Tools for Sustainability Planning and Analysis


Many strategies, principles, indicators and models have been used by urban planners both past and present in attempts to realize sustainable, green, livable and smart municipalities “for all”. From our readings, it is safe to presume that these strategies/tools include the precautionary principle as a guiding or regulatory framework, GIS land use mapping, urban growth boundaries, goal setting and visioning exercises, the creation of comprehensive planning documents, ecological footprint quizzes, zoning codes, performance standards, intergovernmental incentives, sustainability indicators, green development rating systems, political organizing, coalition building, educational processes, consensus building processes (DELPHI method), environmental life cycle analysis, land trusts and bonds, etc. These tools can and have been used for either qualitative or quantitative purposes. Triangulation of methods, nonetheless, offers opportunities for place-specific, time dependent and holistic analysis. Using various planning tools also allows for the redundancy needed to effectively, efficiently and creatively implement future mechanisms and political power dispersal once planning processes are complete.  Yet, questions remain- is planning as an attempt, intention or process (versus planning as an art and successful outcome) enough to bring about justice, equity and greater political inclusion within the cities in which we live, work, play and pray? How do we know when it is appropriate to use a particular tool when each tool is loaded with its’ own political baggage?  

Moreover, the inherent tensions amongst the ideals of equity, economics, livability and ecology (ideals that serve as the backbone of sustainability) arguably contribute to disdain for the planning discipline, criticism aimed at various urban planning movements (i.e. New Urbanism, Smart Growth, etc.) and opposition to seemingly “lofty” or “anti-American” ideals of compact, high density mixed use zoning. Opposition to planning for sustainability also gains popularity amongst individuals, collectives and organizations opposed to precautionary planning and precautionary science that can threaten the status quo of power inequalities amongst economists and other quantitative, technology driven enthusiasts and communities and individuals that disproportionately bear the burden of social, ecological and economic harm from polluting technologies and services. Even more pressing, planning and analysis for sustainability can seemingly threaten individual property rights, a key element of the “American dream” and nation-wide cultural preferences. With all of these conflicts around in the social milieu and public sphere(s), I also wonder whether planning and analysis for sustainability even makes a difference in a society in which regulations and codes within comprehensive plans are routinely compromised by development plans and priorities. Thus, can we promote a science of sustainability that truly “serves society and not vice versa”; likewise, how do we break away from the hegemony of economic cost benefit analyses? How do we stop corporate interests from undermining and weakening regulatory environmental policies and other sustainable land use policies/procedures such as the case in California with a proposed football stadium?

From my own experience working to increase environmental participation and decision making for natural resource management amongst underrepresented groups, I know it is paramount to facilitate trust, transparency and common ground amongst diverse power brokers and risk bearers impacted by new proposed land use policy. I also think it is important to educate the public on the potential for planning to diminish suburban sprawl and prioritize compact, contiguous, connected, ecologically sound and diverse communities. Tools such as the ICLEI and LAB Pioneer Cities developed Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) Evaluation Toolkit can perhaps help towards this end. However, it is also important to keep in mind that consensus for all is highly unlikely and negotiation, as pointed out by our guest speaker on land rights activism and opposition to planning, is probably the best hoped for outcome. To that end, I am intrigued by the innovation made possible by the idea of loose friendships, coalitions or networks so that you are neither a friend nor foe to anyone for the long term.

Further Questions/Concerns

  • How do we gain sufficient causal knowledge needed to plan for sustainability and consider all (or most) alternative scenarios/options?
  • If planning is a theory of governmental resource allocation over time, or a theory of successive governmental budgets, why isn’t more time spent on teaching planners practical coalition building strategies/relationship building skills as opposed to quantitative skills needed to complete environmental impact statements?
  • What is the role of irrationality in planning for sustainability? Can sustainable development be rational with inherent tensions and contradictions?



Danney, J.H. 2011. “Sacking CEQA: How NFL Stadium Developers may have Tackled the California Environmental Quality Act.”

Godschalk, D.R. 2004. “Land use planning challenges: Coping with conflicts in visions of sustainable development and livable communities.” Journal of the American Planning Association 70(1): 5-13.

Local Governments for Sustainability (Tools)

Melbourne Principles.

Myers, N. “Debating the Precautionary Principle.”

San Francisco Department of Environment. 2003. “The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco.”

Wheeler, S. 2013. “Tools for Sustainability Planning.” Ch. 6 in Planning for Sustainability

Wheeler, S. 2013. “Land Use and Urban Growth.” Ch. 10 in Planning for Sustainability

Wildavsky, Aaron. 1973. “If Planning is Everything, Maybe It’s Nothing.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 127-153.


