Plan Typology


Distilling the studio work which evaluated sustainability plans, the Lab developed a typology for these plans in order to define their scope, structure, and policy content.

To date, no one has a complete and current inventory of formally adopted local and regional sustainability plans. The Sustainabilty Lab pulls from various existing resources, including  the 2009 inventory of ICLEI members, a sample from the National League of Cities 2010 sustainability survey, and add to this our own scan of local government websites and articles.

Based on our inventory of sustainability plans and documents, we have derived the following typologies:

  1. Sustainability Comprehensive Plans
  2. Climate Action Plans and/or Community Energy Plans
  3. Sustainability Policy Plans and Charters
  4. Eco-Districts
  5. Regional Level Plans

Building upon the results from last spring’s plan content evaluations, we have created a list of 156 cities and counties with formally adopted sustainability plans. Of these 156 sustainability plans, we have classified 26 comprehensive sustainability plans, 55 sustainability policy plans, and 75 climate action plans. The Lab is in the process of expanding this work, by collecting and analyzing additional regional level sustainability plans and eco-districts planning documents.

Introduction of Typologies

Sustainability Comprehensive Plans

Comprehensive sustainability plans seek to integrate sustainability into the locality’s comprehensive plan, either through its infusion into the plan or by its inclusion as an individual element. By linking sustainability to the larger comprehensive plan, the plan itself is supported by the legal status derived from the states’ enabling authority and the institutional planning infrastructure that guides the community’s development and land use decisions. Comprehensive sustainability plans contain a wide range of policy elements (e.g., climate change, energy, green businesses, food systems, etc.) throughout the locality’s comprehensive land use or spatial plan. While some plans merely adopt a particular sustainability element, others infuse sustainability throughout the plan.

Marin County, CA, for example, updated its Countywide Plan in 2007 to reflect the theme of planning sustainable communities, and it has been honored with awards at the state and national level for pioneering efforts in sustainability. The plan was expanded to include climate change, social equity, and cultural issues such as public health, environmental justice, child care, the economy, and arts and culture. The document is a great model to help other communities address sustainability issues. Other worthy examples include: Minneapolis, MNSeattle, WA, and Cleveland, OH.

Climate Action Plans and/or Community Energy Plans

Climate action plans focus on policies and actions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and can also include elements designed to help a community adapt to the impacts of changing climatic conditions (e.g., rising sea level, severe weather extremes, drought, property and crop destruction, etc.). Most of these plans involve a greenhouse gas inventory and follow templates provided by NACO, ICLEI, and other organizations. A few localities have included specific climate adaptation sections within these documents. These plans can include community energy policies, such as renewable energy generation and energy efficiency, but typically do not have the broad range of sustainability policies.

Arlington, VA, for example, has taken steps forward to reduce its county-wide energy use by 2050 through a transformational approach to using, distributing, and generating energy. The Arlington Community Energy Plan, expected to be brought to the County Board and for public review by November 2012, will focus on construction energy efficiency, renewable energy, transportation, education and outreach, and financial incentive programs.

Sustainability Policy Plans and Charters

Sustainability policy plans are framework plans that follow a classic strategic planning model with elaborate sustainability goals, action steps, performance measures (indicators), and targets to achieve a defined vision within a 20-30 year time frame. These policy plans typically connect with other city sustainability initiatives/programs and are often supported by city-wide sustainability offices and/or coordinators.

A noteworthy example of sustainability plan is Greenprint Denver Plan. The action agenda was the outcome of collaboration between city staff from seven different city agencies, local businesses, and Denver citizens. The plan, formally adopted in 2006, was designed to track the integration of sustainability principles and programs into both city and community practices over a five-year span (2006-2011). The document’s goals, policies, and programs relate to five over-arching themes: energy and emissions, natural resource, wasteland use, transportation, and community and economic development. Other good examples include Philadelphia, PA, Baltimore, MD, and NYC, NY.


An eco-district is a neighborhood or district with a broad commitment to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability. Any such district develops strategies for green infrastructure, mobility, waste, water, recycling, and green energy programs. Eco-districts commit to achieving ambitious sustainability performance goals, guiding district investments and community action, and tracking the results over time. This approach insists on the consideration that a performance‐based management can improve competitive advantage, communities and quality of life.

The City of Portland  has been a major driver behind the eco-districts approach to sustainable development. The city has received international praise for its urban growth boundary, public transportation, and access to nature, making it one of the most sustainable and livable cities in North America. Though eco-districts have been built elsewhere, Portland is unique in trying to remake existing urban areas as eco-districts since 2009. Another notable example includes the Living City Block in Denver, CO.

Regional-level Sustainability Plans

Regional sustainability plans are regional visioning documents bringing smart growth principles and performance-based planning to transportation, housing, and natural environment management at a regional scale. A variety of institutions have been engaged in metropolitan planning nationwide. Despite the difficulty of inter-agency collaboration, a number of metropolitan areas have developed and adopted inspiring regional plans supporting sustainability principles.

Sacramento, CA, for example, adopted its Blueprint plan for transportation and land use in 2004. The document is part of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments’ (SACOG) long-range sustainable community strategy and serves as a framework to guide local governments’ growth and transportation planning through 2050.

Several metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, IL, received support by the federal government to develop regional plans through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The Sustainable Communities Regional Planning competitive grants were created when HUD, DOT, and EPA joined forces to support communities nationwide improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment. Other noteworthy examples are Denver, CO, and Washington, DC.