Measuring Urban Sustainability: Evaluating the APA’s New Sustainability Accreditation Criteria

Posted on by Charisma Acey
Filed under: IURD

 Last Spring, the students in my undergraduate Planning for Sustainability class embarked on a project to analyze the American Planning Association’s new Comprehensive Plan for Sustaining Places, and our project has already received the attention of planning professionals across Northern California.[1] This initiative aims to integrate sustainability into the general plans of municipalities through the creation and dissemination of quantifiable sustainability standards and indicators. The APA proposed three types of standards:

  1. Principles- overall goals for comprehensive plans aimed at achieving sustainable communities. These include: livable built environment, harmony with nature, resilient economy, interwoven equity, healthy community, and responsible regionalism.
  2. Processes- standards for participation and implementation activities in comprehensive planning for sustainable communities.
  3. Attributes- standards for the content and characteristics of comprehensive plan documents for sustainable communities.

The indicators under each standard are ranked on a scale from -1 to 3.[2]  As their final project, students applied these standards to the general plans of eleven Bay Area cities and measured these indicators. The cities studied included: Berkeley, Dublin, Emeryville, Fremont, Mountain View, Oakland, Petaluma, Richmond, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Rafael. The main objective was to determine how comprehensive the sustainability criteria are, how useful the evaluation method is, and how consistent the ratings were across students.  Working with Master of City Planning students Hannah Clark and Emily Alvarez, we developed a framework to test the inter-coder reliability among each group using Krippendorf’s Alpha. The statistic provides a coefficient that essentially measures whether two or more raters are evaluating the same thing, which is to say, whether the indicator is reliable.

Ultimately, the students found the APA Standards to be a solid basis for understanding sustainability principles and policy guidance.  However, they also had some ideas about how the standards could be improved. Students recommended the elimination of sustainability jargon that may prove confusing both to those trying to implement the plans and to the broader public.  They also recommended simplifying and refining the point system in order to make it clearer which criteria are most important and exactly how much each criterion affects the overall sustainability of the plan. Each group’s Alpha scores revealed that students often would score the indicators very differently than members of their own teams, which indicates the amount of subjectivity that goes into such metrics. They observed that professional planners or an outside team applying the criteria to a city might have scores that reflect higher levels of agreement. However, this raised the question of the relevance and inclusivity (with respect to public engagement) of the evaluation process. Moreover, the local context for sustainability planning in various cities is quite different, and different sets of indicators will be of higher priority for each city, which the standards do not address.

In addition, the students identified some strengths and weaknesses in the cities’ general plans.  Most cities did very well in areas of eco-efficiency[3], greenhouse gas reduction measures, and livable built environments; most cities performed poorly on standards related to interwoven equity, accountable implementation, and healthy communities. The students also critiqued the disjointed manner in which sustainability is addressed in the plans. They recommended that plans be written to integrate sustainability criteria throughout, rather than separating it into its own section.

With these improvements, in both standards the general plans overall, students concluded that the standards have the potential to be a powerful tool for the advancement of sustainability at the municipal scale.  Professionals in the field welcomed the fresh perspectives and new ideas from students. A number of students asked, for example, how cities could be rewarded for being more ambitious in their sustainability efforts, versus evaluating how well they meet strict standards, which might be thought of as minimum criteria for sustainability.

Another discussion during class (and one common in professional circles) is how best to integrate sustainability into the comprehensive planning process. While most cities have various sustainability related initiatives and action plans, there is great variety in how well these efforts are reflected in general plans. The state of California is in the process of issuing new General Plan Guidelines, the document issued by the Governor’s Office for Planning and Research that explains the legal requirements of a general plan. The updates include new guidance to directly integrate sustainability into the general plan, addressing issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, climate adaptation, renewable energy use, infill development, public health, and regional planning. In my next Planning for Sustainability class, we will continue to explore planning for sustainable communities and cities and how to integrate local objectives with goals for regional sustainability.


[1]The APA chapter’s magazine, Northern News, featured an article on the student’s findings. Student projects can be found on the Chapter’s website


[2] After our class, the official APA scoring matrix was revised to a scale from 0 to 3.


[3] In this context, eco-efficiency is measured by the number and quality of municipal programs undertaken to reduce energy consumption, conserve natural resources, balance land uses for population growth and green the economy.