article: Sustainability Planning and APA State Chapters

This article from our Spring 2013 newsletter provides background to our Mobilizing Sustainability Planning Division Discussion on Sunday 4/14 at 3:00pm at the 2013 APA national conference in Chicago. The discussion also continues on our LinkedIn site.

The Challenge of Sustainability Planning
State APA Chapters and the New APA Sustainable Communities Division

By Scott T. Edmondson

This past July, a serendipitous phone call led to collaboration between the APA Colorado and APA California Northern Section sustainability committees generating the following questions. How do other state APA chapters address society’s sustainability challenge? What role can the new APA Sustainable Communities Division play? The phone call ended with an informal research project to begin addressing those questions. That project led to this article and the new Division’s Facilitated Discussion session at the upcoming 2013 National APA Conference, Mobilizing Sustainability (3-4:15 pm, Sunday April 14). The session will explore the role that state APA chapters and the new APA Sustainable Communities Division can play in addressing sustainability.

With generous research assistance from the APA Colorado Sustainability Committee, the research team collected information on sustainability initiatives by reviewing the websites of 63 state-level public planning professional organizations and sending email queries to 58 presidents (some states have multiple sections; are part of larger, multi-state collaborations; or have independent, non-APA professional organizations; hereafter referred to as APA state chapters for ease of reference). Researchers received 35 responses. This article summarizes the variety of issues that state chapters face, how they address them, and the implications for enhancing the efforts. You can join the Division’s online discussion on this topic at


Initially, the research team expected to find many active state APA sustainability committees in light of the “mainstreaming” of sustainability over the past five years, National APA leadership on the topic, and the increasing urgency for an effective response. This section describes the research findings on state chapter initiatives, which clustered as follows:  (1) no committee, but interest and activity; (2) requests for information, (3) reasons for not having a committee; and (4) sustainability committees.

No Committees

Twenty-five state chapters with no explicit sustainability committee expressed interest, support for the topic, or they promoted sustainability-related activities including the following.

  • Climate change and sea level rise (Delaware).
  • Promoting sustainable development practices (Louisiana).
  • Public health and the built environment (Minnesota).
  • HUD Sustainability Planning Grant for integrating housing, transportation, and employment in the region (Mississippi).
  • Sustainability toolkits and collaboration (Oregon and Washington).
  • Climate action plans (Tennessee).
  • Energy efficiency (Arizona).
  • Regional transportation and sustainability issues (National Capital Area).
  • Health and planning (California-Inland Empire Section).
  • Eco-municipalities and smart growth (Wisconsin).

Four state chapters expressed interest in additional information, as follows.

  • Best practices (Kentucky).
  • Sustainability committee goals and objectives (Georgia).
  • Sustainability committee work programs (Arizona).
  • Information useful for starting a sustainability committee (Mississippi).

The state chapters without sustainability committees had the following explanations.

  • Have functional but not issue-based committees.
  • Absence of sufficient interest to lead a committee.
  • Anti-sustainability planning sentiment in the community.
  • Address the issue when interest arises.
  • Pursue the topic through other functional committees, collaborations, or opportunities, but not through a dedicated committee.
  • Already built into the chapter’s mission and strategic plan.
  • Handled better locally, not at the state level.
  • Insufficient chapter capacity to address the topic in any manner.
  • Need to develop more chapter capacity before taking on other initiatives.
  • No public or local professional call to address sustainability on a statewide basis.
  • Conflicts of interest often arise when multi-jurisdiction chapters address issues or try to form issue-based committees.

Sustainability Committees

Five state chapters have sustainability committees. They represent a range of approaches and work plans that may be useful to other chapters considering a more formal initiative. The five chapters are California-Northern, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

Three other state chapters have similar efforts focused on sustainability. One member of the Utah Executive Committee leads their Green Committee, which addresses environmental and sustainability issues and is developing a web page of resources. Neither Oregon nor Washington has separate sustainability committees, but their sustainability initiatives are extensive and longstanding. Washington APA addresses sustainability through the lens of climate change, the Growth Management Act, and Livable Washington. The Oregon APA’s sustainability work includes development of an extensive sustainability toolkit for Oregon planners that other planners may find useful. The Chapter collaborates with Washington APA on their “Game Changing Initiatives,” which are not focused exclusively on “sustainability” but includes those principles. The Chapter promotes “sustainable development . . . through comprehensive planning for economic development, social and environmental objectives.” In addition, the Chapter’s 2010-2015 strategic plan identifies sustainability as a primary planning challenge, with the biggest challenge being the integration of sustainability principles and concepts into the state program and into planning practice generally.

Committee summaries follow below in alphabetical order by state.

