Jeffrey C. Bridger and A.E. Luloff

Over the last three decades, both the public and policymakers have become increasingly concerned over the negative consequences of human activities. During the 1980s, the concept of sustainable development emerged as a popular solution to the thorny problem of meeting the material needs of the present population, while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the environment. Rather than pitting economic growth against environmental protection, proponents of sustainability have shifted the terms of debate by focusing on "...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987:43). The vagueness of this definition arguably contributes to its growing popularity with international development agencies, government policy makers, academics and environmental activists. As Lele (1991) and Korten (1992) observe, sustainability has become a standard component of development rhetoric. Even when economic growth is the primary goal of a development project, at least a passing nod is given to the issue of environmental sustainability (Korten, 1992). This new legitimacy has prompted scholars to broaden the range of issues to which sustainability can be applied. A potentially important development along these lines has been the emerging literature surrounding the concept of the sustainable community and its logical partner, sustainable community development (Van der Ryn and Calthorpe, 1986; Kemmis, 1990; Fowler, 1991; Rees and Roseland, 1991; Hill, 1992; Bray, 1993; Perks and Van Vliet, 1993, Chamberland, 1994; Gibbs, 1994).

In this paper we synthesize this diverse body of research, begin to delineate the central features of a definition of the sustainable community, and assess the obstacles and opportunities that need to be considered as we think about how to develop sustainable communities. Before turning to these tasks, however, it is necessary to discuss sustainable development in more detail, because it is a concept over which serious disagreements exist. Moreover, any definition of "the sustainable community" depends on the definition of sustainable development chosen.


Most definitions of sustainable development are based on intergenerational equity, which is captured by the idea that "...the current generation must not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their material needs and enjoy a healthy environment" (Batie, 1989:1084) (Footnote 1994 issue of Economic Affairs for a contrary view that does not base the definition of sustainable development on the idea of intergenerational equity). Advocates of sustainable development agree that use of resources in the present should not result in a decreasing standard of living for future generations. Despite this, two rather different interpretations of how sustainability can be achieved exist, and these lead to different definitions of sustainable development.

View 1: The Constrained Growth Definition

The first definition of sustainable development can be subsumed under the notion of Constrained Economic Growth. Advocates of this position argue that sustainable development is "...the pursuit of growth subject to environmental constraints"; (Batie, 1989:1084). This approach to development involves two distinct stages. First, contractual arrangements based on ecological criteria must be established. Only then can the standard utilitarian objective of maximizing economic returns can be pursued.

The Constrained Economic Growth definition differs little from standard neo-classical approaches to economic development. It simply qualifies utility maximization by adding ecological considerations. Growth, although pursued in a slower and more ecologically sensitive manner, is still the primary objective. This definition dominates official discourse. As Korten (1992) points out, even as the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (1987) detailed the environmental consequences of unregulated growth, it nevertheless concluded that sustainability depended on continued growth: "If large parts of the developing world are to avert economic, social, and environmental catastrophes, it is essential that global economic growth be revitalized" (Bruntland Commission quoted in Korten, 1992:161). This conclusion, according to Korten, contradicts the Commission's own analysis "...that growth and overconsumption are root causes of the problem" (Korten, 1992:161). In his view, continued growth, even if planned with ecological considerations in mind, ignores the mounting evidence suggesting that the economic demands we have placed on the environment now exceed what the ecosystem can sustain.

Other critics of the Constrained Growth Approach (Daly and Cobb, 1989; Lele, 1991) argue that equating sustainable development with sustainable growth is contradictory and misleading. Lele (1991:609) summarizes this perspective:

    "When development is taken to be synonymous with growth in material consumption - which it often is even today - SD (sustainable development) would be 'sustaining the growth in material consumption' (presumably indefinitely). But such an idea contradicts the now general recognition that "ultimate limits" [to usable resources] exist. At best, it could be argued that growth in per capita consumption of certain basic goods is necessary in certain regions of the world in the short term. To use 'sustainable development' synonymously with 'sustain[ing] growth performance' (Idachaba, 1987) therefore a misleading usage of the term, or at best a short-term and localized notion that goes against the long-term global perspective of SD" (Lele, 1991:609).

Usage of the term, in this context, is often a mechanism by which governments and international aid agencies coopt and placate opposition to growth as usual (Buttel and Gillespie, 1988). In short, critics of the Constrained Growth Approach to sustainable development see it as a smokescreen which obscures the ecologically disruptive consequences of conventional development strategies (Worster, 1995).