7 thoughts on “Tools for Sustainability Planning and Analysis

  1. jennamhahn

    You listed an impressive list of tools – some we have gone over in class, and some which we have not. I really like your questions about contextualization and wondering when we know what tool is appropriate. My immediate thought always goes to – who is creating these tools? And who do they serve? In choosing the right method, I think co-production of knowledge is key. SO many times technocrats (including planners), feel as if they know what the problem is, and they just need a simple answer. I have found in my academic life, as well as first hand, that sometimes we aren’t even asking the right questions. I agree that trust building is key! Though building it can take a very long time, especially in communities that have a long history of being deceived, corrupt governments, or of partners not following through on promises. I have seen this in slum upgrading projects, especially – slum dwellers are hesitant of whom to trust, or if anything will really make a difference. Often times “experts” come in with an idea of what to solve before even consulting with the communities to identify what they recognize as their biggest challenges. Aligning goals is definitely seems like a first step.

  2. niavila

    I agree with this. The importance of culture and behavior is so important. Understanding how people make choices and the cultural backgrounds that drive those choices is critical to designing effective policies. Like you said, it is important to identify how others think and work towards an open and collective dialogue that can propel the whole nation, not a subset of it, towards sustainability.

  3. caitlintouchberry

    I thought your “further questions” were very interesting. Specifically the one around why more time isn’t allocated to teaching planners practical coalition building strategies and relationship building. I think it is an interesting thought for anyone doing social enterprise or NGO work worldwide as well as planners. I’ve recently been involved with a training course through IDEO about Human Centered Design and would like to offer it as another “tool” to consider giving guidance and strategies on this topic:

  4. I love this! I love it because it makes people open their minds. I feel like many times we get so caught up on what we (and everyone around us) think is needed and best that we forget that not everyone thinks the same. Ever since I came to UC Berkeley it seems like everyone is unaware of the country they live in. Most of the people I have come across in the MCP program argue that high-density walk/bike and transit oriented cities (i.e. ‘European style’) are the objective planning processes should aim to reach and the only policies that should be applied are those which aim to reduce car travel and suburban-like environments. It seems as if they did not realize that 95% of the country they live in is exactly that, and people are happy with that, people still want that and see living in a suburban-like home with your three cars and two kids as being ‘successful’. Most Americans will not give the hopes of that dream coming true because planners say its not sustainable. I think that instead of fighting against those who disagree with what we think ‘is best’, we should try and work with them, open the debate and strive to find a compromise, not on sustainability, but on ways of living. We need to be able to come up with a solution that allows them to still get their suburban-like living situation but is still sustainable. At least, for the time being, because we are definitely not going to change the mind of over 200 million people overnight.

  5. jessicalanguyen

    I was also interested in the idea that “friends” and “enemies” are not permanent. I think it can help maintain transparency and trust among diverse stakeholder groups because their actions and decisions are consistently being checked.

  6. aldotudela7

    I really liked how you end your post commenting on how to deal with conflicts and the need to leave consensus behind. I also found Prof. Frick’s comment on negotiation being the possible future for conflict resolution very interesting. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on what can we expect out of these negotiations with diverse coalitions, often with different agendas in mind. I fear the outcome from a negotiation approach won’t be very different.

  7. After last week’s readings on sustainability planning tools and Professor Frick’s lecture on Monday, and this blog post I am most intrigued by the question of the role of planning and its necessity. I certainly believe it is, but in the into when you ask whether it is a process, attempt, or intention, I can’t but think it is all three, and so many other things. Between hoping to make a career of planning and my strong convictions about sustainability, I think sometimes myself and others easily overlook our own biases. Last week I was complaining to another MCP students about an article I had read about Agenda 21 ( and picked out the quote “‘They want us to become like Europe, is what it is,’ she said… ‘They try to make it very uncomfortable for people to use their cars… It’s destroyed Portland, Oregon.'” I said to my friend “ugh, I can’t believe she thought that was a good example, Europe and Portland are great!” To which my friend said that not everyone wants to live in Europe or Portland. It had been so long since I thought about that. I love cities, but not everyone does, people will always love suburbs, so how can we make the low-density, but not rural places work? The “Green Tea Party” partnerships and the acknowledgements in Frick’s lecture that sometimes these property rights people have a point is very true. So how do we deal with that as planners? How do we find solutions that make everyone happy? Is that even possible? I’m not sure, but I won’t stop trying and hope my fellows planners feel the same.

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