Sustainability Glossary

Sustainability Glossary of Terms

Editor’s Note: a primary source for this glossary was

Adaptive Reuse is the process of adapting old structures for purposes other than those initially intended.

Asset-Based Community Development is a methodology that seeks to uncover and utilize the strengths within communities as a means for sustainable development. The basic tenet is that a capacities-focused approach is more likely to empower the community and therefore mobilize citizens to create positive and meaningful change from within. Instead of focusing on a community's needs, deficiencies and problems, the ABCD approach helps them become stronger and more self-reliant by discovering, mapping and mobilizing all their local assets.

Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or on an entire planet. Biodiversity is one measure of the health of biological systems.

Biofiltration is a pollution control technique using living material to capture and biologically degrade process pollutants. Common uses include processing waste water, capturing harmful chemicals or silt from surface runoff, and microbiotic oxidation of contaminants in air.

Biofuels are a wide range of fuels which are in some way derived from biomass. The term covers solid biomass, liquid fuels and various biogases. Biofuels are gaining increased public and scientific attention, driven by factors such as oil price spikes, the need for increased energy security, and concern over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

Biomass Energy, a renewable energy source, is biological material from living, or recently living organisms, such as wood, waste, (hydrogen) gas, and alcohol fuels. Biomass is commonly plant matter grown to generate electricity or produce heat. In this sense, living biomass can also be included, as plants can also generate electricity while still alive. The most conventional way biomass is used however, still relies on direct incineration.

Brownfield sites are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities available for re-use. Expansion or redevelopment of such a facility may be complicated by real or perceived environmental contaminations.

The Brundtland Commission, formally the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known by the name of its Chair Gro Harlem Brundtland, was convened by the United Nations in 1983. The commission was created to address growing concern "about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development." In establishing the commission, the UN General Assembly recognized that environmental problems were global in nature and determined that it was in the common interest of all nations to establish policies for sustainable development.

Building Automation describes the functionality provided by the control system of a building. A building automation system (BAS) is an example of a distributed control system. The control system is a computerized, intelligent network of electronic devices, designed to monitor and control the mechanical and lighting systems in a building. BAS core functionality keeps the building climate within a specified range, provides lighting based on an occupancy schedule, and monitors system performance and device failures and provides email and/or text notifications to building engineering staff. The BAS functionality reduces building energy and maintenance costs when compared to a non-controlled building. Buildings with these systems are sometimes called “Smart Buildings.”

Building Deconstruction is the selective dismantlement of building components, specifically for re-use, recycling, and waste management. It differs from demolition where a site is cleared of its building by the most expedient means. Deconstruction has also been defined as “construction in reverse.”

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is the process of generating and managing building data during its life cycle. Typically it uses three-dimensional, real-time, dynamic building modeling software to increase productivity in building design and construction. The process produces the Building Information Model (also abbreviated BIM), which encompasses building geometry, spatial relationships, geographic information, and quantities and properties of building components.

Carbon Credits is a generic term for any tradable certificate or permit representing the right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e). They represent a component of national and international attempts to mitigate the growth in concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Carbon Footprint is the total set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event, product or person. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflurocarbons and others.

Charrette (shuh-ret), sometimes called a design charrette, consists of an intense period of design activity. In urban planning, the charrette has become a technique for consulting with all stakeholders. This type of charrette (sometimes called an inquiry by design) typically involves intense and possibly multi-day meetings, involving municipal officials, developers, and residents. A successful charrette promotes joint ownership of solutions

Clean Diesel, also known as ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD)  is a term used to describe a standard for defining diesel fuel with substantially lowered sulfur contents. As of 2006, almost all of the petroleum-based diesel fuel available in Europe and North America is of a ULSD type.

Climate Adaptation Planning is the development of strategies that attempt to reduce a community's vulnerability to climate change. Adaptation planning differs from climate-change mitigation planning in that it does not attempt to reduce or avoid climate change. Instead, it assumes that climate change is unavoidable and attempts to develop a plan for dealing with the expected local consequences. (See Resilience.)

Combined Sewer System is a type of sewer system that collects sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in a single pipe system. Combined sewers can cause serious water pollution problems due to combined sewer overflows, which are caused by large variations in flow between dry and wet weather. This type of sewer design is no longer used in building new communities, but many older cities continue to operate combined sewers.