The Resource Maintenance Definition

The second definition of sustainable development can be referred to as the Resource Maintenance Approach. This position is rooted in the criticisms discussed above and emphasizes the maintenance of existing and future resources rather than continued growth. Here, efforts are focused on minimizing our impact on the environment and use of natural resources while simultaneously meeting the material needs of people (Batie, 1989:1085). In this framework, economic development is not achieved by determining a sustainable level of growth and pursuing traditional economic development objectives. Instead, protection of natural resources is an explicit goal and is placed on equal footing with economic considerations.

The Resource Mainenance Approach requires a fundamental rethinking of our relationship to the environment, consumption patterns, and standards of living. It is most clearly (and some would say radically) articulated by proponents of the "deep ecology" movement such as Arne Naess. Chief among the changes called for in the Resource Maintenance Approach are: an appreciation of the intrinsic value of the natural environment and all life forms; satisfaction of vital needs rather than desires; anti-consumerism and minimization of personal property; and, the use of simple and appropriate technology whenever possible (Naess, 1995).

Above all, what distinguishes the Resource Maintenance Approach from the Constrained Growth Model is the former's very different definition of development. Following Redclift (1987), Yanarella and Levine (1992:762) argue that development should be understood explicitly in terms of ecological sustainability:

    Working from the proposition that sustainable development socially can be discerned in part by working from the dynamics of ecosystems, Redclift shows how complex ecosystems, like the tropical rainforests, achieve ecosustainability or homeostatic balance, or what natural ecologists call 'climax systems' of high diversity, large biomass, and high stability through protection from rapid change and 'through shifts of energy system flows away from production and towards the maintenance of the system itself.' By contrast, he (Redclift) notes, human settlements typically seek to stall such ecosystems in early stages of ecological succession, where the yield of products is high, but where the stabilizing elements of organic matter and biomass fail to accumulate. High production within these ecosystems, then, comes at the cost of confounding nature's strategy of maximum protection or adaptation.

From this perspective, growth is defined as a "...quantitative expansion of the physical dimensions of the economic system, while development should refer to the qualitative change of a physically nongrowing economic system in dynamic equilibrium with the environment" (Daly and Cobb, 1989:71). At the heart of this distinction is the idea that the earth is finite and nongrowing, and that any physical subsystem must also eventually become nongrowing. Thus, it makes no sense to speak of sustainable growth because the concept is contradictory (Daly and Cobb, 1989:72). Sustainable development, on the other hand, because it focuses on resource maintenance, involves no contradiction.

It should be noted, however, that even among proponents of the Resource Maintenance Approach, there is disagreement over the extent to which humanly created and natural capital must be maintained separately. Those who advocate what Daly and Cobb (1989:72) call "weak sustainability" suggest that the total stock of humanly created and natural capital be maintained. This line of reasoning is based on the assumption that human and natural capital can be easily substituted in most production functions. Practically, this means that as natural capital is depleted, it must be offset by gains in human capital. A "strong sustainability" approach to resource maintenance, by definition, rejects the idea that growth of humanly created capital can offset the continual loss of natural resources (Daly and Cobb, 1989:72). Advocates of this position argue that human and natural capital must be maintained separately, since "...they are complements rather than substitutes in most production functions" (Daly and Cobb, 1989:72).


Although we have described the Constrained Growth Approach and the Resource Maintenance Approach as if there were little common ground between them, in practice the distinctions are not so clear. For one thing, most proponents of both positions agree that intergenerational equity is central to any discussion of sustainability. Moreover, those who hold to the constrained growth approach recognize the need for the affluent countries of the north to reduce their consumption of natural resources and consumer goods, and they agree that efforts to achieve sustainability ". . . must recognize ecological interdependence as well as the interdependence of humans and the natural environment" (Castle, 1993:281).

For their part, proponents of the Resource Maintenance Approach have difficulty maintaining a rigid distinction between growth and development. Some allow, for instance, that short term economic growth in certain parts of the world may be a necessary prerequisite to sustainable development (Lele, 1991). In fact, given the extent to which capitalist development and its belief system has penetrated underdeveloped nations, it may be politically impossible for the north to demand that our less fortunate neighbors pursue policies which strictly adhere to the idea that development . . . refers to the qualitative change of a physically nongrowing economic system in dynamic equilibrium with the environment (Daly and Cobb, 1989:71).