  • APA CA-Northern (2010). The Sustainability Committee’s mission is to “create a learning-practice network that advances effective sustainability planning in the Northern Section.” The Committee enhances understanding and practice by illuminating leading edge and strategic sustainability frameworks, initiatives, and planning cases. Such approaches catalyze planning innovation to achieve net-zero and restorative environmental impacts, economic prosperity, and vibrant livable communities. The Committee pursues this mission in four ways: (1) publishing a regular newsletter column (“Plan-it sustainably”), a bimonthly E-Update, a blog, articles, guides, reports, and a web site; (2) holding workshops to deepen dialogue, training, and collaboration, and offering AICP Professional Certification Maintenance credit; (3) conducting research to advance practice in collaboration with local universities and firms; and (4) catalyzing planning innovation to support the shift to regenerative planning (practice, regulations, and legislation).
  • APA Colorado (2009). The Sustainability Committee’s mission is to “promote the integration of sustainability principles into planning policy and practice.” The Sustainability Committee pursues a work program of education and outreach. It meets monthly, plans trainings and events, assists with state conference greening; identifies and promotes best practices; collaborates with other organizations; and engages Colorado APA membership. The Committee works with the Legislative Committee to promote policy recommendations that support sustainability planning. They share innovative methods and foster dialog. They publish articles and promote events regularly in the Chapter’s newsletter. The Committee holds seminars with CM credit throughout the year and at the State Conference. The Chapter website provides links to resources and displays volunteer opportunities.
  • APA Florida (2012). The Sustainability Committee completed start-up tasks in 2012, such as defining sustainability and establishing committee objectives. They found each committee member had different ideas about sustainability that took time to reconcile. They also found that defining an arena of focus is particularly challenging because sustainability planning is such an all-encompassing subject. The Committee has ambitious plans to provide extensive web-based sustainability planning resources. Their committee developed the following objectives: (1) create a consistent message (theme, definition) of sustainability for community planning in Florida; (2) provide advice and direction to the Chapter’s Executive Committee and Legislative Policy Committee on sustainability initiatives and efforts; (3) identify other existing sustainability efforts, and as appropriate, find ways to coordinate, complement, and not duplicate their efforts; (4) provide resources on sustainability and sustainable planning practices to planners through the Chapter’s web site; (5) identify and highlight the role of planners in sustainability and building sustainable communities; and (6) provide a forum for discussion about sustainability for the profession and others.
  • APA Massachusetts (2004). The Sustainability Committee works towards the following three objectives: (1) providing a forum for professionals, students, and other interested parties involved with sustainability to discuss planning issues; (2) increasing fellowship among committee members through the exchange of information and ideas; and (3) increasing planners’ knowledge of the growing sustainable development practice throughout all aspects of land use planning within Massachusetts.
  • APA New Jersey. The Sustainability Committee promotes planning that creates sustainable, green, energy efficient communities at all levels of government. This type of planning creates strong relationships between buildings, land use, housing, all modes of transportation, and the environment to improve energy efficiency and reduce environmental impacts. The Committee promotes livable communities through community education, public charrettes, and facilitating inter-organizational initiatives. The Committee reviews, comments, and proposes legislation and policies that promote eco-friendly community design and a holistic approach to increase the use of best sustainable planning practices and community livability models and tools.


This section assesses the findings presented above to illuminate the primary challenges that state chapters face in responding to society’s sustainability challenge. The explanations for not having a dedicated sustainability committee suggest that some state chapters may have insufficient capacity, may not perceive a relevant role, or in some cases face public opposition to the topic. The range of explanations and the four types of requested information (best practices, goals and objectives, work programs, and start-up information) indicate high-priority needs of any state APA chapter interested in exploring and embracing the sustainability challenge. The requested information on “goals and objectives” raises the larger issues of purpose and definition related to advancing society’s sustainability response, while that on “work program” raises the general issues of methods and roles related to mounting an effective sustainability response.

The issue-based initiatives that state chapters pursue and the work programs of sustainability committees illustrate the different ways that chapters presently define and respond to the sustainability challenge. These different approaches reflect many different definitions of the sustainability challenge. Like all definitions and approaches, they vary in their effectiveness. For the purposes of this article, one useful way of understanding this variation is by examining  three general approaches to sustainability: (1) conservation and environmentalism (habitat, resources, and energy conservation); (2) planning (smart growth, livable places, and healthy cities); and (3) regenerative design and planning using the end-game performance parameters of net-zero/restorative impacts to drive needed innovation (Eco-Municipalities, Eco-Districts, Living Building/City Challenge, Integrated Community Sustainability Planning, One Planet Framework).

Initiatives using either of the first two approaches tend to be tactical and issue-based while those using the third approach are anchored in ecosystem principles and typically have a strategic, end-game focus. The first two typically respond with per-unit environmental impact mitigation, such as a 15% reduction in GHG emissions per vehicle, which simply slows the rate of ultimate damage. In contrast, the third embraces the full challenge. It focuses on achieving the end game of sustainability success with at least net-zero-if not net-positive-restorative impacts. This approach addresses the root economic “source” of the sustainability challenge. It “re-couples” our economy and environment in ways that eliminate environmental damage and enhance the economy, thereby establishing the basis for durable prosperity. This approach is not a “silver bullet,” but by embracing the whole challenge from the beginning, it motivates the required innovation and magnitude of response needed for success.