Community Choice Aggregation or CCA is a system adopted into law in the states of Massachusetts, Ohio, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, among others, which allows cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts. Currently, nearly one million Americans receive service from CCAs.

Community Garden - a single piece of land gardened collectively by a group of people.

Complete Streets - In urban planning and highway engineering, complete streets are roadways designed and operated to enable safe, attractive, and comfortable access and travel for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transport users of all ages and abilities are able to safely and comfortably move along and across a complete street.

Criteria Air Pollutants, according to the EPA, are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide.

Detention Basin - a stormwater management facility installed on, or adjacent to, tributaries of rivers, streams, lakes or bays that is designed to protect against flooding and, in some cases, downstream erosion by storing water for a limited period of a time. These basins are also called "dry ponds,” "holding ponds" or "dry detention basins" if no permanent pool of water exists. A detention basin differs from a retention basin, which includes a permanent pool of water in its design. (See Retention Basin.)

Embodied Energy is defined as the commercial energy (fossil fuels, nuclear, etc.) that was used in the work to make any product, bring it to market, and dispose of it. Embodied energy is an accounting methodology which aims to find the sum total of the energy necessary for an entire product lifecycle. This lifecycle includes raw material extraction, transport, manufacture, assembly, installation, disassembly, deconstruction and/or decomposition.

Gentrification and urban gentrification denote the socio-cultural changes in an area resulting from wealthier people buying housing property in a less prosperous community. Consequent to gentrification, the average income increases and average family size decreases in the community, which may result in the informal economic eviction of the lower-income residents because of increased rents, house prices, and property taxes. This type of population change reduces industrial land use when it is redeveloped for commerce and housing. In addition, new businesses, catering to a more affluent base of consumers, tend to move into formerly blighted areas, further increasing the appeal to more affluent migrants and decreasing the accessibility to less wealthy natives.

Geographic Information System (GIS) is any system that captures, stores, analyzes, manages, and presents data that are linked to location. In the simplest terms, GIS is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis, and database technology. GIS systems are used in cartography, remote sensing, land surveying, public utility management, natural resource management, photogrammetry, geography, urban planning, emergency management, navigation, and localized search engines.

Geothermal Energy is power extracted from heat stored in the earth. This geothermal energy originates from the original formation of the planet, from radioactive decay of minerals, from volcanic activity and from solar energy absorbed at the surface. It has been used for bathing since Paleolithic times and for space heating since ancient Roman times, but is now better known for generating electricity.

Green Building is the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.

Green Infrastructure is a concept originating in the United States in the mid-1990s that highlights the importance of the natural environment in decisions about land use planning. In particular there is an emphasis on the "life support" functions provided by a network of natural ecosystems, with an emphasis on interconnectivity to support long-term sustainability. Examples include clean water and healthy soils, as well as the more anthropocentric functions such as recreation and providing shade and shelter in and around towns and cities.

Green Roofs are roofs that are partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, planted over a waterproofing membrane. They may also include additional layers such as root barriers and drainage and irrigation systems.

Greenhouse Gas Inventories are a type of emission inventory that are developed for a variety of reasons. Scientists use inventories of natural and anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions as tools when developing atmospheric models. Policy makers use inventories to develop strategies and policies for emissions reductions and to track the progress of those policies. And, regulatory agencies and corporations rely on inventories to establish compliance records with allowable emission rates. Businesses, the public, and other interest groups use inventories to better understand the sources and trends in emissions.

ICLEI – formerly the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, now calls itself ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability. The group provides technical consulting, training, and information services to build capacity, share knowledge, and support local government in the implementation of sustainable development at the local level.

Idle Reduction is a type of automobile emissions control aimed at reducing the amount of energy wasted by an idling vehicle. When a vehicle's engine is not being used to move the vehicle, it can be shut off entirely—thereby conserving fuel and reducing emissions—while other functions like accessories and lighting are powered by an electrical source other than the alternator. Each year, (as of 2010) long-duration idling of truck and locomotive engines emits 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of oxides of nitrogen, and 5,000 tons of particulate matter into the air.

Intermodal Transport involves the use of more than one mode of transport for a journey. Urban bus systems, for example, generally serve train and subway stations and often extend to the local airport. A major goal of modern intermodal passenger transport, at least in developed countries, is to reduce dependence on the automobile as the major mode of ground transportation and increase use of public transport.

