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What is a sustainable community and how do we become one?

Other European countries, government websites and the 6 Rs will show us how

When you look for a definition of what a sustainable community is, you find many different answers but most agree that a sustainable community is one that meets the needs of everyone in the community while protecting and limiting the damage to the environment. So aspects of a 21st Century sustainable community would include well insulated homes fuelled by renewable energy, local employment, a comprehensive public transport system, sustainable food production and a near zero waste management system.

Politicians and policy makers now understand that developing the infrastructure for the above aspects of sustainable communities is one of the best ways to address climate change. And some countries are embracing the changes with gusto with electric buses, energy efficient buildings, electricity fuelled by renewable energy, local food production and zero-waste initiatives.

Some non-governmental organisations such as Ecolise (the European network for community led initiatives on climate change and sustainability) also support pioneering sustainable communities across the world.

Martin Tobin, chief executive of the European Recycling Platform says that a sustainable community is one that is economically, environmentally and socially healthy. “Sustainable communities meet challenges through integrated solutions rather than fragmented approaches that meet one goal at the expense of another. In order to have healthy communities, we need clean air, natural resources and a nontoxic environment.”


In Ireland, the recently published report from the joint committee on climate action is a positive move towards making Irish towns, villages and cities more sustainable. Recommendations of this cross-party committee include a shift away from car dependence, deep-retrofitting of more than 1.5 million private houses and payment to homes, schools and businesses for supplying energy to the electricity grid. All these measures would help create more sustainable communities in Ireland whilst also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But, for readers still grappling with the enormity of the task, let’s look at what steps are required to make our houses, our transport, our food and our waste management more sustainable.


Well insulated homes are more comfortable to live in and require less energy to keep warm. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) offer grants to homeowners willing to install external or internal insulation in their homes. But reducing household fossil fuel emissions will also require the replacement of gas and oil fired systems with heating systems fuelled by renewable energy. Cormac Mannion, manager of energy services at Energia electricity supplier, says sustainability is high on people's agenda's today for environmental, cost or societal reasons. "Attic and cavity insulation can save a home up to 30 per cent in energy costs. We are also seeing people move to electricity generated from renewable energy. We actively work with communities across Ireland to meet their sustainability goals."

Public Transport

An extensive affordable public transport system fuelled by renewable energy is another key aspect of a sustainable community. Converting public and private vehicles from diesel and petrol to electric would substantially reduce the fossil fuel emissions from the transport sector. The electrification of the transport system would also result in cleaner air and healthier neighbourhoods. And if people switch from their cars to using public transport, they are likely to walk and cycle more too thus increasingly their physical fitness and mental wellbeing.


Local food production and distribution is another characteristic of sustainable communities. While agriculture remains one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, community gardeners and horticulturists are responding to the interest in local food grown for and sold at farmers and cottage markets.

And, finally, a sustainable community is one that aims to reduce waste by following the “6 Rs”: refusing, reducing, reusing, repairing, recycling and rotting. Only when these six elements are exhausted, should something be considered waste.

Hazardous waste is however something that has to be collected and treated separately. “Hazardous waste that is not properly disposed of, can leak and contaminate soil and water,” says Tobin, chief executive of the European Recycling Platform. Using batteries as an example of something with valuable reusable materials that are often disposed of incorrectly, he adds, almost 50 per cent of batteries end up in landfill so the valuable materials have been lost forever rather than reused if disposed of in the correct way.”

Tips for being part of a more sustainable community

1. Have your home externally or internally insulated to reduce energy costs and live more comfortably. Check out the Sustainable Energy of Ireland calculator for cost of works and grants available. seai.ie/grants

2. Leave your car at home and take public transport to work. If you don't live near public transport points, consider car pooling. ( transportforireland.ie/carsharing for some ideas on setting up a car pool). If neither of these are options, switch to an electric car and thereby reduce your carbon emissions. Campaign for better public transport links in your area by lobbying candidates before the local elections in May.

3. Get involved in local food growing, sharing and selling initiatives such as community gardens (cgireland.org), country markets (bordbia.ie) or cottage markets (giy.ie). Create awareness of how to reduce domestic and commercial food waste. See stopfoodwaste.ie for tips to reduce your own food waste.

4. Manage your household waste with separate bins for recycling, composting and general waste. Start a repair cafe or repair stall at a local market to help people to repair and reuse instead of buying new things. See voiceireland.org

5. Cherish the natural spaces in your community for biodiversity. Nature-based solutions are now considered one of the best ways to make communities more resilient when facing the effects of climate change.

Inspirational Examples of Sustainability

1. Norway is banning cars from the centre of Oslo in 2019 and has already started replacing parking spaces with flower beds, tiny parks, benches and cycle lanes. A few spots are left for disabled drivers and electric vehicles charging points. The city streets are now dedicated to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.

2. Luxembourg will become the first country in the world to offer free public transport in the summer of 2019. From then on, fares on trains, buses and trams will be lifted. The city has suffered from some of the worst traffic congestion in the world.

3. Copenhagen has a public procurement policy which requires kitchens in schools, hospitals, daycare centres and homeless shelters to serve 90 per cent organic food. The city, which aims to become carbon neutral by 2025, also hosts food waste pop-up shops, free community meals from food waste.

4. Reykjavik is often ranked the most energy efficient city in the world. The capital city of Iceland relies on renewable hydropower and geothermal plants to provide all of the heat, electricity and hot water for its citizens. Many of its city buses run on hydrogen and the city plans to become fossil free by 2050.

5. The Dutch company, EnergieSprong is one of the leaders in retrofitting homes across Europe. Its innovative model starts by retrofitting social housing in an area and then moves on to private homes. Currently, EnergieSprong teams are working in the UK, France, Germany and New York State.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment