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.