What is Meant by Sustainable Development?

The Present Will be the Future Soon Enough

Liz Walker, co-founder of EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI), outside her home in 2007
Liz Walker, co-founder of EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI), outside her home in 2007. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images News / Getty Images (modified)

Sustainable development is when 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.

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

Characteristics of Sustainable Development:

Sustainable development will have many, although not necessarily all, of these characteristics:

  • Green architecture and eco-friendly building practices
  • Local building materials
  • Natural, bio-degradable building materials
  • Local workers
  • Renewable sources for water
  • Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind
  • Protection of natural habitats
  • Planned replacement for any resources used
  • Non-polluting construction practices and industries
  • Smart Growth
  • Walkable communities
  • Mixed-use communities that combine residential and commercial activities
  • New Urbanism
  • Adaptive reuse of older buildings
  • Use of recycled architectural salvage

The emphasis of 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.

Also Known As:

sustainable design, green architecture, eco-design, eco-friendly architecture, earth-friendly architecture, environmental architecture, natural architecture

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.

More successful are the grassroots Ecovillages being built all over the world (see network map). 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 eco village Ithaca, co-founded by Liz Walker.

Learn More:

  • EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture by Liz Walker, New Society, 2005
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  • Choosing a Sustainable Future: Ideas and Inspiration from Ithaca NY by Liz Walker, New Society, 2010
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  • The Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Columbia University Press, 2015
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  • Strategies for Sustainable Architecture by Dr Paola Sassi, 2006
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  • Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide by David Bergman, Princeton Architectural Press, 2012
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  • Sustainable Architecture: Principles, Paradigms, and Case Studies by James Steele, Mcgraw-Hill, 8th Edition
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Sources: Our Common Future ("The Brundtland Report"), 1987 (PDF); What is an Ecovillage? The Global Ecovillage Network [accessed May 30, 2016]