Creating a More Sustainable Development Code

May 27, 2020
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by Paul Donegan, AICP

“Think globally, act locally” is one of the core tenets of the environmental movement – encouraging people to make small changes within their control to collectively address large-scale environmental issues. The concept, which has become a popular bumper sticker slogan and rallying cry for climate action, was first introduced in 1915 by Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes in his book, Cities in Evolution. Those involved in urban planning should not be surprised by the history behind this phrase; planners and civic leaders know that the way people live, work, travel, eat, and their impact on the local and global environment is closely tied to the way that communities are designed and developed.

Local governments have direct control over the way communities grow through their zoning and development code. As a result, improvements to local development regulations is one of the most effective ways for cities, towns, and counties to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Significant population growth in the U.S. (50-75 million more people predicted by 2030) and the continued development (potentially 80 million new residential units and 90 billion sq. ft. of new commercial, retail, and industrial space by 2030) presents both a challenge and an opportunity to creating more equitable and sustainable communities. Accommodating growth by continuing with existing development patterns would result in new, sprawling urban development about the size of Oklahoma. Meanwhile, more sustainable development practices could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help communities adapt to climate change, while also addressing housing affordability, expanding access to opportunity, providing transportation choice, improving public health, and tackling other pressing issues.

In the early 2000’s, Chris Duerksen, former Managing Director at Clarion Associates, was hearing from communities across the country that wanted to improve the way they developed and take effective action toward addressing climate change. Many local governments were frustrated to find that instead of encouraging more sustainable development, their existing development codes were preventing them from achieving important sustainability goals. Duerksen remembers learning that solar installation companies in the Los Angeles region pointed to zoning and development regulations as the greatest impediments to their solar projects.

To address the disconnect between the intentions and the results of local development codes, Duerksen worked with James Van Hemert at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute to develop the Sustainable Development Code (SDC). Several Clarion staff members contributed chapters towards this important effort, including Craig Richardson, Darcie White, Don Elliot, and Leigh Anne King. Today, Vermont Law School Professor and Executive Director Jonathan Rosenbloom leads the effort and is supported by a team of professors from leading law schools and expert chapter authors from firms like Clarion Associates.

Unlike a one-size-fits-all model code, the SDC is designed to offer a menu of options to communities on a range of sustainability topics depending on factors such as size, location, resources, and local policies. The SDC covers 32 topics as diverse as wildlife habitat, low impact development, pedestrian mobility, and food security, which will be completed this summer. Each topic is being expanded to include 25 to 40 specific code recommendations, categorized by effectiveness and type – removing barriers, creating incentives, or filling regulatory gaps. Through a rigorous editorial and interdisciplinary research process, every SDC recommendation includes an overview of the issue, discussion of potential effects of the policy, and regulatory examples that have been adopted in communities around the country. Rosenbloom notes that, “In an unprecedented time of uncertainty, the SDC is a thoroughly researched resource that local governments and communities can rely on to adapt to changes, build resilience, and increase local health and equity.”

With the SDC growing and improving under new leadership, Clarion Associates continues to support the project as a Supporting Partner while Clarion staff have drafted chapters of the SDC and serve on the SDC Advisory Committee.

The SDC is being continuously updated with new topic areas, best practices, and resources. Sign-up for the newsletter, that includes a monthly summary of the top 10 most popular recommendations and see how you can make your community’s code more sustainable at: