Photo of green grass and brown grass

From shifting energy sources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to redesigned landscaping and water conservation, municipal governments continue to reshape the future of our cities in response to climate change. Warmer weather, extended droughts, severe wildfires, and loss of biodiversity are just a few of the implications to which we must adapt if we are to preserve our way of life for posterity.

It may be tempting to think of such issues exclusively in environmental terms, but they do intersect with an array of other concerns and priorities. For example, a proposal to replace energy sources that emit carbon dioxide with windmills is clearly an environmental matter. It also raises questions, however, about the relative inefficiency and unpredictability of the windmill’s energy production, the swaths of land that must be sacrificed, the impact on local ecosystems, the source of the windmill materials and the associated emissions, and so forth. Moreover, the placement and cost of the windmills will have social and economic effects that may be salient to the local community. These potential challenges don’t necessarily mean that windmills are a bad idea, but that any environmentally driven policy will have externalities—positive or negative—that must also be considered.

The point here is that when we think about sustainability, we ought to do so in the comprehensive sense of the word, which includes a sustainable culture, economy, and environment. Each of these priorities fundamentally shape our lives and our cities, while also representing a continuity between generations. In thinking about sustainability comprehensively, we turn our attention to a range of issues including zoning, housing, transportation, parking, landscaping, building codes, and more. These are fundamentally local matters that we have the capacity to determine as we see fit—and that will shape our communities in the years to come. As our populations increase, we need more housing, jobs, transportation, schools, water, and energy. Perhaps the central question for cities with regard to sustainability is how can we mitigate our negative impact on the environment while populations and economies continue to grow? In other words, how can we achieve sustainable growth?

Urban Sprawl and Zoning Reform

If we stipulate that environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability are all important, then we should look at policies that advance each of these. One of the most consequential developments in American history has been the urban sprawl of the post-war era, which has not only displaced countless communities with highways, but alienated people from one another and from the things they value most. Urban sprawl, most of which was imposed through top-down centralized planning without the consent of local communities, has had perhaps the largest environmental impact of any policy when you consider the way it has transformed housing, transportation, and infrastructure.

As Roger Scruton notes, “American cities have decayed because vast tax-funded resources have been available for the building of roads and housing projects, for the purchase and demolition of otherwise habitable slums, for the horizontal spread of infrastructure, and for the imposition of crazy zoning laws which ensure that where you can buy things you cannot do things, and where you can do things you cannot live.”

Every word of this is true, but the last part is crucial in that it captures the intersection between environmental, cultural, and economic issues.

Local zoning laws all but require a lengthy commute to go nearly anywhere—work, school, stores, places of worship, and anywhere else we traditionally identify with ourselves and our community. By placing barriers between where we live, work, and engage with our community, rigid zoning laws have served to maintain a dependence on cars and have made it increasingly difficult to feel any kind of deep affection for one’s home. As Jane Jacobs understood, the success of cities is rooted in their diversity, particularly the diversity of uses that allow people to find homes, jobs, and places that align with their values. As residential and commercial uses are pushed farther apart, we suffer in numerous ways. Increased transportation-based emissions harm our environment, disconnection from places central to community erode our culture, and rising costs of infrastructure to maintain the unnatural sprawl stifle our economy. To put in bluntly, the segregation of uses through misguided zoning causes environmental degradation, cultural amnesia, and economic instability.

Zoning reform can counteract these consequences by restoring a harmony between people and their activities. Why force housing to be built miles away from businesses, schools, and churches when these are complementary? Much of the damage has been done, but prioritizing higher-density housing in close proximity to these other places is paramount for sustainable growth. Not every community can or should have the density of New York City, but forcing people away from each other and their communities is neither desirable nor sustainable.

Sustainable growth is only achievable if we become more efficient with our resources—land, especially. By allowing people to live in places, rather than around them, we can preserve our environment while strengthening our culture and economy. What may sound like a transformation of how cities are zoned is really just a restoration of what we have lost: a harmonious balance between the natural and built environment that is truly sustainable.

Sustainability Case Study: Southern Nevada

While zoning reform is a solution applicable to nearly all cities, there are other policies that have demonstrated success in sustainability. Southern Nevada, which is naturally an extremely dry climate with very high temperatures in the summer, is a useful case study for other cities and regions. The biggest environmental challenge in Southern Nevada is water usage, as the region’s population continues to grow while fresh water sources are very limited. Southern Nevada is highly dependent on the Colorado River and Lake Mead for fresh water, but declining water levels in these two bodies pose a major challenge in the coming years. So, what has local leadership done in response to the water crisis? A lot, actually.

In recent years, wastewater infrastructure redesigns have allowed much more water to be recycled, treated, and filtered for reuse. Southern Nevada has become the gold standard for water recycling, as one of the few places in the world that recycles all indoor water on a community-wide scale. The result is that 99% of indoor water is recycled, which is an astonishing feat. Regional collaboration resulted in a state law (AB 356) prohibiting decorative grass in areas where it does not serve a recreational or functional purpose. The bill also called for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to develop a plan for the removal of such grass wherever feasible. The SNWA has commenced an aggressive landscape conversion plan to replace grass with turf and other landscaping that does not require intense water usage. The SNWA has also created a detailed regional plant list to help developers identify which plants are most suitable for the region’s climate and ecosystems. These reforms will save an estimated 9.5 billion gallons of water annually, which is nearly 10% of Southern Nevada’s water supply. Incentives for property owners to remove grass have also been a part of this strategy, which has included rebates for pool covers to reduce water evaporation. The end result is that between 2002 and 2019, the region’s population increased by 48%, while water use per person decreased by 52%.

Southern Nevada has shown that cities in even the most extreme climates can still achieve sustainable growth. Some of these solutions can certainly be replicated in other places, such as the highly efficient water recycling infrastructure. Others, however, are particular to the Southern Nevada region and may be unapplicable to most places. The sustainability plans in coastal Southern California will necessarily differ from Southern Nevada, just as they will from those in the Midwest or the South. The overlying goal of sustainable growth may be the same, but the particular strategies, policies, and priorities should reflect the people and the places from which they stem. Southern Nevada’s regional plant list won’t be of much use to South Florida, after all. We can learn from and collaborate with governments in regions across the country and around the world, but the sustainability of our local communities is ultimately our responsibility.

Sustainable Growth Is Possible and Necessary

There are those who insist that we can’t have sustainable growth—that we can’t provide more housing, jobs, and general prosperity because our finite resources will not allow us. Fortunately, this notion has been disproven by the empirical data for decades. Ambitious tree planting initiatives in Europe and Southeast Asia have allowed our planet to become greener over the past 20 years, according to NASA satellite research. Carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have fallen 17% from the 2007 peak, while our population and economy have grown significantly. Since 2000, the Las Vegas Valley population has increased by over 800,000 while total water usage has decreased by 23%. None of these trends are by accident, as they are the result of prudential decision-making and an understanding that conservation and progress are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are the twin pillars of sustainable growth.

We can “zoom out” to national and global policy areas such as tax reform, international trade, climate accords, and the like, but these are largely intangible to the sustainability efforts on the ground within our local communities. We have little control over what happens at the national and international levels of policymaking, but we do have the ability to shape our communities from within. When Jane Jacobs fought against the “urban renewal” being imposed on her Greenwich Village neighborhood, her focus was not on transformative global change or a grand vision that every nation must embrace, but on preserving what she loved: her home. Advocates for conservation would do well to embrace the unique affection that people have for their real, tangible community in a way that they cannot for the abstract idea of “the planet’.” Global climate initiatives reliably fall victim to the collective action problem, while local sustainability can be readily recognized as our problem. As Roger Scruton writes, “It is the love of home that provides the most effective motive on which the environmental movement can call.” It is human nature to protect the people and the places that we cherish as ours, which is why a localized approach to sustainability will be more effective and, well, sustainable.

Sustainability is not merely a choice or an alternative, but an obligation to ensure that the world—primarily understood at the level of the local community—that we pass on is in as good of shape, if not better, than that which we inherited.

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MICHAEL HULING is a city planner for Clark County, Nevada, and an advisory council member at the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership.

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