What Makes a Sustainable Community?


We spend a lot of time talking about sustainability, despite there being no agreed definition on what it actually is. We know that comprehensive sustainability considers economic, environmental and social factors, but a true understanding remains elusive. Yet alongside this sustainability debate, a more pragmatic approach has emerged, putting communities first. But what exactly makes a sustainable community, and how can urban bicycle networks contribute?

A key moment for the concept of ‘sustainable communities’ came during the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. ‘The Earth Summit’, as the event was informally known, saw the publication of Agenda 21, intended as a global action plan to address ‘a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being’

Whilst acknowledging environmental concerns, Agenda 21 was one of the first high profile publications to prioritise the social aspect of sustainability – something which has continued to be debated in the years following publication. However, one chapter inspired less debate, instead encouraging a more practical approach to sustainability that has received government endorsement on local, national, and international levels. Referred to as ‘“a local Agenda 21” for the community’ within the publication itself, the phrase ‘sustainable communities’ soon began to be used in its place in everyday language.

As with anything to do with sustainability, pinpointing a precise definition that everyone agrees on is, frankly, impossible. Yet reaching a general understanding of what ‘sustainable communities’ involves has been surprisingly straightforward. Most agree that a key element of a sustainable community is the use of resources to serve current residents, whilst ensuring that adequate resources are available for future residents. But in order to specifically understand the specific role of an urban bicycle network in developing sustainable communities, a bit more digging would be beneficial.

Comprehensive sustainability considers social, environmental, and economic issues, and sustainable communities should be no different. However, in the UK at least, some earlier reports on the topic skewed more towards sustainable development and construction than the communities within those proposed developments. Thankfully this approach soon evolved, and by 2005 ministers from across Europe got together and endorsed eight characteristics said to represent a sustainable community. Known as the Bristol Accord, this publication saw economic and environmental issues sitting alongside social ones, with ‘places that are considerate of the environment’ receiving a mention, and ‘a flourishing, diverse and innovative local economy’ also noted as important. However, it was inclusivity, participation, and accessibility that received the most attention. Calling for varied and accessible services and ‘shared community activities’ with ‘inclusive participation and representation’, the Bristol Accord made clear that equity is an integral part of a sustainable community.

If we are to better understand the role of urban bicycle networks in creating sustainable communities, specific criteria must be assigned. Economic sustainability and environmental sensitivity seem logical ingredients when trying to create sustainable communities – after all, an area with no employment opportunities and poor air quality is not conducive to sustainability. Similarly, improved accessibility to local services could be considered a key element of sustainable communities, with the potential to generate stronger community bonds and a population more engaged with local ongoings. Issues relating to equity are also important (and featured prominently within the Bristol Accord). Bicycle networks should encourage inclusive participation, being used by as broad a portion of the communities they serve as possible.

Do you think bicycle networks can assist in the development of sustainable communities, and do you think these are the right criteria for judging them against?

Image courtesy of hugojcardoso on flickr

  • Cesar

    Bicycle networks are incredibly helpful to develop sustainable communities. If we want to make a community livable, thriving, and accessible, biking can aid a lot. The person who rides the bike knows that it will not be able to ride at 70 miles per hour, and also has contact with the outside world, in contrast with a zooming, air conditioned car. This “slowness” and contact that biking has affects positively in the community in which he is.

    • Ntal15

      Investing in bicycle infrastructure will have a multiplier effect.  People will respect themselves for traveling in a sustainable manner and thus care more about what happens in the broader city landscape.  If people love themselves for everything they do we can progress in which ever direction (bicycles included!)  Change starts fundamentally and eventually everyone will appreciate the importance of two wheels.

  • http://twitter.com/Erth2Ethn Ethan Yen

    I’m new to this Bicycle network area and the first question that went through my mind was, “How do bicycle networks work in the winter?” 

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net Joe Peach

      Depends entirely on the winter! In the uk there’s not much difference. Less people cycle because of the cold and wet, though many people still cycle. In other cities, say Montreal for example, it gets reigned in a lot. So the cycle hire scheme goes into hibernation, and I imagine any lanes they do have aren’t so usable. It really depends. I don’t think it matters to be honest. If a network is out of action for 3 months and in use for the other 9, so be it. We’re all a slave to the seasons!

    • John Feidt

      I work in a bike share system that shuts down between early November and mid April. Several bike oriented businesses close down for the winter as well. The city gov’t tries to keep the bikelanes properly plowed, but sometimes they disappear as the road narrows due to snow. Only the most hardcore commute via bike in mid January.

  • http://remidesouza.blogspot.com Remigius de Souza

    All aborigine communities
    are self-help, therefore, sustainable collectives: Worth learning from their
    time-tested wisdom. Cities live a life of hydroponics on external aids or on
    crutches, and survive on regions as parasites. How any city could could be