While the differences between these perspectives are neither trivial nor completely reconcilable, common themes can be discerned. Batie (1989:1085), for instance, suggests that both definitions can be subsumed under an alternative world view characterized by the following components:

  • a perception that the biosphere imposes limits on economic growth,
  • an expressed lack of faith in science or technology as the primary means by which human betterment can be achieved,
  • extreme aversion to environmental risks,
  • support for redistributive justice and egalitarian ethics and policies,
  • concern over population growth and faith in the wisdom of human capital development, and
  • survival of species, and protection of the environment and minority cultures are goals that are at least as important as economic growth (Batie, 1989:1085).

Obviously, this definition most closely resembles the Constrained Growth Approach to sustainable development. Nevertheless, it is inclusive enough to capture all but the most extreme versions of each definition. Such an approach provides a space for compromise that is otherwise lacking in most debates over the meaning of sustainable development. This is essential if we are to get beyond the kind of polarizing arguments which regularly accompany the economic development-environmental protection debate. Hence, in the remainder of this paper sustainable development will refer to the broad, regulative principles outlined above.


The political and cultural difficulties associated with attempts to achieve sustainability on a global level provide one of the key justifications for sustainable communities. Proponents of sustainable communities argue that global- or national-scale strategies tend to prevent "...meaningful and concerted political action" (Yanarella and Levine, 1992a:764). At these levels, the scale of change required is so great that problems of coordination and cooperation across political units are bound to be enormous. Moreover, those who espouse sustainability on a grand scale often portray environmental problems in such apocalyptic terms that they

    ...sometimes revert to the language of technocratic planning and administration and speak of the need for global ecological planners in international agencies who must work with national political elites and multinational corporate leaders to manage these environmental crises. The problem is that these technocratic designs and strategies only duplicate the social and organizational forms and mechanisms that helped to produce the ecological condition confronting us in the first place (Yanarella and Levine, 1992a:766)

According to critics of global approaches to sustainability, this kind of solution leaves relations of domination in place. In such a scenario, those who control the resources (and who are responsible for many of the decisions and actions that have wreaked havoc on the environment) are also in charge of cleaning up the mess. The result is a crisis mentality which relies on technological solutions for use as band-aids to temporarily patch larger structural problems. From this perspective, sustainable development on a global scale might actually strengthen the economic and social conditions which support unsustainable practices, "...especially when such 'band-aid' solutions lead to situations where these deeper ecological problems fall below the threshold of public attention and the political momentum for more fundamental change is allowed to dissipate" (Yanarella and Levine, 1992a:766).

In contrast, by focusing on sustainability at the local level, changes can be seen and felt in a more immediate manner. To speak of a "sustainable society" or a "sustainable world" requires a level of abstraction that is meaningless to most people. This simple fact makes it extremely difficult to generate and maintain the political will necessary to implement sustainable practices on a large scale. The locality, by contrast, is the level of social organization where the consequences of environmental degradation are most keenly felt and where successful intervention is most noticeable. This combination of factors arguably creates a climate more conducive to the kind of long term political mobilization that is implicit in the term "sustainable development." Moreover, as Yanarella and Levine (1992a:769) observe, sustainable community development may ultimately be the most effective means of demonstrating the possibility that sustainability can be achieved on a broader scale, precisely because it places the concept of sustainability " a context within which it may be validated as a process." In short, to the extent that concrete examples of sustainable development can be documented, the prospects for widespread acceptance and application of the idea are improved.

Finally, sustainable development rooted in place-based communities has the advantage of flexibility. Communities differ in terms of environmental problems, natural and human resource endowments, levels of economic and social development, and physical (i.e., geological and topographical) and climatic conditions. Given such heterogeneity, it makes little sense to advocate a one size fits all approach to sustainable development. A community-level approach allows for the design of policies that are sensitive to the opportunities and constraints inherent to particular places.


To advocate a strategy of sustainable development based on sustainable community development is one thing. To define and describe the elements involved in achieving a sustainable community is another matter entirely. For the most part, definitions of sustainable community development parallel the definitions of sustainable development discussed above. The main difference involves the obvious reduction in geographic scope: sustainable community development is local. Consider the following representative definitions of sustainable community development:

    Environmentally sustainable urban economic development can be defined as local economic change which contributes to global environmental sustainability, while also enhancing the local natural and constructed urban environment. Sustainable development favours increased local control over development decisions, and such 'bottom up' development strategies would require devolution of decision-making authority to the local level. . . (Gibbs, 1994:106-107).

    Strong Sustainability has serious implications for urban form, for the material basis of urban life, and for community social relationships that must be expressed as practical measures in planning (Canadian) communities. These measures must emphasize the efficient use of urban space, reducing consumption of material and energy resources, improving administrative and planning processes sensitively with the attendant socioeconomic and ecological complexities . . . sustainable development implies that the use of energy and materials be in balance with such 'natural capital' processes as photosynthesis and waste assimilation (Rees, 1990a, b). This in turn implies increasing community and regional self-reliance to reduce dependency on imports...The benefits would be reduced energy budgets, reduced material consumption, and a smaller, more compact urban pattern interspersed with productive areas to collect energy grow crops, and recycle wastes (Van der Ryn and Calthorpe, 1986, p. ix) (Rees and Roseland, 1991:17).

    In the process of aggregating human beings into a relatively small area and providing the necessary forum for civic life, the sustainable city serves as a medium for decentralizing and localizing economic production and commerce and thus preserving the social surplus of the local economy for the community's self-sufficiency and self-enhancement. Likewise, a local, decentralized economy organized around soft energy path options, appropriate technology, and reskilled workers establishes the basis for overcoming the historical antagonisms between city and country, economic growth and environmental health. In so doing, the ecological city can serve as a working model whose benefits, lessons, and consequences can radiate outward, touching more and more features of modern society (Yanarella and Levine, 1992b, 305).

    Sustainability implies that the use of energy and materials in an urban area be in balance with what the region can supply continuously through natural processes such as photosynthesis, biological decomposition, and the biochemical processes that support life . . . New urban technologies will become less dependent on fossil fuels and rely more on information and a careful integration with biological processes (Van Der Ryn and Calthorpe, 1986: viii).

These definitions of sustainable community development stress the importance of striking a balance between environmental concerns and development objectives, while simultaneously enhancing local social relationships; sustainable communities not only protect and enhance the environment, they also promote more humane local societies. Although the relationship is not clearly articulated, local control over development decisions appears to be the primary means by which sustainable community development can be achieved. Phrases such as "devolution of decision-making authority to the local level," "increased community self-reliance," and "localizing economic production and commerce" suggest a very active model of community which assumes that communities possess a relatively complete table of social organization, and that the constituent actors, groups, associations, and institutions are not only able to mobilize for collective, long term action, but have engaged this process regularly.

To assume that communities can and do act is problematic in several respects. First, studies of community activeness have documented serious gaps in local social organization and a dearth of locality-oriented action (Wilkinson, 1991), especially in rural areas. Communities do act, of course, but they typically do so intermittently and primarily in reaction to some perceived crisis (Tilly, 1973; Luloff, 1990; Wilkinson, 1991). Even in communities that can be characterized as active, there tends to be relatively little coordination among actors and actions; different interest groups pursue specific objectives largely in isolation from one another (Bridger, 1992). Second, the available data concerning local economic development efforts - an aspect of community life that will surely play an important role in strategies to create sustainable communities - suggests that leadership, and participation are limited primarily to economic elites whose interest in development often has more to do with private profit than community well-being (Molotch, 1976; Logan and Molotch, 1987). Finally, as Warren (1972) argues, historical developments such as increasing contact with, and reliance on, extra-local institutions and sources of income and employment has eroded local autonomy. With the solidification of this trend, "...the locus of decision-making...often shifts to places outside the community"(Warren, 1972:53). Although decisions, policies, and programs must conform in some respects to community norms and desires, they are frequently formulated outside the community with little regard for local social, economic, or environmental consequences.

Two consequences flow from increased vertical ties, according to Warren (1972) and other observers (Berry, 1993; Sachs, 1995). First, local communities and their economies have become increasingly enmeshed in a global economic system characterized by extreme capital mobility and the use of places as little more than production sites; when a particular place no longer proves to be profitable, corporate decision-makers simply transfer operations elsewhere. The dependency and vulnerability fostered by this situation leaves little room for maneuver in times of economic uncertainty.