Thus, in addition to the relatively “normal” organizational challenges of mounting an organized response to a planning need, such as capacity and best practices noted above, there is the additional challenge for state chapters that want to embrace the sustainability challenge further of identifying an effective response when that response is still a work in progress.

Enhancing the Response

This section explores ways that state chapters and the new Division could enhance state chapter sustainability initiatives in light of the challenges discussed above in the “Findings” and “Assessment” subsections. This initial research suggests a varied state chapter response to the sustainability challenge, which probably reflects society’s present understanding of the challenge and comfort zone for responding. It is difficult for planning practice to get too far ahead of society. It also reflects sustainability’s unusually difficult methodological, technical, and leadership challenge. However, compared to conditions created by accelerating socioeconomic and environmental trends, these findings reveal a gap between the current and needed sustainability response. Bridging the gap becomes the challenge, the measure of success, and the method for motivating the needed level of creativity and effort. How to bridge the gap becomes the challenge to state APA chapters who want to enhance their sustainability initiatives or start or expand a sustainability committee.

The assessment in the preceding section suggests that state chapters face the following challenges when addressing sustainability.

  1. Capacity and resources.
  2. Leadership and education.
  3. Constructively engaged public.
  4. Best-practices tools.
  5. Committee start-up information, including sample goals, objectives, and work programs.
  6. A clear strategic framework to use in identifying effective approaches and moving towards the end game of sustainability success.

State APA chapters and the new Division can meet these needs with standard information, education, and training services, possibly in partnership with National APA. In addition, creating a national collaborative learning/practice sustainability planning network can increase the speed of learning, innovation, and effectiveness.

However, formulating the content for these programs raises the critical question of the preceding section: of the many possibilities, which approaches are effective and how are they identified? Does society and planning simply need to do more of what it already does (business as usual), faster, more extensively, or better? If so, expanding the use of best practices may be sufficient. Alternatively, do society and planning need to do something fundamentally different-in other words, “outside-the-box” innovation? If so, then the needed understanding and responses may not yet exist, “best practices” may be inadequate for the larger goal, and taking an experimental approach may be a necessary part of the response.

How do we proceed under these conditions of uncertainty? One option is “best practices+,” where the “+” stands for on-going innovation, invention, and experimentation until we achieve sustainability success. This predicament leaves state chapters, the new Division, the profession, and individual planners, with one additional challenge (to add to the six identified above):

“7.  Routine innovation.”

How can we design the innovation methodology needed to achieve sustainability success, and then incorporate it into our planning practices and societal institutions?  Fortunately, the profession already has core expertise in integrative planning and design methodology that it can harness to the task. In addition, the profession already has promising initiatives in the newly coalescing arena of “regenerative” design, planning, and development with its endgame focus on net-zero/restorative impacts. The challenge will be institutionalizing innovation.

These initiatives have deep roots in the long-standing “ecological design” tradition of planning and sustainable development. Therefore, they are a natural starting point for state chapters and the new Division in developing content for the information, education, and training services that would be developed to address the needs (1-7) summarized above. Doing so would require critically evaluating leading-edge sustainability planning (definitions, assumptions, strategies, process, methods, content, tools) for their transferable value. However, this additional need for on-going innovation in routine planning practice as a requirement for effective sustainability planning may involve additional research and development initiatives. This is another arena of activity and support that state APA chapters and the new Division, in concert with National APA could undertake.


A fitting thought for our profession as we embrace the sustainability challenge is the adage, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Architect William McDonough extends this idea when he says, “Being less bad is not being good!” That reframing illuminates the fundamental shift of approach that now challenges the planning profession and society more widely. Orchestrating this shift, at individual through institutional levels, is our 21 century challenge.


In light of the informal research results discussed above, what are your ideas about (1) the nature of the sustainability planning challenge and the role of state APA chapters and the new APA Sustainable Communities Division in addressing it; and (2) designing the new roles and practices to further develop the approach and capacity needed to respond effectively to the sustainability challenge? The Division invites you to participate in the collaborative response to these central questions through its online discussion on this topic at, its facilitated discussion session at the 2013 National APA Conference in Chicago (Mobilizing Sustainability, 3-4:15 pm, Sunday, April 14), and the Division’s on-going dialogue and work program.

Scott T. Edmondson, AICP, is a Strategic Sustainability Planner-Economist with the San Francisco Planning Department, a member of the new APA Sustainable Communities Division, founder/member/past co-director of the APA California Chapter Northern Sustainability Committee, and founder/principal of Strategic Sustainability Institute 2030. The views expressed in this article are his alone. The review and comment team consisting of Carine Arendes, Clark Henry, Daniel Lerch, Anne Miller, and Marie Summers provided valuable insights.

Please make any comments on this article here:


Comments are closed.