Key Recommendations of National Academy of Sciences Report: Pathways to Urban Sustainability

By Alan Hecht

cover of the NAS report, a city seen from the skyA new National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report, sponsored by EPA, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, offers a road map and recommendations to help U.S. cities work toward a more sustainable future. The report, Pathways to Urban Sustainability, defines urban sustainability as a “process by which measurable improvements on near and long term human well-being can be achieved through actions across environmental, economic and social dimensions.”

The publication is timely as EPA is planning future actions on urban and community sustainability and is about to release its Environmental Justice 2020 report.

The Report includes a framework for urban sustainability and draws on lessons learned from case studies of LA, NY, Vancouver, B.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chattanooga, Cedar Rapids, Grand Rapids and Flint, Michigan. Ten findings and recommendations are made including encouraging cities to develop sustainability plans that recognize the synergies among environmental, economic, and social policies and to take advantage of those synergies to advance system approaches to managment.  Cities are urged to develop metrics on social, health, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainability.  The Report recommends that community members from across the economic, social, and institutional spectrum be included in identifying, designing, and implementing urban sustainability actions.

While the recommendations are directed specifically toward city leaders and planners, they are relevant to our current work here at EPA. A priority of our research is to advance sustainable and healthy communities: engaging local citizens, developing tools and approaches to support decision makers, identifying indicators and metrics, and advancing social equity and environmental justice.

Looking ahead, the Report makes one very important recommendation for dealing with the changing nature of problems today: “Urban leaders and planners should be cognizant of the rapid pace of factors working against sustainability and should prioritize sustainability initiatives with an appropriate sense of urgency to yield significant progress toward urban sustainability.”

This recommendation reaffirms remarks at the recent Smart Cities Council meeting in DC in September that “there is an urgency for cities to make critical decisions in the next 10 years in order to effective deal with all problems.” The same is true for EPA as we prepare our roadmap for the Agency’s 50th anniversary in 2020. Population growth, increase in extreme weather events and natural disasters, environmental and health impacts due to climate change, infrastructure decline, and land use changes are strongly impacting our economic, social, and environmental well-being. Today it is abundantly clear that we must be out front on issues and aim to build a resilient and sustainable society.


About the Author: Alan Hecht is Senior Sustainability Advisor in the Sustainable and Healthy Community Program.

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