The APA needs a Sustainability Division

Many planners and even American Planning Association (APA) members are unaware that the APA has special member bodies called Divisions. These are essentially issue-focused member committees within APA that contribute to policymaking, develop conference sessions, publish newsletters, and generally act as focal points for like-minded APA members.

Current Divisions include worthy topics like "Small Town and Rural Planning," "New Urbanism," "Planning and Women," and "Environment, Natural Resources and Energy." But missing from this list is a Division on the overarching concept of sustainability - a Division that considers how planners can approach all of these issues from a holistic viewpoint that bridges environmental, economic and social equity considerations, and is rooted in a sense of national and global sustainability trends (e.g., fossil fuels, climate change, population, water, etc.).

Two years ago at the conference in Philadelphia, over 600 planners spoke up to change this. Sharon Ferguson, Senior Planner at the Municipality of Anchorage (AK), collected signatures of APA members who supported the creation of a new APA Division for "Sustainable Community Planning." At this year's Minneapolis conference, Sharon and I will submit this proposal to the APA, together with the 600+ signatures from Philadelphia and the 'signatures' of those who endorse the proposal online at

This proposal happens to come at a time when the APA is re-thinking its use of Divisions overall, considering a shift to more informal "Interest Groups." In our proposal cover letter to the Divisions Council, Sharon and I have acknowledged the potential change on policy - but also the preference that a new sustainability-focused member body be constituted as a Division. Given the dearth of sessions at previous conferences focused on holistic sustainability issues like energy and climate, as well as the quickly growing interest in sustainability within the planning field - especially among younger planners - we feel this issue is important enough to have the voice of a Division.

The APA is long overdue for a formal Division focused on sustainability (our argument is outlined in the proposal), especially considering that many similar professional organizations like AIA, ULI and ICMA are now providing products or support to their members on sustainability issues. If you agree, please join us in asking APA to establish a Sustainable Community Planning Division and endorse our proposal at by Wednesday April 22nd.

Daniel Lerch is the author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, the first major local government guidebook on peak oil and global warming.



Mike Lydon's picture

yes..but... an APA member, I have no idea how much these disparate divisions work together. After all, there are numerous overlaps between divisions. Could you clarify? I rather see a larger more holistic approach from the APA -- not just many divisions.

collaboration among APA Divisions

My impression is that Divisions do not currently work together much. Indeed, there does not seem to a mechanism by which that's really possible right now -- the Division structure seems to lend itself to Divisions focusing inward, producing their own newsletters, holding their own meetings and conference sessions, etc.

If you skim through the newsletters of existing Divisions, many of them do already talk about sustainability issues -- but each from its own perspective (water, transportation, climate, social justice, etc.). One important role for this Division (or "Interest Group", if the APA goes that route), we feel, would be as an instigator of cross-Division and cross-interest collaboration and learning.

I agree with you -- I'd also rather see a more holistic approach by the APA. However, until the APA creates a way for Divisions to usefully collaborate on meta-issues like sustainability -- or itself takes on holistic sustainability as a truly core value* (which won't happen until the planning profession as a whole does) -- creating a new member body to fill this role seems to be the best route to take.


* I do want to recognize that the APA has incorporated the concept of sustainability in its mission and vision statements (, and has been producing more and more resources on sustainability. Still, there's a long way to go.

APA & Divisions

I agree about APA needing more focus on divisions. The problem is that APA doesn't seem to know what to do with divisions. It taxes 'em and doesn't seem to give them a lot of credence, except for the financial contribution they make.

Divisions are subject-matter based and therefore should be used by APA, a member-based organization. Many divisions are losing members because members don't see where divisions help them and can't justify the additional cost. Yet, it's not the fault of divisions. APA doesn't currently have an outlet to consider division input into its legislative/policy affairs (essentially contrary to its by-laws) or, for example, the advanced certification it's working on.

My mom shops at Target because it's "sustainable"


I disagree and call for withdrawal. Point-by-point:

1) Obtaining 600 signatures is not a mandate; nor remotely indicative of a movement; nor are signatures difficult to obtain at a Planning conference. One could easily gather 601 signatures in Minneapolis for a Planetizen division, for example. This does not mean one should create a dues paying division because one is good at gathering signatures.

Second, it is unclear how this division will attract young planners, rather than activists. Young planners need mentorship on live projects; not another forum. We have facebook and Planetizen for our forums.

2) "Sustainable Community Planning" (SCP) cannot and does not stand on the merits. Daniel posits that sustainability has become "mainstream," cause to create a new division. Apologies for the snark, but Paris Hilton has become mainstream, this doesn't merit a Paris Hilton Division - cum hoc ergo prompter hoc. Besides lack of reasonable cause, look at what mainstreaming actually has done for sustainability: it's the utter greenwashing of products. It's why Walmart has become the largest retailer of organic foods in the world and my mother, of all people, shops at Target for Seventh Generation. "Sustainability" is now a brand for marketing purposes, and we have to let the term go.