The second alleged consequence of increases in vertical ties is a decrease in the importance of the community as a social unit. Here the line of reasoning is that as local communities have been engulfed by the larger society, "...collective sentiments and personal attachment to locality" (Cuba and Hummon, 1993: 114) have weakened. Individuals and organizations are oriented to happenings beyond the local community and less interested and involved in local affairs (Warren, 1972). This trend, according to Meyrowitz (1986), has been exacerbated by technological advances in communications and transportation that allow people to maintain diverse relationships no longer based on residential proximity. Americans, in this view, have lost their sense of place and the social relationships that depended on the common experience of living and working together.

Taken together, these are powerful arguments, and they suggest that portrayals of the sustainable community in terms of economic self-sufficiency and local decision-making power is little more than a romantic longing for a mythical past (Bender, 1978) that ignores current social and economic conditions. Although this conclusion may be premature, there is a clear need to assess critically the prospects for meaningful grass-roots action. Such an assessment requires, in turn, a realistic conception of the contemporary community. The key question that must be asked is: To what extent have the changes described above undermined local forms of community?

As a first step, the obvious importance of extra-local ties must be acknowledged. Corporate investment decisions and macro-economic changes have both positive and negative impacts on individual communities. In fact, as globalization of the economy proceeds, the fate of many localities is likely to become even more dependent upon decisions and policies made elsewhere. Nor is there any doubt that technological advances have reduced the social cost of space and made possible "...the easy maintenance of dispersed primary ties" (Wellman, 1979:1206). What is in doubt is whether these factors have destroyed or made irrelevant social interaction among people inhabiting a common territory.

To date, there is little evidence to suggest that community, as an interactional phenomenon, has been eclipsed by the forces of modernization (Sampson, 1988; Cuba and Hummon, 1993). Indeed, the components that sociologists typically list as essential to community - a locality, a local society, collective actions, and mutual identity - continue to depend on social interaction for their existence. Social interaction is "...a pervasive feature of community life that underlies and gives substance to the ecological, cultural, organizational, and social psychological aspects" (Wilkinson, 1991:2). Although the local community is no longer the self contained, clearly bounded entity it may have been in the distant past, this does not obviate the fact that "people live together in localities...(and) continue to interact with one another daily in the process of conducting the various aspects of their lives" (Wilkinson, 1991:22). In short, for most people, place and place-based relationships are still an important feature of human existence.

Of course the boundaries of these settlements are vague, and people may spend a substantial portion of their time in localities other than the one in which they reside. Thus, the community does not necessarily coincide with arbitrary, and sometimes artificial, municipal boundaries. Contemporary communities tend to have a regional character with boundaries defined in practical terms by patterns of interaction that cross jurisdictional borders. This means that the search for sociologically meaningful community boundaries is an inductive task. Analysis might begin at the municipal level, but community boundaries can only be determined by tracing the territorial scope of the "...actions and connections among people" (Wilkinson, 1991:24).

To define community in terms of social interaction and argue that the local community remains a relevant unit of social organization does not lead directly to a useful definition of the sustainable community or sustainable community development. The loss of local autonomy and lack of community agency noted above are formidable barriers that cannot be dismantled by definitional fiat. However, an interactional conception of community can provide the basis for the design of strategies which strengthen local forms of social organization (Wilkinson, 1991). This is an important starting point because, in the absence of viable communities, the prospects for locally controlled and planned sustainable community development are dim.


If community depends upon interaction, then it stands to reason that if interaction is suppressed, community is limited (Wilkinson, 1991). In practice, of course, community is always limited because there are inevitable barriers to social interaction. Groups are constantly forming, disbanding, and reforming along diverse interest lines. This process can affect patterns of local interaction in several ways.

The concept of social fields provides a useful way to begin thinking about this issue. Social fields can be defined as loosely bounded arenas of interaction in a local population (Wilkinson, 1991). From the interactional perspective, the community is assumed to be composed of several more or less distinct social fields through which actors pursue or express particular interests - not all of which are place-relevant. For instance, people organize to pursue interests rooted in class, ethnicity, race, occupation, economic objectives, and so forth. These interactional fields can be thought of as "...universes of discourse, regularized mutual response networks, and arenas of social organization" (Maines, 1989:107). Moreover, because they have similar interests, participants in a particular social field frequently come to develop similar perspectives and similar definitions of the same situation. As Maines (1989:110) puts it, "Those who participate in common channels of communication tend to develop common outlooks."

