Building Sustainable Communities, But What Kind?

Hannah Love, Pacific Lutheran University

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Sustainability, community values, and green building are all hot topics today. It's easy to find a new office building, condo complex, or suburban development advertised as a sustainable community. But what does it mean to talk about sustainable communities? Is sustainability only related to building materials and energy impact? Or are there other important components of a sustainable community overlooked by such a simplistic definition?

Communities, however they are defined, cannot be sustained by building alone. Instead, their health depends on a network of values including education, food consumption and distribution, and so on. And in some cases, these values may conflict with each other in terms of implementation and choices. This assignment, depending on the level and depth of implementation, seeks to challenge students by asking them to look beyond "greenwashed" advertisements and buzzwords to grapple with what sustainability means, whether it can be achieved, and what kinds of questions communities must confront in a search for sustainability.

Learning Goals

The "big idea" of this assignment is an open-ended inquiry into sustainability.

Context for Use

My ideas for this assignment were shaped in part by my experience teaching, in the same semester, a Business Ethics and an Environmental Ethics course. The students in each had very different understandings of what sustainability meant: in the former class, economic definitions, in the latter class, environmental definitions.

The question of what we're sustaining rarely arose in either class. And the absence of that question focused my attention on all the advertisements we see for sustainable product X (whether homes, clothing, cleaning supplies, etc.). So the purpose of this activity would be get students thinking about what it means to sustain a community, and what values can be respected as part of sustainable actions. Additionally, this activity would hopefully illuminate the way values can conflict with each other. For example, it might be good to build a subdivision with environmentally friendly materials in the countryside where affordable housing is needed, but then how far will people have to drive to buy food?

This activity, in terms of focusing on advertising for various kinds of developments, could be done on multiple levels depending on the structure of a class. I imagine it most suitable for an environmental ethics course, or for a component of an ethics course focusing on the environment, but also for a business ethics course that includes discussion of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. An advertising course might also be able to incorporate some element of this exercise.


For a more complex adoption of the exercise: an in-class presentation, preceded by a couple of weeks of research on the part of the group or individual. For a less complex adoption of the exercise: a day's discussion, or an overnight assignment.

In either case, I envision this assignment coming nearer the end of a semester, in order for students to have already confronted some of the issues/conflicts involved in sustainability, to have some sense of a definition of the term, and to have some understanding (depending on the class) of the economic/ecological dimensions of sustainability. Especially if adopted in the more complex format, it offers an opportunity to pull together the facts and values discussed throughout the semester.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

For a more complex adoption:

  1. Each group/individual is assigned an advertisement of a different development, new or pre-existing, calling itself sustainable. Examples could include a condo/apartment complex, office building, housing development, co-op, college/university building, etc. Amount of research required is flexible according to how much time the instructor wants to devote, in or out of class, to this question, and according to how long the group presentations are meant to be.
  2. Each group/individual does what research they can on the development in question. Depending on the complexity desired by the instructor, students might be able to contact builders or architects, residents, or planners for details. They should focus at this step on determining what the advertisement suggests is meant by sustainability/sustainable community. Research would be done out of class, and could be submitted or not depending on the instructor's preference.
  3. Each group/individual should then define what counts as the community in question, which will vary depending on the development. The community of an office building will be very different from the community of a housing development.
  4. Each group/individual should then raise the question of what exactly is being sustained in the community, what values are being fostered/supported/respected. Then, what values seem to be missing?
  5. Finally, each group/individual can raise the question of how the missing values might have been included, whether or not they seem to be part of the community at all, whether they conflict with the values that do seem to be included, and what we might be able to do about such conflicts in terms of resolving them.
  6. These components are organized into a group presentation and presented to the class.
For a less complex adoption:

  1. A class period of discussion about a few selected advertisements, focusing on the same elements described above but moving more quickly through them and without the complexity of argument and support required for a longer presentation.
  2. An out-of-class assignment (such as a response paper) investigating the same elements described above. In this case, the student might be able to find their own advertisement since any overlap wouldn't affect the class overall (unlike the group presentation, where it's important that each group focuses on a different kind of development, or a different area of a region).


  1. Researching the development and interpreting the advertisement.
  2. Defining community and sustainability, and answering the question "What does this community want to sustain, exactly?"
  3. Identifying the values implied by that community's definition of sustainability.
  4. Identifying other important values that go unaddressed or even conflict.
  5. Creating a thoughtful argument to support answers to elements 2-4 and to offer a way forward in terms of explaining how to think about values conflicts and their resolutions in the context of sustainable communities.



  • Submitted research, including progression in answering the questions outlined above;
  • The individual/group presentation;
  • Formal paper (if part of assignment).
  • I would look for evidence that students understood or carefully argued for an interpretation of the advertisement's (implicit) definition of sustainability, and how that compares or contrasts to the definition of sustainability that the group arrives at. I would also look for recognition of possible/actual conflicts of values in creating/supporting a sustainable community, and some attempt to grapple with how to resolve those values.


  • Short response papers (in-class or take-home);
  • In-class discussions, either in small groups or as an entire class;
  • Journal responses (if journals are already a class component).

References and Resources

List of City of Seattle green building projects:

Seattle green building case studies:

Business and the environment:

Newsletter on sustainable communities:

City of Tacoma Envirohouse:

Pacific Lutheran University Campus Sustainability:

BuiltGreenā„¢ Washington: