Building Sustainable Neighborhoods

Updated: Nov 14

Last time I gave an image and theme for thinking about sustainable community: an image of birds flying in V-formation to evoke the idea of autonomous alignment. The spirit of a sustainable community is people freely coming together to improve human life for the present and future. Of course, government at every level is crucial to this, but we need not wait for their leadership where it lacks. We can start now, wherever we are, to make meaningful improvements in our local community.

In a research report for the International Society of City and Regional Planners, Schlebusch and Cilliers define sustainable communities as having the following overall goals:

  • People before profit, with a special focus on inclusivity. The priority is to protect and improve the quality-of-life of residents, measured not only economically but also socially, psychologically, and spiritually. Decisions are made in processes that are fair, open, and democratic. The focus is equally on project results and the processes of collaboration, community leadership, and care that go into achieving those results

  • Alignment with the regional ecosystem. The systems that sustain the community are dependent upon a healthy relationship with nature. From food production to water treatment to air pollution and green spaces, the design of the community creates and preserves a sustainable balance with nature.

  • Appropriate relationship with technology. Technology should support the community’s goals, rather than the reverse. Democratic processes are used to set clear guidelines for the role of technology.

  • Optimal size, capacity, and use of key resources. The community aims for the right size - so that it is not overdeveloped, overused, or overpopulated. It reduces waste and reuses resources, and creates conditions in which all resources can be used to their fullest potential.

What do these goals look like in practice? For inspiration, let’s look at a collection of projects embracing these principles in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Watts has a majority Latinx and Black population that has been the subject of long-term marginalization and poverty. Watts residents have worked together for decades to address these issues, culminating recently in Watts Rising: 24 neighborhood improvement projects designed with the input of over 400 community members through open working groups and ongoing dialogue.

Each project addresses multiple interconnected goals. For example, the sustainable housing project aims to create jobs, increase green spaces, and expand community bike safety, while keeping new and existing housing affordable for current residents. Here are some other highlights of Watts Rising:

  • Watts Healing Tech Garden - An urban forestry project that has already distributed over 6,000 pounds of food to food-insecure community members. It also offers paid internships to local youth and serves as an educational space for the entire community.

  • WalkBike Watts - A project to enhance transportation and community safety, including updates to miles of bike paths, trees, new crossing signals, and safe routes to and from school overseen by community adults. The project also engages local artists to incorporate a cultural trail.

  • Dash Bus Electrification Project - Natural gas and propane buses will be replaced with electric ones.

Other projects include food distribution, solar, green waste composting, and reducing stormwater runoff. The skills and knowledge for these initiatives are kept in the community to increase its resiliency overall and enable its continued growth in a sustainable way. The projects provide direct material benefit to residents through reduced energy and food costs, as well as all the intangible quality-of-life improvements. These benefits are a direct result of the community working together to press for change and then make it real.

This type of collective action might already be happening in your community and you could be a part of it. If not, starting something as small as a street cleanup could be the first step that ultimately leads to a stronger sense of community ready for larger challenges. Whether you find inspiration in existing projects or start your own, enjoy the process. This is the most meaningful work, and even picking up trash, composting your waste, or just talking about these issues with your community are sacred acts of love.

About the author:

Recovering lawyer, training to be a meditation teacher. Anxiety used to define me. Now I am devoted to bringing peace to the people and communities that continue to suffer from it.


Instagram: @toki.suke


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