Mainstreaming literally means the successful manifestation of a new profit motive of corporations. The 3 E's are the new justification for profits. Read Michael Porter's "Strategy and Society," Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2006. We've lost the meaning of sustainability forever, and we don't even realize it. The proposal cannot take back the term from the mainstream.

Because something is popular does not make it meritable, it makes it a fad.

Second, SCP has no clear definition or concrete goals. Try defining it out loud, to your mom (or boss). Then try to define Smart Growth to your mom (or boss). SCP is an immature blob, unlike Planning Law, or Affordable Housing, or Smart Growth.

As planners, we need to be serious and not play with fads or forums. We have to let the word "sustainability" go, and focus on Smart Growth principles, principles that work.

3) Wrong. The APA organization bridges the gap between all divisions. Creating a dues paying division is the creation of a new silo, not a bridge. Further, it is entirely unclear how any new division could bridge gaps with other divisions more effectively than the APA umbrella. Third, the divisions barely function as it is, never mind trying to get them to interact. (I would also argue that effectively fills these gaps...).

4) There is a much greater need for a Smart Growth division than an Sustainable Community Planning division. An SCP division will attract the converted, the curious, or activists - not the convertable nor the young.

Smart Growth planning is clearly defined, easily understood, and can be adopted at higher levels in the political spectrum. Smart Growth also lies on strong bedrock in the planning community for actionable and implementable techniques - where sustainable planning does not. For example, New Orleans will rebuild following a Smart Growth master plan, not a Sustainable master plan. Smart Growth is directly linked to municipal planning with clear definitions and distinct, tested principles, where Sustainable Community Planning does not.

Sustainable Community Planning is undefined, amorphous, untested, in it's infancy, has no clear direction, and can easily be co-opted and warped. Smart Growth transcends these objections while building better, greener communities and can capture broader support.

Daniel, withdraw your proposal or reshape it for a Smart Growth Division.


Michael Cote

Michael Cote
UMass-Amherst, Master of Regional Planning 2010
Vermont Law School, Master of Environmental Law and Policy 2010
Northampton, Massachusetts
[email protected]
(206) 550-3034

planners should be out in front on "sustainability"

Hello Michael, and thanks for taking the time to explain your points. We don't expect everyone to agree with this proposal, particularly because --as you point out-- the term 'sustainability' has been so badly abused. But we do feel this is a worthwhile effort.

Re your main points:

1.) "Obtaining 600 signatures is not a mandate..." Sure, but we feel it *is* indicative of sufficient interest to warrent consideration of a Division, which is all we wanted to demonstrate. Keep in mind (and I'm wondering now if we were not clear enough about this in in our proposal) that this is not a petition -- it's just a proposal to the APA Divisions Council, who are free to take it or leave it.

2.) "'Sustainability' has been co-opted, its mainstreaming has made it a shell and fad" (paraphrased). I disagree strongly here. Just because a term has been co-opted doesn't mean it and the concept it represents are useless. There's decades' worth of professional and scholarly writing on what sustainability means and doesn't mean, theory and practice that have built on each other over time. It is precisely because sustainability is an unclear concept for many (and is abused by others) that planners should be in the vanguard of defining and demonstrating it -- because it's planners, more than any other profession, who have their hands on the nuts and bolts of what makes a community sustainable or not.

I also disagree that "Sustainable Community Planning" would not be well-defined. Building on a lot of the work to describe and operationalize key sustainability concepts in the 1990s (e.g., "ecological footprint"), some exciting developments have come about in the last few years, most notably (to my mind):

Yes, these are just beginnings -- but they are clear developments on a growing body of thought that has a distinct place within planning thought.

3.) "A new division would not function as a bridge..." (paraphrased). You may be right on this one -- much depends on how the APA restructures (or doesn't restructure) the current system. But by virtue of the interdisciplinary nature of the sustainability concept, I think a sustainability-focused member body is as good a way as any to try to have a cross-Division bridge where none yet (as far as I know) really exists. I freely admit this was a short point in the proposal and one that needs more development.

4.) "There is a much greater need for a Smart Growth division than an Sustainable Community Planning division" [because] "Smart Growth planning is clearly defined, easily understood, and can be adopted at higher levels in the political spectrum." I agree with the second part, which is why I disagree with the first. Smart Growth indeed has been around for a while, and while I have nothing against a Smart Growth Division, I feel the need for a sustainability-focused member body is particularly warranted for the reasons I outlined in #2 above. Also, as implied above, "Smart Growth" practices are but a potential part of sustainability practices -- they're not interchangable. I do share the concern that a concept like "Sustainable Community Planning" could be co-opted -- but to me that's all the more reason to have the nation's largest professional association of planners "own" the concept and engage in it with its members.

Sorry I wasn't able to touch on all your comments in this reply, but I hope I answered this gist of your concerns.


APA Sustainable Communty Planning interest group approved

Quick update: The APA approved our proposal for a Sustainable Community Planning group a few weeks ago; it will be preliminarily incorporated as an "interest group," with an online social networking presence and an evening social event at the APA conference in New Orleans. I'll post more details soon in a separate blog post.


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