Not only does participation in different channels of communication tend to foster different perceptions of the world, it also affects the frequency and content of local interaction. For instance, it is not difficult to imagine situations in which social fields are so widely separated by lifestyle, ideology, social class, and race or ethnicity, that contact between participants or representatives of these fields is extremely limited. Of even greater significance is the possibility that dissimilarities in perspectives can lead to very different definitions of the same situation. When this is the case, it may be extremely difficult to generate meaningful dialogue. Although various parties may speak the same language, they may do so in different dialects: "What is meaningful in one class or gender position . . . might be intelligible but unimportant in another" (Brown, 1987:130).

These are but a few of the potential barriers to local interaction and they point to the need to clearly specify how community depends upon social interaction. If the various social fields within a community have little experience in dealing with one another or if they hold radically different interests or perspectives, it is unlikely that they will be able to act collectively or develop mutually satisfactory solutions to local problems (Bridger, 1994). In such a situation, especially if it is repeated over time, interaction between social fields is suppressed and community is unlikely to emerge or persist among a local population (Luloff and Swanson, 1995).

The upshot of this discussion is straightforward: Community depends upon the establishment of communicative bonds among the various interactional fields. There must be some mechanism for at least partially transcending the particularistic positions and perspectives of different social fields. From the interactional perspective, these linkages are provided by the community field.

    The community field, a special field among other fields of community action, pursues not any single interest, as most other fields may be said to do, but the general community interest instead. The actions in this field serve to coordinate other action fields, organizing them more or less (through an unbounded, dynamic, and emergent process) into a whole. The community field has actors, associations, and activities, as any social field does; but the interest that guides this field is an interest in structure rather than in specific goals such as economic development or service improvement. The structural interest in the community field is expressed through linking, coordinating actions, actions that identify and reinforce the commonality that permeates the differentiated special interest fields in a community (Wilkinson, 1991:90).

The community field thus provides linkages that highlight or bring into focus common interests in local aspects of social life. The coordinating actions undertaken in the community field do not necessarily harmonize diverse interests. Instead, actions in the communtiy field " . . . reinforce the commonality thatpermeates the differentiated special interest fields in a community" (Wilkinson 1991:90). Through this process community structure becomes more inclusive as the underlying common interests that all actors possess, by virtue of their physical presence in a common territory, are expressed. It represents the capacity (which may be latent) of local residents to work toward ecological, social, and economic well-being (Wilkinson, 1991:88).

Purposive actions to build the community field involve the development of relationships across interest lines. As these relationships become more dense, they provide social capital (Coleman, 1988) in the form of information sources, reciprocal obligations and expectations, increased trust, and perhaps shared norms. These forms of social capital can be thought of as resources that facilitate actions directed at more specific goals. For instance, information is a crucial factor in making decisions about whether or not to pursue a particular line of action. And as Coleman (1988:S104) points out, " . . . acquisition of information is costly. At a minimum, it requires attention, which is always in scarce supply." However, as linkages across interest lines are established, diverse, low cost sources of information multiply rapidly and enhance the likelihood that communities will develop innovative approaches to development (Flora and Flora, 1993:56).

The community field, however, is fragile and varies over time. Since community development is inevitably characterized by power struggles and conflict, this too is a potential barrier to sustainability. Those who seek to maximize growth and profits generated through economic development activities are often at odds with those attempting to create reasonably self sufficient communities that are more in balance with the local ecosystem.

Some might suggest that, in the absence of coordinating actions that assert the general community interest, mediation can occur through formal public hearings, land-use regulations, litigation, and so forth. However, such solutions have historically been temporary and narrow in scope, especially when the issues revolved around economic development-environmental protection conflicts. Zoning changes to protect open space or farmland, for instance, are stop gap measures that typically favor a particular social field and can be easily overturned if there is a change in the local governing body (Bridger, 1992). Moreover, even when a municipal government successfully enacts and enforces land-use restrictions aimed at sustainability, the unintended consequence can be increased environmental degradation in other communities. This is certainly the case with growth control measures; the enacting locality may improve environmental conditions within its municipal boundaries, but it does so at the expense of other areas that must absorb the growth that would have occurred in the absence of regulations. In short, instrumental, or purely technical, approaches to sustainability are not likely to be successful in the long term nor will they necessarily contribute to ecological sustainability at the regional, national or global level.

