its problems

FIGURE 1 The conventional approach to planning for sustainability and its problems.

Setting Objectives and Interpreting Sustainability

At the core of the conventional view of planning for sustainability is the assumption that one can specify what makes a society more sustainable and express this in objectives toward which development can be steered. These objectives might be environmental constraints, trends or targets, or some vision of a more sustainable urban form. Objectives might be designed to avoid losses of biodiversity; to reduce the depletion of primary resources and/or replace them with renewable or less polluting substitutes; to limit the release of certain wastes or pollutants; or to express social goals for literacy, health, poverty, access to services, and so on.

In effect, this part of the process is an exercise in defining outcomes, which seek to capture “the overall quality or sustainability of human well-being and the eco-systems on which it ultimately depends.”1171 Sometimes the process of determining objectives takes place within the planning process, but very often objectives are “imported” from other policy arenas. A pre-eminent example is climate change, where targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions cascade down from international agreements into national action plans and then into planning. Other examples include air quality standards, which may emanate from debates in public health. Where the objectives relate closely to land use, then they may be expressed in vision statements, diagrams, or maps.

Of course, there is no singular, neutral definition of sustainability, but a range of interpretations with quite different developmental consequences. Planning for sustainability is often therefore more than an exercise in applying pre-given goals; it forms part of the process of working out how sustainability should be interpreted. Planning processes may exhibit “weak” forms of sustainability,1181 so-called either because they explicitly prioritize economic growth or because they give no clear priority between economic, social, and environmental goals. The goal of planning for sustainability may thus be expressed as finding a “balance” between these goals, allowing for environmental quality to be traded off for economic development.

Alternatively, planning approaches may pursue “stronger” conceptions of sustainability.1181 Here, the guiding assumption is that society should be precautionary in the face of significant, irreversible losses of valued environmental assets—be they planetary life support systems or treasured landscapes—and give priority to maintaining their value over time. The implications for planning are that environmental constraints are pre-eminent, goals should be set to reflect this, and that development trajectories must be adjusted to observe these constraints and avoid degrading the ability of the environment to support human welfare. Stronger conceptions of sustainability draw support from justice to future generations, and the idea that they should inherit an equivalent stock of “environmental capital”1191; or from biological notions of observing the “carrying capacity” of an environment to sustain a particular activity without deterioration.1201

One example of a stronger approach to planning for sustainability is the NEPPs of the Netherlands. From the 1980s, the Dutch Environment Ministry began developing plans that sought to respond to the worsening and interconnected nature of environmental problems through what was regarded as a “holistic” planning process. A key starting point was analysis of the level of pollution reduction and resource efficiency that was required “to achieve sustainable development in one generation.”1211 From this, the NEPPs identified targets and brought together steps for reducing pressures on the environment and “closing substance cycles” (e.g., reducing and recycling wastes).

Land use planning offers examples of weaker and stronger interpretations of sustainability. For example, since the early 1990s, U.K. governments have required all land use plans to promote sustainable development; however, national guidance has often interpreted this in weak terms—as achieving simultaneously economic growth, inclusive social progress, protecting the environment, and making prudent use of natural resources.1221 Nevertheless, one can point to land use plans at local and regional levels that have sought to determine the environmental capacity of their area to accommodate development, and introduce policies to ensure that development does not exceed it.123,241 Observing environmental limits remains an important idea in planning for sustainability.1251

Devising Actions and Allocating Responsibility

The creation of a plan can itself exercise persuasive effects. There is a long history of planning processes pursuing some form of “visionary idealism” to stimulate public, stakeholder and political support and promote change, many of them connected to aspects of sustainability.1261 However, the second stage of the conventional approach to planning for sustainability usually entails specifying the particular actions required to achieve the objectives of the plan.

Various approaches can be used to identify those activities most responsible for placing unsustainable pressures on the environment—be they industry, government or the public, or particular sectors of activity (transport, housing, agriculture, etc.)—and thus requiring action. One such approach is “back- casting,” a form of futures study. The backcasting process begins by envisioning a desirable end state— in this context, one deemed to be sustainable—then works backward from that to identify actions that will move society toward it.1271

Depending on the political culture of the country concerned, the process of preparing a sustainability plan may involve efforts to secure the participation of different sectors of society. This participation can take place at the objectives-forming stage as well as in the selection of actions. The rationale for participation is at least fourfold:

  • • To try to achieve some “buy-in” from those stakeholders with the capacity to affect outcomes, and reduce the chance of conflict at the implementation stage
  • • To draw in knowledge and ideas beyond that possessed by government alone
  • • To create potentially more just outcomes by conferring recognition and opportunities for participation on a range of social groups1281
  • • To create greater democratic legitimacy and societal support for the transitions that sustainability requires.1131

Some theories of planning see the participatory processes of planning as key to its role in achieving change, notably collaborative planning theory.1151 The interactions and dialogue that takes place in planning processes—where they require parties to make and defend arguments in relatively open arenas— can help shift the attitudes and beliefs of those involved. Planning exercises thus help foster wider learning, develop new knowledge and relations between groups of people, and assist in finding common ground between contending parties. This, in turn, builds up the capacity of society for resolving future problems.

Collaboration between stakeholders was a key element of producing the NEPPs in the Netherlands. Government and business constructed sectoral plans for reducing environmental impacts and technological change bound together by voluntary agreements called “covenants” (albeit often with the threat of tighter regulation should voluntary compliance fail). The Dutch NEPPs also incorporated environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into the planning process. In many countries, the existing land use or spatial planning system has long-provided opportunities for the public and environmental groups to contribute to the decision-making process,1291 and planning for sustainability builds on these traditions.

If planning is to have some strategic role in promoting sustainability across society, then the process of allocating responsibility and devising actions may entail “environmental policy integration.”1301 This is a process by which key policy sectors coordinate their actions toward shared sustainability objectives, cooperate on implementation, and reduce conflicting objectives. Examples would be agricultural policy and transport policy being attuned to the delivery of biodiversity or air quality objectives, rather than just their own developmental goals. In procedural terms, integration may be achieved by various innovative governance arrangements, including altering the objectives of sectors, or through various forms of deliberation (i.e., getting key departments round the table) and policy appraisal, as discussed below.

Closely connected with the assignment of responsibility is the identification of actions and policy instruments—the means by which the plan will actually be implemented. Where sustainability goals are being integrated into existing land use planning processes, then the powers of those processes will dictate how the goals can be achieved. In many countries, this entails the incorporation of policies into a plan, with some spatial expression of future goals, which then informs zoning controls or some other regulatory process to achieve compliance. Where sustainability is concerned, these regulations can embrace1311:

  • • Promoting sustainable urban form (by controlling building density, or directing development to locations accessible by walking, cycling or public transport)
  • • Protecting sensitive, valued spaces from damaging development (e.g. for biodiversity)
  • • Requiring that new developments are designed and built in ways that reduce their adverse impacts.

With national sustainability plans, the plan may provide a long-term framework for shorter- and medium-term actions to be undertaken by a range of actors—government departments, industrial sectors, and the community and voluntary sector. Goals may therefore ultimately be implemented by an array of measures: standards and regulations, market-based instruments like green taxes, channeling investment or research funding, and various forms of voluntary mechanisms (like information campaigns, promoting best practice, etc.).

Appraisal and Monitoring

Forms of appraisal and monitoring are integral to conventional approaches to planning for sustainability and may be used either ex post or ex ante to guide the planning process. Ex post entails monitoring the effects of the plan after implementation (either progress toward goals or of wider unintended effects), and using the information to make adjustments or revisions in cyclical, learning processes. Ex ante appraisal entails assessing the likely effects of the plan while it is being formulated, perhaps to ensure that it is contributing sufficiently to sustainability.

The use of appraisal techniques has become a significant part of planning for sustainability and links to wider suites of tools used in environmental management, many drawing on international principles and methodologies.1101 Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is required in many countries for plans, programs, and policies likely to affect the environment (e.g., under European Union Directive 2001/42/EC). Through SEA, the draff policies of plans are assessed for their environmental impacts and, in many formulations, this entails assessment against sustainability criteria and objectives.1321 SEA can also enable the comparison of different options and, potentially, facilitate debate over alternatives, as well as fostering environmental policy integration by identifying where sectoral policies are poorly aligned with sustainability goals.

Environmental indicators may be used to assess changes in the economy, society, and environment, and signal whether those changes lead us toward or away from sustainability. Some indicators reflect a particular environmental parameter. For example, in the United Kingdom, the percentage of new development located on brownfield land (i.e., land that has been built on before) is an important sustainability indicator for the land use planning system, with the goal being that increasing development on brownfield sites will reduce sprawl, slow down the consumption of “greenfield” land, and support compact, less car-dependent urban forms.

The search for better appraisal and measurement systems has been a constant feature of planning for sustainability debates: where “better” can be taken as more comprehensive, more integrated and quantifiable (i.e., combining different effects into single units), more comprehensible to diverse audiences or decision-makers, or better linked to core principles of sustainability like environmental limits. One example is the “ecological footprint,” which seeks to provide a proxy measure of human demands on the environment by assessing how much biologically productive land and sea is appropriated to maintain a given consumption pattern and assimilate the waste produced.1331 There are other approaches also seeking to capture the totality of material and ecological flows associated with “urban metabolisms,”1341 including “exergy,” a concept that derives from thermodynamics and ecosystem health analysis.1351

Rising in profile from 2010 onwards has been interest in assessing the effects on ecosystem services; an approach that reflects a long-standing belief in environmental appraisal circles that for decision-makers to take environmental effects seriously they need to be expressed in economic terms.136!

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