Introduction to the Goals of Sustainable Development

sheep grazing amonst a field of solar panels

Bert Bostelmann / Getty Images 

Sustainable development is a general belief that all human endeavors should promote the longevity of the planet and its inhabitants. What architects call "the built environment" should not harm the Earth or deplete its resources. Builders, architects, designers, community planners, and real estate developers strive to create buildings and communities that will neither deplete natural resources nor negatively impact the Earth's functioning. The goal is to meet today's needs using renewable resources so that the needs of future generations will be provided for.

Sustainable development attempts to minimize greenhouse gases, reduce global warming, preserve environmental resources, and provide communities that allow people to reach their fullest potentials. In the field of Architecture, sustainable development also has been known as sustainable design, green architecture, eco-design, eco-friendly architecture, earth-friendly architecture, environmental architecture, and natural architecture.

The Brundtland Report

In December 1983, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a physician and the first woman Prime Minister of Norway, was asked to chair a United Nations commission to address "a global agenda for change." Brundtland has become known as the "mother of sustainability" since the 1987 release of the report, Our Common Future. In it, "sustainable development" was defined and became the basis of many global initiatives.

"Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs....In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development; and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations."— Our Common Future, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987

Sustainability in the Built Environment

When people construct things, many processes take place to actualize the design. The goal of a sustainable building project is to use materials and processes that will have little impact on the continued functioning of the environment. For example, using local building materials and local laborers limits the pollution effects of transportation. Non-polluting construction practices and industries should have little harm on the land, sea, and air. Protecting natural habitats and remediating neglected or contaminated landscapes can reverse damages caused by previous generations. Any resources used should have a planned replacement. These are the characteristics of sustainable development.

Architects should specify materials that do not harm the environment at any stage of their life cycle — from first manufacturing to end-of-use recycling. Natural, bio-degradable, and recycled building materials are becoming more and more common. Developers are turning to renewable sources for water and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Green architecture and eco-friendly building practices promote sustainable development, as do walkable communities, and mixed-use communities that combine residential and commercial activities — aspects of Smart Growth and the New Urbanism.

In their Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability, the U.S. Department of the Interior suggests that "historic buildings are themselves often inherently sustainable" because they have lasted to stand the test of time. This does not mean that they cannot be upgraded and preserved. Adaptive reuse of older buildings and the general use of recycled architectural salvage are also inherently sustainable processes.

In architecture and design, the emphasis on sustainable development is on the conservation of environmental resources. However, the concept of sustainable development is often broadened to include the protection and development of human resources. Communities founded on principles of sustainable development may strive to provide abundant educational resources, career development opportunities, and social services. United Nations sustainable development goals are inclusive.

United Nations Goals

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on September 25, 2015 that set 17 goals for all nations to strive for by 2030. In this resolution, the notion of sustainable development has been expanded far beyond what architects, designers, and urban planners have focused on — namely Goal 11 in this list. Each of these goals has targets that encourage worldwide participation:

Goal 1. End poverty; 2. End hunger; 3. Good healthy lives; 4. Quality education and lifelong learning; 5. Gender equality; 6 Clean water and sanitation; 7. Affordable clean energy; 8. Decent work; 9. Resilient infrastructure; 10. Reduce inequality; 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; 12. Responsible consumption; 13. Combat climate change and its impacts; 14. Conserve and sustainably use oceans and seas; 15. Manage forests and halt biodiversity loss; 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies; 17. Strengthen and revitalize global partnership.

Even before the U.N.'s Goal 13, architects realized that the "urban built environment is responsible for most of the world's fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions." Architecture 2030 set this challenge for architects and builders — "All new buildings, developments, and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral by 2030."

Examples of Sustainable Development

Australian architect Glenn Murcutt is often held up as an architect who practices sustainable design. His projects are developed for and placed on sites that have been studied for their natural elements of rain, wind, sun, and earth. For example, the roof of the Magney House was designed specifically to capture rainwater for use within the structure.

The Villages of Loreto Bay in Loreto Bay, Mexico was promoted as a model of sustainable development. The community claimed to produce more energy than it consumed and more water than it used. However, critics charged that developers' claims were overstated. The community eventually suffered financial setbacks. Other communities with good intentions, such as Playa Vista in Los Angeles, have had similar struggles.

More successful residential projects are the grassroots Ecovillages being built all over the world. The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) defines an ecovillage as "an intentional or traditional community using local participatory processes to holistically integrate ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainability in order to regenerate social and natural environments." One of the most famous is EcoVillage Ithaca, co-founded by Liz Walker.

Finally, one of the most famous success stories is the transformation of a neglected area of London into the Olympic Park for the London 2012 summer Olympic Games. From 2006 until 2012 the Olympic Delivery Authority created by the British Parliament oversaw the government-mandated sustainability project. Sustainable development is most successful when governments work with the private sector to make things happen. With support from the public sector, private energy companies like Solarpark Rodenäs will be more likely to put their renewable energy photovoltaic panels where sheep may safely graze — existing together on the land.


  • Our Common Future ("The Brundtland Report"), 1987, [accessed May 30, 2016]
  • What Is an Ecovillage? The Global Ecovillage Network, [accessed May 30, 2016]
  • Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, The Division for Sustainable Development (DSD), United Nations, [accessed November 19, 2017]
  • Architecture 2030, [accessed November 19, 2017]
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Craven, Jackie. "Introduction to the Goals of Sustainable Development." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, September 3). Introduction to the Goals of Sustainable Development. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Introduction to the Goals of Sustainable Development." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).