Municipalities, defined as a town, city, or administrative entity with local governance, are directly affected by sustainability issues and have a unique role in promoting solutions; they are responsible for the operations, regulations, and resources within a given area, and ultimately responsible for the well-being of their populace.  Municipal governments typically consist of key actors such as elected officials (e.g. mayors, council, and legislators) and professional staff (e.g. community planners, economic planners, managers, and public works directors) that make decisions on behalf of the citizens of the municipality.

Since sustainability has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, municipalities are inextricably interested in sustainability. Many municipalities are already engaging in sustainability solutions either by choice or by demand of their circumstances. Issues and solutions often affect more than one branch of sustainability; for example, a town recycling program often has economic incentives, and this program may also improve social cohesion by making citizens proud to reside in a municipality that cares about its environmental impact. Municipalities have various methods of addressing sustainability issues in both the short and long-term, including but not limited to the following: establishing educational programs for citizens, enacting laws and regulations, holding events, and surveying citizens. Citizens can also often get involved in decision-making through means such as citizen committees or town meetings.

The powers, resources, responsibilities, and interests of municipalities greatly differ depending on characteristics such as demographics, budget, and socioeconomic statuses (e.g. large cities may have several millions of inhabitants while some small towns may have fewer than 100).  The size of a municipality greatly affects the sustainability issues it may face, as well as its capacity for creating solutions. For example, when planning for climate change mitigation, a large city may have urban and economic planners available to address the issue, while a small town likely wouldn’t have that staff available and would rely on elected officials or even a citizen’s task force instead.

While each municipality may have a different approach to implementing sustainability, each will utilize land use ordinances, zoning, and comprehensive plans to achieve sustainability goals.  This chapter will focus on how municipalities can implement sustainability using zoning and comprehensive planning, why many municipalities (particularly large ones) employ smart growth within their development, and how municipalities may mitigate and adapt to climate change.  A case study discussing recent sustainability improvements in Copenhagen, Denmark has also been included as an example for successful municipal efforts.

Land Use Ordinances and Zoning

One of the main duties of a municipal government is to administer land use and zoning laws, which involve the regulation of the use and development of property. Regulations may include development restrictions such as heights of buildings, environmental impact, and even, in cases smaller details such as façade. When considering regulations, municipalities should balance the economic, environmental, and societal impacts to maximize long-term sustainability and social cohesion.  An example of a sustainable zoning regulation includes prohibiting development on wetlands to maintain ecosystem health and preserve a carbon sink and instead developing underutilized spaces in an area closer to the town center. Although land-use regulations are often designed to retrofit current buildings, regulations are often also used to meet future development plans.

A key role of municipalities is to employ zoning ordinances, which divide areas into residential, commercial, and industrial property zones in order to guarantee appropriate use of the land.  The process where land zones of the same kind are grouped together is called single use zoning. Separating business, residential, and commercial land has been known to contribute to the externalities of suburban sprawl, which will be discussed under the smart growth section. Mixed use zoning, or zoning laws which blend commercial, residential, and other building types, is considered the sustainable alternative to single use zoning.  As discussed in the smart growth section, mixed use zoning promotes economic wellbeing by allowing citizens to shop locally, social cohesion by increasing human interactions, and environmental conservation by reducing the need for automobiles.

When a municipality designs zoning ordinances, they must consider all factors involved, such as the needs of the municipality, the purpose of the restriction, the location, size, and physical characteristics of the land, the character of the neighborhood, and its effect on the value of the property involved. Land-use ordinances, zoning, and town comprehensive plans can contribute to promoting sustainability through responsible development codes. The rationale behind zoning is that it promotes the good of the entire community in accordance with a comprehensive plan. While zoning has its complications (and is sometimes controversial by restricting property owner’s rights), it can be used to achieve sustainability goals through balancing the three pillars of sustainability.

Comprehensive Planning

Comprehensive planning is a process that involves determining needs and goals for a municipality and creating a plan to put it into action. In order to increase resiliency, municipalities often employ comprehensive planning to establish guidelines for the future development of a community. The plan does not need to be implemented all at once; comprehensive plans often encompass land-use changes up to 20 or more years in the future. These long-term development plans are often linked with promoting economic activity and tied to developing critical infrastructure, such as roads and water treatment. Comprehensive plans are governmental guidelines used to balance the three branches of sustainability. They encompass the following nine different elements:

  1. Goals and policies
  2. Land use
  3. Housing
  4. Economic development
  5. Natural resources
  6. Open space and recreation
  7. Services and facilities
  8. Transportation and circulation
  9. Implementation

A multitude of sustainability-based challenges can be solved through proper long-term planning within municipal governments through land use, natural resources, and recreational management strategies. Furthermore, policies, goals, and economic development strategies ensure implementation of sustainability development goals through action. Comprehensive plans are tied to the core of a town and without it there is no action, no results, and no progress. An example of a towns mission statement for their comprehensive plan would be to provide the opportunity for all to live, work, and play in a community with a promising present and future. The comprehensive plan is not an enforceable document itself, however proper collaboration between a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances is the foundation of use-inspired action.