In order to avoid these kinds of problems, sustainable community development will probably require what Kemmis (1990) calls the politics of possibility. This type of politics rests on collaboration among citizen and community groups and a willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue with one's adversaries rather than procedural grounds and the delegation of responsibility to paid and elected officials (Mathews and McAfee, n.d). It is a politics rooted in direct participation by citizens and community groups. This kind of participatory management links the politics of possibility to the development and maintenance of the community field. Without a vibrant community field to provide communicative linkages that generate social capital and highlight common ground between opposing groups, it is doubtful that any community could achieve the level of trust required to grapple meaningfully with the difficult issues surrounding sustainability.

This is not, however, a politics characterized solely by rationally motivated agreement (Habermas, 1984). In fact, consensus is of secondary importance. The politics of possibility recognizes the contingency and conflict inevitably faced whenever solutions to complex problems are sought. From this perspective, " . . . rationally motivated dissensus is an equally desirable outcome that must be encouraged rather than feared as an affront to communicative ethics" (Shalin, 1992:258). Dissenting viewpoints open spaces for understanding and alert us to the dangers and risks "...inherent in alternative lines of action" (Shalin, 1992:258). It is through the give and take of public discourse - both consensual and conflictual - that a realistic search for local forms of sustainability must occur. The goal of this process is the creation of common ground, not total agreement or compromise. The politics of possibility leads to " . . . diverse actions . . . that the community is willing to support. It is not idealistic; it is practical" (Mathews and McAfee, n.d.:22).

Kemmis (1990) presents a useful example of what the politics of possibility might look like. In 1984, a pulp mill on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana, discovered that its holding ponds were reaching capacity. In response to this situation, the mill owners applied for permission to discharge some of the mill waste into a nearby river. As word of this action became public, a new environmental group was formed and asked the Montana Water Quality Bureau to perform an environmental impact statement. An impact statement, of course, would entail a lengthy process of public hearings. As Kemmis (1990:114) puts it, "The procedural republic was gearing up, with all its potential for two-by-four debates, deadlock, and alienation." But this is not what happened. Instead, the mill owners and the environmentalists began meeting informally to discuss the waste problem. As these discussions progressed, each side began to trust and understand the motives of the other. Eventually, they were able to devise a joint solution which they presented to the Water Quality Bureau.

This example also illustrates more clearly how the community field arises among people who share a common territory and how it is related to the politics of possibility. The community field emerges when, in the course of interaction, people realize that despite possessing special interests, a common concern over place of residence is present. In the case of the pulp mill, both sides realized that "no matter how diverse and complex the patterns of livelihood may be that arise within the river system, no matter how diversely they value it, it is, finally, one and the same river for everyone....and if we all want to stay here . . . then we have to learn, somehow, to live together" (Kemmis, 1990:117). The community field arises when interacting parties recognize the existence of a community interest that transcends the particularistic interests of the various social fields that comprise the community. The community field " . . . is both a consequence and a cause of community actions in special interest areas. It arises from other actions and fields, drawing together their commonalities" (Wilkinson, 1991:90). And, once these lines of communication are established, they tend to reinforce the likelihood that the politics of possibility will become a structural characteristic of community life. However, as noted above, the community field is fragile. It is, to use Everett Hughes's (1971) phrase, a "going concern" that requires ongoing efforts to ensure that relationships are developed and lines of communication kept open.


Given the many obstacles to sustainable community development discussed above, it is doubtful that communities which are net contributors to global sustainability can be created in the near term. Nevertheless, efforts are underway among planners and architects to develop design principles that integrate the social, economic, and ecological aspects of a region into a balanced and holistic entity. The New Urbanism, as this emerging movement is called, focuses on the construction of humanly scaled neighborhoods and communities characterized by mixed land uses that encourage alternative forms of transportation such as mass transit, walking, and bicycling. Other elements include an emphasis on a wide variety of housing types to meet the needs of a diverse population, the preservation of agricultural land and open spaces, and the construction of public spaces as a central feature of community life. Above all, proponents of the New Urbanism argue that:

    "Understanding the qualities of nature in each place, expressing it in the design of communities, integrating it within our towns and respecting its balance are critical to making the human place sustainable and spiritually nourishing" (Calthorpe, 1994:xii).

