Blueprint for a sustainable state

Making a blueprint

Courtesy morguefile


By Marilyn Skolnick

Although sustainability is generally defined in terms of protecting our resources so that they will be available for future generations, it is increasingly clear that the issue of sustainability is now more immediate.

If we are to sustain our planet and our communities, we need to manage them so we do not destroy the natural environment upon which we all currently depend. 

Although it may not be readily apparent, sustainable development is at the heart of developing a sustainable world. Because people now commonly live long distances from workplaces, shopping centres, and entertainment districts, most of our communities are now entirely dependant on automobiles. And automobiles are responsible for inefficient energy use, reliance on foreign oil, air pollution, increasing traffic congestion and commute times, and the loss of open space and habitat.

In our state, the biggest hurdle that sustainable development has to overcome is the Pennsylvania Municipalities Code, which governs how land can be developed and stresses zoning that separates land uses. This type of zoning isolates office space from shopping and services, and housing from each other, so there are isolated "islands" of each type of development. Combine this type of zoning with low-density growth planning and it not only discourages sustainability, but actually encourages sprawl.

In contrast, studies have shown that mix-use communities, which locate residential buildings within walking distance of offices, restaurants, retail, civic spaces, and public transportation significantly reduces a community’s dependence on cars, preserves green space and natural resources, and promotes economic development. That’s because when a community is walkable and services are close by and accessible, residents are less likely to drive.

Below are a few principles that urban planners have developed to encourage mix-use planning.

  • Implement policies that make drivers pay the full cost of using personal automobiles.
  • Except in the most densely built areas, limit building beyond the edges of current development.
  • Re-develop vacant or low-intensity development within currently developed areas or higher intensities.
  • Design comprehensive mixed-use neighborhoods instead of isolated subdivisions and developments,
  • Make neighborhoods as pedestrian friendly and bicycle friendly as possible.
  • Create mass transit systems to link neighborhoods, employment centers, and other types of development.
  • Create communities that contain a mix of development types and land-uses; avoid large tracts with a single type of land-use.

Sustainable development is an issue for all communities, from small rural towns that are losing the natural environment upon which their jobs depend, to large metropolitan areas where pollution, urban decay, and sprawl are significantly decreasing the quality of life. 

Because how we plan our land use is critical to our ability to sustain our environment and thus, ourselves, we need to we need to educate our neighbors and public officials about mix-use communities and their relationship to energy consumption.


Marilyn Skolnick serves as co-chair of the Chapter's transportation and land use committe.

Published November 2007