The Sustainability Paradigm

Alongside neoliberalism, but with a very different focus, the ‘sustainability’ paradigm also emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Encapsulating both traditional planning concerns for environmental protection and conservation, and more contemporary issues such as resource depletion, global warming and climatic change, the sustainability agenda has had a profound influence on ideas about the ideal urban form as well as the focus and nature of regulatory planning processes.

Since the late 1970s at least, environmental and often town planning legislation in most nations has incorporated objectives relating to environmental and heritage protection. Early environmental and heritage protection efforts were translated into strict controls managing development in environmentally sensitive or conservation areas. Concerns about public participation and fairness in decision-making, the loss of urban heritage and pollution, also began to influence legislation during this time (Hall

1996). Town planning laws began to include provisions to consult with members of the public when new plans were made and major projects considered.

The goal of ‘sustainable development’ was first articulated by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987, as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED 1987). This has been further explained to address threefold economic, social and environmental concerns when allocating land and assessing development (Campbell 1996; Jepson 2001). Subsequent interpretations have extended the notion to ‘ecological sustainability’ (which emphasises ecosystem protection and enhancement as paramount, and does not presuppose a development outcome). More recently, concepts such as ‘carbon neutrality’ (development which does not increase greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change), and ‘resilience’ (the capacity for natural and human systems to adapt to pressures and threat), have also begun to infuse environmental and spatial planning documents and laws (Carbonell 2010; Pickett et al. 2004; Romero-Lankao 2012).

In practice, these influences have given rise to a particular approach to spatial land use allocation and development control, informed by ongoing research and debates regarding sustainable urban form and the impacts of different types of development (Jenks et al. 1996; Neuman 2005; Newman and Kenworthy 1999). The sustainability paradigm has also influenced thinking about the ways in which decision processes should be carried out, particularly the need to integrate a variety of potentially competing social, cultural, economic and environmental considerations associated with proposed developments, the wider downstream or regional impacts, and impacts over time (Healey 1997).

The creation of safe, healthy and functional living environments, whilst minimising negative social, economic or environmental impacts of private development, have long been a central rationale for modern urban planning. But the sustainability agenda extends this mandate and also challenges it. For instance, the separation of potentially competing land uses has been a hallmark of modern Anglo American planning, particularly through land use zoning in the nations which adopted it. However, with the rise of the private motor car, the separation of land uses in this way has given rise to new environmental problems (car dependency, traffic congestion and air pollution) as new homes were located separately from work and other services. More ‘sustainable’ approaches to land use planning emphasise mixed uses, preferably around public transit to reduce car dependency and to contain urban development through higher-density housing forms (Newman and Kenworthy 1999; Talen and Knaap 2003).

Environmentally sustainable forms of urban planning also seek to preserve and enhance biodiversity, protecting species of plants and animals and the ecosystems on which they depend, by avoiding development in highly sensitive locations, and by managing the impact of development that does occur (Beatley 2000). Providing for connectivity between important animal habitats through linked areas of native vegetation can be an important strategy for preserving and enhancing biodiversity through the planning process. The use of green buffer zones can also be an effective planning strategy for protecting important ecosystem values. Such controls may however, imply costs for private landowners in limiting the development potential of their land or in requiring studies and preservation/remediation activities to accompany development which does occur.

Increasingly, the sustainable planning agenda extends to the use and reuse of resources and energy in the development and ongoing life cycle of homes and buildings. Such considerations range from design and orientation for solar and thermal efficiency through to the sourcing of building materials and appliances. There is growing interest in the potential for more sustainable and decentralised forms of infrastructure as alternatives to coal powered electricity and large scale water distribution networks, through neighbourhood and even site level wind, solar, water and waste facilities. Thus, there are debates about the merits of implementing these practices through regulatory requirements, which create a larger market for new environmental technologies, but also mean upfront costs borne by the early adopters required to incorporate sustainable design features and appliances in their development.