This kind of comprehensive approach to planning can be most fully implemented in the construction of new towns. In existing communities, established land use patterns and infrastructure largely limit the scope of applicability to infill and redevelopment. Hence, in most communities, the New Urbanism contributes to sustainability in an incremental fashion. But incrementalism is likely to be a hallmark of all efforts to develop sustainable communities; there are no sweeping measures that exist for achieving sustainability in a short time span. Practically, though, the question remains as to what kinds of actions will contribute to sustainable community development. Again, Missoula, Montana's, experience provides insights into how a community can begin to become sustainable.

Missoula lies in a broad mountain valley surrounded by coniferous forests whose soft wood makes good paper. A pulp mill was constructed upwind of the city in the 1950s, and its airborne pollutants often got trapped by wintertime air inversions. As area residents increasingly turned to wood as a fuel source in the wake of the energy crises in the 1970s, Missoula's pollution problem became so bad that it was causing serious health problems and discouraging new forms of economic activity (Kemmis, 1990).

One solution to this problem would have been to regulate wood burning or ban the use of wood stoves entirely. While this may have improved the local air quality, it also would have meant increased reliance on nonrenewable energy sources such as coal, gas, or electricity. However, with the proper type of stove and compressed wood pellets, wood can be a very clean source of energy. This is the route the people of Missoula and the surrounding hinterland chose. "There is now a significant handful of local businesses within Missoula's city region which are profitably engaged in manufacturing clean burning stoves, or compressed wood pellets to burn in them, or furnace accessories to enable commercial or institutional consumers to burn these pellets" (Kemmis, 1990:91-92). The success of each of these industries has reinforced the others and created new community-based forms of economic activity. For instance, several owners of small sawmills have begun discussing the possibility of creating a supplier's cooperative to recycle sawdust into wood pellets. If successful, this effort will not only ensure a plentiful supply of fuel, it also will provide much needed cash to mill owners whose operations are only marginally profitable.

While Missoula still has much work to do if it hopes to solve its air pollution problem, this entrepreneurial approach highlights several important elements of sustainable community development. First, Missoula has taken steps to reduce reliance on nonrenewable resources, and it has done so in a way that simultaneously contributes to global sustainability. Second, in the process of searching for ways to reduce pollution, Missoula has created new economic opportunities and has started to develop a self-reliant regional economy that could further reduce dependence on nonrenewable energy sources. Third, Missoula's experience demonstrates the importance of linking development objectives to the peculiarities of particular places. Fourth, and most importantly, Missoula achieved its environmental and economic goals as a result of local people acting together and finding common ground between individual interests and the interest of the community.


As Kemmis (1990) notes, this final element was the key to Missoula's success. Sustainable community development requires new practices of cooperation. These practices, it has been argued, depend on a strong community field and the social capital which emerges as relationships are forged across interest lines. Without communicative bonds and linkages among special interest fields, the kind of long term collective action necessary to achieve a sustainable community is unlikely to occur; narrow economic interests are likely to dominate local politics, and measures taken under the rubric of sustainable community development will arguably be little more than symbolic concessions aimed at placating or coopting disgruntled residents. To avoid such pitfalls, principles of sustainability must be coupled with efforts to build the community field.

To date, this relationship has received relatively little attention because definitions of the sustainable community leave the concept of community largely unexamined. Instead, an active model of community is assumed, and definitions tend to emphasize the overall characteristics of the sustainable community. This assumption and the resulting definitions were shown to be problematic in several respects. Drawing on an interactional approach to community, we stressed the importance of focusing on the communicative linkages that are a prerequisite to the kinds of collective actions and political relationships necessary to the development of more environmentally sustainable communities. This is a broader process than that described by most proponents of sustainable community development. It requires, in addition to intervention strategies and measures of selected aspects of sustainable community development (Kline, 1995), an explicit policy emphasis on strategies to build the community field and generate social capital.


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Jeffrey C. Bridger is a senior research associate at the Institute for Policy Research and Evaluation at Penn State. His interests include community growth and change, social theory, and community development. His current work focuses on developing a narrative approach to the study of community change. Dr. Bridger is conducting an analysis of barriers to sustainable community development in rural areas.

    Jeffrey C. Bridger
    236 Ag. Admin. Building
    Penn State
    University Park, PA 16802
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