A Sustainable Communities Lens

Anita L. Wenden - November, 2015

Creating Sustainable Communities

Anita Wenden is President and co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE), for which she  develops and organizes EPE’s educational programs. She has taught at the UN mandated University for Peace (Costa Rica) and with the online program in Peace and Conflict Studies, Sydney University .  She is co-founder and book review editor of the Journal of Peace Education  and professor emerita at York College, City University of New York. 

What is a Sustainable Communities Lens SCL?

According to the first U.S. EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus (1999) , sustainable communities are a contemporary manifestation of the evolution in sustainability thinking and practices which, is ‘ ……a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic, and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries.’ 

    Borrowing from the views on perspectives synthesized in Wenden (2004) a sustainable communities lens can be defined as an acquired set of perspectives and values about sustainable communities. It provides a frame for making sense of sustainability related situations and events and shapes the boundaries of our expectations, perceptions, and comprehension in this regard , including the understanding of new data. Besides providing a conceptual apparatus for making sense of sustainability related experience, the SCL provides criteria for evaluating what is construed, e.g. is a community sustainable? Why ? Why not? Moreover, by predisposing our intentions and purposes, it influences our actions. Thus given this cognitive function of a lens as well as the EPA Adminisrator’ s above assessment of sustainable communities as a radical transformation of society, the SCL is a powerful cognitive tool. For further clarification this brief essay lists the perspectives that constitute the Sustainable Communities Lens,  each perspective elaborated by questions that determine the practices that shape it thus demonstrating how the lens can be used to visualize and plan for sustainable communities.

Dealing with inequity (justice)
Is access to the financial resources of the community and its environmental goods ensured to all groups and individuals? How ? Is input in the community’s planning, decision-making and enforcement processes as it relates to social and environmental matters available to all ? is implementation of environmental regulations, practices and activities done equitably in the community?

Concerns for future generations (intergenerational equity)
Is the accessibility of environmental resources and cultural wealth to people of future generations taken into account in the community’s vision statement and action plan ? does it relate to social, economic, and environmental factors ?

Conflict mediation (active nonviolence)
What means has the community put in place to mediate conflicts? What non- violent alternatives does it offer to maintain law and order? to ensure the security of its citizens?

Energy efficiency (ecological sustainability)
What conservation policies has the community put in place ? To what extent does the community’s energy infrastructure take into account renewable energy sources and technologies? Does it have a plan to gradually reduce the community’s ecological footprint? , i.e. to aim for a carbon free community ? To restore harm resulting from degradation of the environment due to human action?

Community engagement (participatory decisionmaking)
What means have been provided to solicit the views of all members of the community aboutthe community's valaue  goals ?  the present state of the community? concrete programs considered important and possible and how they can be implemented? Have these views been input into the community’s vision statement and related action plan? At what level are decisions made ? Are they made by the least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively?

Finally implicit in the perspectives and related practices that characterize the SCL, there are five values which provide their structural foundation, namely:
• social justice
• intergenerational equity
• active nonviolence
• ecological sustainability
• participatory decision-making

How can the SC lens  contribute to achieving a sustainable peace?

Using the SCL as a tool to visualize and plan for sustainable communities can avoid the limitations of unidimensional planning. Referred to as silo thinking this mode of planning fails to recognize linkages between social, economic and environmental factors. In organizational planning, be it in classrooms, schools, a business, local communities, government agencies, silo thinking seeks to base decisions on the area of expertise or preferences of an individual group or leader or of a particular agency or governmental organization and advantage the effectiveness of these individual perspectives while ignoring others. In contrast, the SCL’s foundational values and defining perspectives provide a multi dimensional blueprint that can be used to guide the integration of social, economic and environmental factors in education for sustainability and peace . It promotes a similarly holistic approach to sustainable development and peacebuilding

Further taking into account what is advocated by the UNESCO 1997 module on sustainable communities, namely that, “The kind of change required by sustainability implicates each community, household, each individual. Successful solutions to problems at this level of society will need to be  rooted in the cultural specificity of the town or region if the people are to be supportive  of and involved in such change,” sustainable communities use local communities as the base, context and point of reference for achieving sustainability as presently manifested in the major sustainability movements which promote ecological sustainability and influence the shape of human settlement patterns , e.g. ‘livable cities’, ‘transition towns’, ‘low carbon towns,’ ‘eco villages’ (Verhagen 2014).

The SCL is a conceptual tool that facilitates such a local community- based approach to envisioning and implementing a culture of sustainable peace. It brings to our attention the notion (1) that it is at the local community level of society that the values foundational to a culture of sustainable peace are manifested concretely in norms, related institutions and social practices and (2) that it is at this level, be it a village, town, city that peace and sustainability are ‘achieved’, socially, ecologically and sustainably in an integrated manner. Finally and practically, the SC lens can be used diagnostically to assess the extent to which a given community is moving towards the achievement of a culture of sustainable peace and prescriptively to outline what needs to be done for the community to move further beyond peacelessness.

For a detailed description of sustainable movements and examples of how the SCL can be used in education and sustainability planning, see Verhagen 2014.


Ruckleshaus W.D. 1999. Toward a sustainable world. Scientific American 261 No. 1.

UNESCO. 1997. Module on sustainable communities. c/mod17.html 

Verhagen, F. 2014. Sustainable communities: A lens for envisioning and achieving a community-based culture of social  and ecological peace in Greening Peace and Sustaining Justice, Special issue JPE 11 3 2014 , Anita Wenden, Editor.

Wenden, A. 2004. Value Based Perspective Development. Chapter 6. In Educating for a culture of social &
ecological peace
A. Wenden , Ed. pp 145 – 168 Albany: State University of NewYork