Sustainable cities and communities refer to local governance strategies to achieve ecological, economic, and social sustainability in ways that are integrated and complementary, that is, without perverse tradeoffs between ecology and economy and in ways that enhance social goals of equity, diversity, community, and democracy.

Fast Facts:

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) lists as the first of its strategic goals to “catalyze and lead the building sector’s active participation in the movement to achieve sustainable cities and communities.” USGBC was founded in 1993 by representatives of a dozen sectors of the building industry to promote building standards that reduce energy and water use, among other goals, which then became formalized in LEED (Leadership in Environment and Energy Design).


Much civic action on the environment during the 1950s and 1960s had urban components, such as the struggles in many cities around clean water and clean air. However, the command-and-control design of major environmental laws in the 1970s did not include robust support for community- and place-based problem solving.

The Brundtland Commission’s report on sustainable development in 1987 lent further credence to the term, as have subsequent UN reports. It is now listed as Goal 11 of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

This term began to be utilized tentatively in the U.S. during the 1980s by activists and professionals to help knit together urban civic and environmental innovations of previous decades. United Nations reports and projects lent further credence and the first ambitious handbook of best practices for North America appeared in 1992.

Cities have developed sustainability plans, sustainability offices, and sustainability directors, and have been assisted by ICLEI USA for the past three decades, and since 2009 also by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, with the aid of many other collaborating associations, professions, and institutions.

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