A number of voluntary environmental certification programmes seek to encourage the private sector to shift to more sustainable forms of building design and construction. Governments and non-profit organisations have also used their own development activities to demonstrate innovation in sustainable building design, with particular examples in the social housing sector (Chance 2009; Dewick and Miozzo 2004). However, systematic government initiatives—and particularly planning and building regulations—play an important role in standardising these approaches and promoting wider adoption through industry practices (Retzaff 2009). At the same time, industry sectors have often challenged the imposition of sustainability requirements by state or local governments. These issues are discussed further in Chap. 4. But it is worth noting at this juncture that empirical evidence on the costs of environmental regulations is limited, and likely to be offset by lower expenditure on heating, cooling and water over the life of the dwelling. In a comprehensive survey of the relationship between environmental regulations and housing costs in the USA, Arthur Nelson and colleagues concluded that:

Despite anecdotal information and intuitive feelings to the contrary, we found that in general the environmental regulatory process does not add significantly to the cost of housing; that it does not significantly increase the amount of time housing developments require to complete; that the costs and time delays attributable to the environmental regulatory process have not increased significantly during the past thirty years or so; and that the benefits homeowners, society, and developers derive from the environmental regulatory process are considerable. (Nelson et al. 2009, p. xxi)

As well as the environmental aspects of sustainability, much urban planning scholarship and policy emphasises the need to promote social dimensions of sustainability (Dempsey et al. 2011). These include both equities of access to economic and social opportunities and amenities, as well as more abstract notions of community cohesion, health and well-being (Vallance et al. 2011). Social sustainability is thought to be achieved through physical planning strategies which support a strong public realm, a range of community facilities, opportunities for active transport (such as walking and cycling), as well as diverse and affordable housing opportunities (Wheeler 2013). Affordable housing in this context intrinsically depends on accessibility within the built environment to key services, employment and educational facilities, through public transport, opportunities for walking and cycling, as well as proximity to green space, social networks, culture and recreation (see Dempsey et al. 2011a, pp. 92-93).

Increasingly, community and public health concerns associated with urban living conditions are also considered an important part of the social sustainability agenda. As outlined earlier, connections between housing conditions and health have long been recognised. Whilst the focus of health and sanitation reforms in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was on the squalid housing conditions and consequent ill health of the poor, by the late twentieth century a new set of health concerns arising from the location and design of housing had emerged (Wells et al. 2010). In addition to recurring issues arising from unresolved affordability pressures (such as inappropriate housing conditions, overcrowding etc.), a range of other health issues associated with the location and design of housing may also affect wider sectors of the population. These include obesity and cardiovascular diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition, which in turn is linked to high rates of car-based commuting and inadequate access to sources of fresh food, or opportunities for physical activity, particularly in open space (Forsyth et al. 2008; Garden and Jalaludin 2009). Additionally, respiratory diseases arising from exposure to air pollution (again a problem arising from traffic congestion) can affect all sectors of the population (Rauh et al. 2008), as can the presence of crime related to rapid urbanisation and poor urban design (Cozens 2008).

These issues are intrinsically associated with the location and design of housing, particularly as it relates to transport and urban form. The location of homes relative to opportunities for employment and other services, and the availability and type of different forms of transportation, can have a significant influence on levels of air pollution and on physical activity (Frank and Engelke 2001). In particular, walking and cycling for transport is more prevalent in places with good access to shops and services, and safe and interconnected street networks (Forsyth et al. 2008). Further, access to attractive areas of open space is thought to increase rates of walking and other physical activity (Frank et al. 2007; Wen et al. 2007), as well as enhance mental well-being (Frank and Engelke 2001). In turn, increased walking is thought to encourage interactions between neighbours, contributing to a sense of community which is also associated with positive mental health benefits (Wood et al. 2010).

Higher- and medium-density housing with good access to public transport, as well as a quality public realm incorporating infrastructure for active transport and open space, is thought to offer a strong design framework for promoting public health through the built environment (Sallis et al. 2006). However, there is also concern that higher-density housing near major traffic arteries is associated with increased exposure to airborne pollutants, and a need to consider the spectrum of urban form and design considerations in the context of climate change (Bambrick et al. 2011). For instance, it is also argued that detached homes with gardens may offer better opportunities for urban cooling, self-provision of food and outdoor pursuits (Gleeson 2008).

All of these debates have influenced the ways in which central governments have devised overarching planning policies for interpretation through local regulations governing the location and design of residential subdivision, housing density and diversity, the provision of open space and community facilities, and so on.

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