When done properly, comprehensive plans serve to bring the community and municipal government together from a collaborative planning approach. Not every citizen is a primary stakeholder for a town or city’s comprehensive plan but having an open approach to finding solutions is critical for the best results. Not all municipalities have comprehensive plans, but they are necessary to mitigate present problems as well as to plan for the future.  Communities who have a comprehensive plan provide a unique framework for building social, economic, and environmental resiliency within the community parameters.

Smart Growth

There are many methods of development that municipalities may consider within their planning and zoning regulations.  One of these methods that is common in modern cities but still relevant to smaller towns is smart growth.  Smart growth is an approach to sustainable urban development focused on creating healthy, prosperous, and resilient communities by employing the three pillars of sustainability: social equity, economic development, and environmental conservation.  Municipalities may employ smart growth, a term developed in 1996 by Parris Glendenning, former Maryland Governor, particularly as an alternative to typical suburban sprawl, which is problematic when considering sustainability.  Sprawl is the expansion of low-density suburban development revolving around homogeneous buildings and auto-mobile dependence, while requiring greater amounts of space, single use land development, separation of commercial and residential areas.  As a result, large wildlife areas are developed, woodlands are deforested, flooding is increased due to increased impermeable pavements, and air and water quality decrease due to the increase of pollutants from automobiles and household and yard chemicals.  Residential sprawl divides communities based on socioeconomic status, which exacerbates the negative ramifications of social stratification.  Finally, sprawl may result in unhealthy lifestyles of inhabitants, particularly those who do not have access to automobiles, such as becoming more sedimentary.

To avoid these complications, municipal governments replace other unsustainable forms of development with smart growth.  Smart growth enhances the community, environment, and economy, by encouraging the ten basic principles shown below, as defined by the Smart Growth Network.

Ten basic principles of Smart Growth:

1 Mix land uses

2 Take advantage of compact building design

3 Create a range of housing opportunities and choices

4 Create walkable neighborhoods

5 Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place

6 Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas

7 Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities

8 Provide a variety of transportation choices

9 Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective

10 Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

As outlined in the ten basic principles of smart growth, neighborhoods should include compact, mixed use design, which inspires municipalities to revitalized underutilized lots or brownfields while improving the efficiency and social cohesion of the community.  This allows for business and residences to be built within the city, instead of building on undeveloped land.  Additionally, mixed use and compact urban design allows for citizens and businesses to interact closely, creating key economic and social webs.  Citizens tend to shop at close-by small businesses where they may have friendly interactions with the owner or staff, which strengthens the local economy and develops the community.  Since citizens do not have to travel far to these local shops, energy and time are also saved.  Additionally, smart growth describes that neighborhoods should be safe and include diverse, accessible transportation options including walking and biking paths, trams, and trains.  A variety of transportation options that travel to various locations, both close-by and far away, should be included within a walking distance to allow for all citizens to have mobility without relying on automobile.  Safe environments allow for citizens to feel comfortable walking around and spending time in the area, outside, and contributing to the community.  More information may be found on Smart Growth America’s website.

Similar to smart growth, new urbanism is another modern urban design style based on old European urbanism that focuses on human-scale neighborhoods, place-making, and community building.  Instead of the modern model of urban design, which focuses on single use neighborhoods and streets dominated by the automobile, new urbanism highlights how effective cities can be created by focusing on human-scale during design and development. By creating environmentally conscious cities that focus on many of the principles of smart growth, such as mixed use, compact development and walkable neighborhoods with accessible transportation, community will naturally develop, and life will be more functional for residents.

As previously mentioned, many components of smart growth and new urbanism primarily apply to cities, particularly those which are currently growing and/or developing.  However, municipalities of various other sizes, demographics, budgets, etc. may consider the principles of smart growth when considering their own plan of development.  For example, by considering the principles of smart growth, a small, sparsely populated town may find ways to reduce driving by creating bike-safe streets and to limit the development of natural land by using zoning and regulations.

Case Study

Copenhagen, Denmark has become one of the world’s leaders for urban sustainable developments, with a rigorous goal of being the first carbon neutral city by 2025.  In recent years, the population of the city has increased by 20% while the GHG emissions have decreased by 42%.  How is this possible?

The city has prioritized sustainable infrastructure as a key characteristic in their development.  $300 million has been invested to improve biking infrastructure, as biking is a key form of transport for 62% of the population.  The city now has five times more bikes than cars which has drastically decreased the carbon emissions of the city while improving the air quality, walkability, and safety.  Energy and heat are also essential in achieving this rigorous goal.  The city now receives much of their energy from offshore wind farms.  Ninety-nine percent (99%) of the houses use recycled heat from electricity generation for heating and cool water for cooling.

Much of the city’s success can be tied to the citizens, who are extremely driven to create a sustainable city.  Copenhagen is a prime example of how developed cities may implement sustainability initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change with the help of eager citizens and government.

Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

As previously mentioned, the goal of municipal government is to take care of its people through rules and regulations.  In the coming years, climate change will act as a threat to municipalities globally by altering the physical environment, such as through sea level rise, increased intensity and frequency of storms, more drastic weather conditions, and the threat of ecological cascade.  Thus, many municipalities are looking for ways to reduce their contribution to climate change through mitigation and to prepare for predicted impacts through adaptation. Because municipalities vary and have unique characteristics, economies, demographics, etc., each municipality will employ methods of climate change adaptation and mitigation that works best for them.  For example, a coastal town may have to consider adaptations to sea level rise such as by creating earth dams, while municipalities in dry climates might have to find ways to fight water scarcity, such as through Indirect Potable Reuse, the process of efficiently recycling wastewater to drinking water. Municipalities may consider a variety of components when considering ways to adapt and mitigate to climate change, such as through sustainable infrastructure, green buildings, and local food. Please note that these are only three topics within a plethora of options to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Green infrastructure is a method of both adaptation and mitigation that focuses on reducing pollution and mitigating flooding and thus protecting and conserving natural resources. Flooding and storm water runoff are one of the biggest concerns in modern cities due to the quantity of impermeable surfaces such as asphalt and concrete, which may cause flood surges contaminated with oils and toxins into waterways. Municipal governments may choose to employ sustainable filtration methods such as using sediments, vegetation like tree boxes, and natural marshes to restore the aquifers below and prevent storm water flooding. For example, instead of creating a new storm water treatment plant or connecting flood drains to the wastewater treatment plant, a municipality may choose to use natural water storage and treatment basins, such as swamps and bioswales.  These methods are extremely effective, economical, and require little maintenance.

Another way that municipalities can mitigate climate change is through designing, building, or retrofitting previous municipal buildings, such as town halls, libraries, schools, and community centers, to be green buildings. Investing in the development of green municipal buildings is important because these buildings are symbols of the community and are used by many occupants on a daily basis.   The priority of green buildings is to reduce the emissions produced by daily life as well as the overall ecological footprint of the building. This type of design and construction will be key for municipalities to reach net zero emissions. Utilities such as heat, electricity, and water are designed to be as efficient as possible to limit environmental impact and take advantage of local natural resources. Renewable energy and HVAC sources are staples in green building and may include solar photovoltaics, solar hot water, passive solar heating, wind energy, geothermal, and even algae. For example, municipalities in sunny locations may consider adding photovoltaics to every municipality-owned building to reduce the ecological footprint of the town.  Additionally, green buildings consider life cycle analyses for the resources to minimize both environmental and social externalities.  These buildings utilize local, sustainable building materials, such as stones and timber, and seek to advance social cohesion by supplying safe, attractive, and welcoming spaces where citizens can interact.

Finally, municipalities may also mitigate climate change by promoting local markets, farms, businesses, and food producers. Municipalities typically have an office of economic development or equivalent entity which may work with businesses to find ways to promote local businesses.  By growing and consuming locally originated food that is adapted and suited for each region, the need for unnecessary transportation is drastically reduced. Helping restaurants to prioritize local produce provides nutritious, cheap, and reliable food while supporting local farms and businesses.  This naturally stimulates the local economy through creating long-lasting local jobs and through the multiplier effect, a phenomenon where money invested in a local economy recirculates to ultimately increase the gross domestic product.  Finally, farmers markets and local businesses are a great way to encourage social interaction and development among citizens.

Chapter Summary

Municipalities, which are responsible for operations, regulations, resources, and the welfare of their citizens, play a unique role in sustainable development.  Because municipalities provide governmental framework such as zoning and planning, they are key in the process of implementing sustainable solutions. When developing zoning laws and planning legislation, municipal governments may consider approaches to sustainable development, such as smart growth and new urbanism, that balance the three pillars of sustainability: social equity, environmental conservation, and economic development.  For example, by utilizing smart growth and mixed-use planning, municipalities promote a close link between citizens and local businesses, which creates key economic and social webs.  Municipalities may choose to implement principles of smart growth, but not all municipalities are growing; some are shrinking and may need to implement other solutions.  Smaller towns might have development goals completely different from large city neighbors, in which case they may have different needs to consider when creating zoning laws and comprehensive plans.  Because climate change has posed a threat to municipalities globally, municipalities are now looking for ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change efficiently.  Municipalities may choose to invest in green infrastructure, green buildings, and local food to both limit their carbon footprint and cope with the implications of climate change.  While each municipality may have a different approach to implementing sustainability, they may use ordinances, zoning laws, and comprehensive plans to achieve both short- and long-term sustainability goals.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why should municipalities be interested in sustainability?
  2. How can municipalities implement sustainability?
  3. What is smart growth?
  4. What are important components for a municipality to consider when seeking to make sustainability improvements?How might these methods be implemented in places where money and drive are issues in promoting sustainability?


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