Sustainable Development: Concepts and Methods for Its Application in Urban and Environmental Planning

Beniamino Murgante1, Giuseppe Borruso2, and Alessandra Lapucci3

Sustainability: From Principles to Evaluation Methods
The idea of sustainable development may appear quite vague, fuzzy and evasive
(Pearce et al. 1989). In fact, whereas sustainability is related to a status of maintenance
and conservation of the existing conditions, both in space and time and is
referred to the capacity to guarantee a support without causing decay, the concept
of development implies, instead, an alteration and a transformation of actual
status, then a condition of instability.
This semantic conflict induces to an idea of both improvement and preservation:
in substance, the effective aim of a sustainable development is the possibility
to guarantee a better life quality for an enduring period of time.
The Bruntland report (1987) systematized the definition of environmental
sustainability even on a political level:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present
without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own
needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of needs, in particular
the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority
should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology
and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and
future needs”.

The definition above reported implies a series of concepts connected to that of
Sustainable development. Two key elements in particular are highlighted, these
being intergenerational and intragenerational equity. The first one refers to the
need to manage present resources in order to allow future generations to meet their
needs, while the second one aims at reducing differences in resources allocation
between people in a same timeframe, thus recalling the need to tackle issues
referred to differences in development between industrialized and developing
countries. A third element is time, as sustainability involves a care of the future
and therefore to plan an evolutionary path of development, that therefore should
be inserted in models.
Without recalling the overall evolution that brought to implement the concept
of sustainable development, it is worth recalling the work carried on by Meadows
et al (1972), reporting to The Club of Rome to investigate major trends of global
concern at the beginning of ’70s of the past century. The matter is not trivial, as
we can notice a series of key points still important in to-date research. One key
point is referred to modeling, as the work carried out was one of the first to model
different variable connected to natural and human resources, although in a simplified
manner. A second point referred to evolution over time, therefore considering
the time dimension as important in designing scenarios. A third element is related
to the critiques that such model brought over itself, that in a sense recalled the
general criticism in the following years on quantitative measures as elements to
provide discrete solutions to real problems.
‘The limits to growth’ was focused on a set of trends as accelerating industrialization,
rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable
resources and a deteriorating environment. Authors used World3 model to
simulate interactions between Earth humans as systems and tried to focus on possibilities
to implement ‘sustainable’ – although this term was not used – actions
that would alter growth trends among the variables considered. Although the major
aim of the work carried out was to analyze the interactions of exponential
growth with a finite set of resources and not to predict actual evolutions, criticism
arose since the beginning from different domains.
Criticism focused on different aspects of the work, namely on the base of data
used, considered weak, as well as a not clear procedure, as the details about the
model World3 and assumption were made clear in 1974. Also, critiques were put
on the lack of consideration of technological changes in the evolutionary model,
although the same authors stated that the aim of the simplified model was to study
possible interactions using a limited set of variables and that technology was not
considered, and on the mainly Malthusian assumption of the different paces in
growth of population and resources.
The work was re-elaborated in 1992 and 2004 – respectively 20 and 30 years
after the original research – in order to consider in a more refined way the growing
importance of concepts related to sustainable development, and particularity income
distribution and intergenerational exchange, offering also alternatives, originally
not considered in the model, as human creativity for improving quality of
life and elements as energetic efficiency, recycling and rise in average endurance
of human life.
In any case the importance of the research carried out lies on the attention it
brought over the finiteness of resources and on environmental issues. The debate
started in the years ’70s of Twentieth century leads to the definition of Sustainable
Development as well as to events as the Rio Conference and can be also rooted in
such research on global and models of interactions, than at least in this sense
played an important role. Also, ‘Limits to growth’ can be read to-date as a call
both for a use of quantitative modeling to elaborate complex and interactive
amount of data and for a wider debate on one side between different disciplines
and on the other side between quantitative and qualitative research and decision
making processes. The Bruntland report, above all, then the Rio Conference and
the Instambul Habitat II Conference definitely underlined the importance of social
and economical dimension of environmental sustainability (O.N.U. 1993 1996).
Since then the concept of sustainable development goes transversely across all
scientific, social and economic disciplines and becomes the main objective of
modern market economies. The necessity to include, in decision-making process,
all the concerns connected with environmental resources exploitation emerges in
all different sectors of public policies.
With respect to ecological protection demands, the conditions of sustainability
are at first connected with the requirement that natural resources stock does not
decrease in time (Odum 1989, Pearce 1990). Subsequently, a new concept of sustainability
comes forward which underlines the importance of inserting environmental
criteria in territorial development choices, rather than supporting specific
protection policies, indicating boundary thresholds to resources use and consumption.
In accordance with this idea, all decisions about new government interventions
are taken with the respect of environment “carrying capacity” (Costanza
1991, Daly and Cobb 1990, Nijkamp 1990 1994, Nijkamp and Archibugi 1989,
Pearce 1991).
The economic efficiency criterion in resources exploitation, as well as the social
dimension of sustainability, become relevant issues at the same time and a special
emphasis is given to social justness, even extended to an intergenerational perspective;
low-income classes’ protection and care represent the core of sustainable
development subjects. (Sen 1992, Serageldin et al. 1995, Zamagni 1994).

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