A Model for Sustainability: New research provides insights on best practices for regional sustainability planning

Carissa Schively Slotterback, Associate Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

October 6, 2011

Across the nation, sustainability planning is gaining momentum due to increased interest at all levels of government and new sources of federal funding. “There is a great deal of activity around sustainability right now, and we saw the need for research to respond to that interest,” says Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor and head of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

To help fill the need, Slotterback and her research team set out to create a model for regional sustainability planning and implementation. “We were interested in creating something that organizations and stakeholders can adapt to their own contexts all around the country,” she says.

The research is based on a case study analysis of a diverse set of regional sustainability plans. After selecting the case studies, the researchers reviewed planning documents, interviewed key participants, and collaborated with a diverse research advisory committee. Once they completed this process, the researchers identified emerging best practices in three key areas: plan content, planning process, and implementation and monitoring. 

The first set of best practices revolves around the development of plan content. These include taking time to define sustainability relative to regional context, using issues and themes as organizing elements, considering issues of local jurisdiction, documenting participation efforts in the plan, and creating short and long versions of the plan. “Often these regional planning documents can be technical and cumbersome, so creating a shorter version of the plan makes it more digestible to a broader audience,” says Slotterback.

Best practices for planning process include engaging multiple stakeholders from the private and public sectors, offering online participation to build knowledge and promote engagement, creating issue-specific workgroups to help make connections and provide resources, engaging decision makers from local jurisdictions, and displaying plan and background information online. One example of engaging stakeholders is the Denver region’s “Sustainability Cafes” that were held at the outset of the regional planning process to encourage participants to discuss what a sustainable Denver region would look like.

Finally, the researchers identified five emerging best practices for regional plan implementation: include clear implementation content in the plan, leverage and enhance regional authority to facilitate implementation, think beyond agency implementation by offering support grants, toolkits, and technical assistance, start small with visible outcomes and successes, and track regional indicators that relate to the plan and report progress online. Chicago’s MetroPulse website is an example of a successful online progress reporting tool; the website makes it easy to view progress in key planning areas including crime, transportation, health, environment, land use, and more.

Researchers are working with the project’s advisory committee to develop a final planning framework that can be used to inform decisions in a wide variety of regional environments across the nation as the trend towards sustainability planning continues to grow rapidly.

—Megan Tsai