Testing APA’s Sustainability Accreditation Criteria on 11 Bay Area Cities

[see Professor Acey’s summary at the UCB IURD Blog]

This topic is covered in a few posts, as follows:


Expanded Article (forthcoming), July/August 2014 Plan-it sustainability, Northern News

During the spring of 2014, students in a UCB sustainability planning class found that the APA’s new Comprehensive Plan Standards for Sustaining Places (Standards) could be a powerful tool for advancing municipal sustainability. Seeing value for practitioners, APA California Northern Section’s Sustainability Committee created an event (with CM credit) by arranging with Professor Acey for planners to be able to attend one of the three final project presentations and participate in a half-hour discussion afterwards with UC Berkeley Assistant Professor Charisma Acey.

Students in Assistant Professor Acey’s Department of City & Regional Planning’s upper division class tested the APA Standards in a final class project that involved applying the Standards to 11 Bay Area cities’ general plans(Berkeley, Dublin, Emeryville, Fremont, Mountain View, Oakland, Petaluma, Richmond, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Rafael). in those applications, the students assessed the Standards’ sustainability criteria and evaluation method. In addition, they tested consistency between team members’ rating of the same criteria. (This latter statistic reveals whether the criteria are written in a way that allows for consistent interpretation.)

The students found that APA’s Standards provided a solid basis for understanding sustainability principles and policy guidance. Students found the 11 Bay Area general plans performed well in areas of eco-efficiency, GHG reduction measures, and livable built environment; moderately in terms of a resilient economy and parks and open space; and poorly on interwoven equity, accountable implementation, and a healthy community. There was little policy basis for evaluating the criteria of “authentic implementation.”

In addition, because the Standards were not used in creating the plans, there was often not an obvious relationship between plan structure and that of the Standards. Students felt that it would be better to integrate sustainability criteria throughout plans rather than embedding them in a separate section. With improvements, the student teams concluded that the Standards could be used for APA’s original two purposes: (1) to incorporate sustainability into comprehensive plans as a powerful planning tool for advancing municipal sustainability; and (2) to provide a formal APA “designation” of a general plan’s sustainability akin to LEED-type rating systems for green buildings and neighborhoods.

The students’ assessment revealed some aspects of the Standards that could be improved. First, the description of the Standards includes jargon that will be confusing to the public and professionals. Second, some of the criteria contain such a constellation of points that interpreting their meaning is difficult: Is the ranking a blended assessment across all of the points of the criteria or an assessment of only one of the points?

Additionally, there was often wide variation between team members’ scores of the same criteria, which raised questions about the rating method. Should plans be sent to external experts for evaluation? How important is local knowledge and how should it be incorporated? Is there a realistic possibility for ordinary citizens to participate? Finally, some students wondered if the framework was sufficiently aspirational, providing a good, but minimum definition of sustainability but lacking the full definition needed to develop an effective strategy.

The students’ experience testing the APA’s new Comprehensive Plan Standards for Sustaining Places validated that, with some refinement, the Standards could be a powerful tool for advancing municipal sustainability. In addition, the seven attending professional planners liked the event and supported the Committee’s plans for future events, thereby providing opportunities for professionals to benefit from–and support–planner education.

Charisma Acey, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. Scott T. Edmondson, MAAUP, AICP, is a founding member of the Northern Section’s Sustainability Committee, and a planner-economist at the SF Planning Department. He pursues his wide-ranging sustainability interests in a start-up initiative, the Sustainability 2030 Institute (scott-e@sustainability2030.com). 

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