Defining Sustainability: STAR Communities

Posted on September 3, 2013

Word on the Street About Defining Sustainability 

Kevin Hughes, AICP, Principal Environmental Advanced Planner, posted the following comment on LinkedIn after reading the first Defining Sustainability with Beth Otto,

“I recommend the working being done by ELGL in Oregon for advancing the cause of Public Administration Best Management Practices.”

After those kind words, the pressure is on Beth to top her initial post which framed the term “sustainability” and why it is important. (Related links: New Feature: Defining Sustainability with Beth Otto and New Sensation with Beth Otto, City of Lake Oswego). Today Beth gives us tips for how cities and counties can be proactive in developing a sustainable community. As part of the feature, Beth interviewed Aaron Lande, STAR Communities’ Education & Program Coordinator who specializes in providing a framework for sustainable actions by cities and counties.

Background Check on Aaron

Aaron_headshotAs Education & Program Coordinator, Aaron works with West Coast and Canadian communities to help them through the certification process of the STAR Rating System. He also develops education offerings and training programs, and coordinates conference participance.

Previously, Aaron was a Sustainable Cities Specialist for the US Green Building Council. He also worked as a Legislative Assistant for Congresswoman Darlene Hooley (OR), focusing primarily on issues related to Education, International Relations, Defense, Natural Resources and the Environment, Energy, and Science. Aaron holds a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University with a specialization in land use policy, and he received his undergraduate degree in political science from Carleton College. He was an inaugural member of Next American City’s Next American Vanguard.

Connect with Aaron: LinkedIn and Email –

Connect with STAR: Facebook, Twitter, and the World Wide Web

Defining Sustainability: STAR Communities

OK, so we’ve established that sustainability is important, and that sustainable communities are places where people want to live. So, now what? What can cities and counties do to be proactive in this regard? Well, that is where STAR Communities and the STAR Community Rating System come in. STAR stands for Sustainability Tools for Assessing & Rating Communities and the STAR Rating System is a new, national program for helping local governments set sustainability goals and measure their progress.

I sat down with Aaron Lande, STAR Communities’ Education & Program Coordinator, to get the details about what STAR is and why it could be such an important tool for local government to achieve holistic sustainability. Lande has been involved with STAR since the beginning, and was able to offer insights about why the Rating System was needed and what it can achieve. The pilot phase is just wrapping up, and STAR is now available for any interested local government (town, city, or county) in the country.

The Rating System provides communities with a framework for sustainability encompassing the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of community. It covers seven Goal Areas with five to seven Objectives under each Goal Area.

The impetus for STAR was a desire by local governments to create a sustainability rating system that allowed the communities to have input and would accurately reflect the community’s performance. “There was a real push to have a rating system for local government, by local government,” Lande noted. “It was hard for local governments to know which data they should be looking at, much less how to find it and track it. We needed to develop a common language and common standards so that communities could measure themselves the same way.”

I asked Lande about why it is so difficult to address holistic sustainability and how the STAR Rating System can help: “The difficulty is in the sweeping nature of this subject. The natural inclination is to organize these issues into silos, which prevents the identification of efficient solutions that address multiple issues, and leads you down rabbit holes really quickly. While STAR has many Objectives, Outcomes, and Actions, we identify the interconnections to help people understand where they can get ‘the most bang for their buck.’ STAR is very comprehensive. We have outcomes that people might not normally associate with this concept, such as third grade reading comprehension and infant mortality. What’s exciting is that we are already seeing that people looking at data in different ways. For instance, instead of tracking unemployment, STAR communities are measuring the Living Wage Index, which is more relevant and important for community members.”

The Rating System, which can be downloaded for free from the STAR website, is similar to LEED, in that it is a menu based approach with a “low floor and a high bar.” As Lande explains, “ You don’t have to do it all, you just have to reach a certain threshold. The idea is that every community can be a part of the process and earn recognition, but the upper level is really hard to achieve.” In addition, subscription packages are available for communities interested in moving forward on their sustainability efforts and working towards certification.

STAR is just getting started, but it holds a lot of promise for being an important tool to help local government achieve holistic sustainability. With its 44 objectives it may seem like a data driven process, but it is really about opening up communication channels within and between local governments. Lande summarized the intent of the program as being “a way to set goals and measure progress. It is important to set a baseline and have objectives to work toward. Our overarching goal is to have a data driven approach that changes policy.”

Get started today by going to You can contact Aaron Lande for additional information:

Staff from STAR Communities will also be presenting at the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network Annual Conference September 16-18 in Memphis, TN.

Extra: Check out STAR’s definition of a sustainable community.

Supplemental Reading

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