Invasive Species applies to non-indigenous species, or "non-native," plants or animals that adversely affect the habitats and bioregions they invade economically, environmentally and/or ecologically. They disrupt by dominating a region, wilderness areas, particular habitats, and/or wildland-urban interface land from loss of natural controls (i.e.: predators or herbivores).

LED Lighting - A light-emitting-diode lamp is a solid-state lamp that uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as the source of light. The term "LED lightbulb" is also colloquially used. Since the light output of individual light-emitting diodes is small compared to incandescent and compact fluorescent lamps, multiple diodes are often used together. In recent years, as diode technology has improved, high power light-emitting diodes with higher lumen output are making it possible to replace other lamps with LED lamps.

LEED - Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.

Methane Capture is the practice of collecting, storing and using as fuel methane and other biogases generated by the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Biogas is produced by anaerobic digestion or fermentation of biodegradable materials such as biomass, manure, sewage, municipal waste, green waste, plant material and energy crops.

NIST - The National Institute of Standards and Technology, known between 1901 and 1988 as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), is a measurement standards laboratory which is a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce. The institute's official mission is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve quality of life.

Non-Point Source Pollution refers to diffuse contamination that does not originate from a single discrete source, as opposed to point source pollution, which can be attributed to a particular source. NPS pollution is often the cumulative effect of small amounts of contaminants gathered from a large area. The leaching out of nitrogen compounds from agricultural land which has been fertilized is a typical example. Nutrient runoff in stormwater from "sheet flow" over an agricultural field or a forest are also cited as examples. (See Point Source Pollution.)

Permeable Paving is a range of materials and techniques for paving roads, cycle-paths, car-parks and pavements that allow the movement of water and air around the paving material. Although some porous paving materials appear nearly indistinguishable from nonporous materials, their environmental effects are qualitatively different. Whether pervious concrete, porous asphalt, paving stones or bricks, all these pervious materials allow precipitation to percolate through areas that would traditionally be impervious and infiltrates the stormwater through to the soil below.

Point Source Pollution is a single identifiable localized source of air, water, thermal, noise or light pollution, as opposed to non-point source pollution, which cannot be attributed to a single source. (See Non-Point Source Pollution.)

Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) are contracts between two parties, one who generates electricity for the purpose of sale and one who is looking to purchase electricity. PPAs are commonly used in public/private partnerships to help finance renewable energy projects. The private developer takes advantage of tax credits and other financial incentives to develop the infrastructure to generate power, while the public partner (typically a municipality) agrees to purchase the power from the developer at a given price for a certain number of years. The PPA helps the developer secure financing for the project by demonstrating to the lender that the generated power will be purchased at a predetermined rate.

Renewable Energy is energy which comes from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat, which are renewable (naturally replenished).

Resilience - In ecology, resilience is one possible ecosystem response to a perturbation or disturbance. A resilient ecosystem resists damage and recovers quickly from stochastic disturbances such as fires, flooding, windstorms, insect population explosions, and human activities such as deforestation and the introduction of exotic plant or animal species. Disturbances of sufficient magnitude or duration can profoundly affect an ecosystem and may force an ecosystem to reach a threshold beyond which a different regime of processes and structures predominates. Human activities that adversely affect ecosystem resilience such as reduction of biodiversity, exploitation of natural resources, pollution, land-use, and anthropogenic climate change and are increasingly causing regime shifts in ecosystems, often to less desirable and degraded conditions. Interdisciplinary discourse on resilience now includes consideration of the interactions of humans and ecosystems via socio-ecological systems, and the need for shift from the maximum sustainable yield paradigm to environmental management which aims to build ecological resilience through "resilience analysis, adaptive resource management, and adaptive governance".

Retention Basin - a type of best management practice that is used to manage stormwater runoff to prevent flooding and downstream erosion, and improve water quality in an adjacent river, stream, lake or bay. Sometimes called a wet pond or wet detention basin, it is an artificial lake with vegetation around the perimeter, and includes a permanent pool of water in its design. It is distinguished from a detention basin, which temporarily stores water after a storm, but eventually empties out at a controlled rate to a downstream water body. It also differs from an infiltration basin, which is designed to direct stormwater to groundwater through permeable soils. (See detention basin.)

 Rubberized Asphalt Concrete, also known as asphalt rubber or just rubberized asphalt, is pavement material that consists of regular asphalt concrete mixed with crumb rubber – ground, used tires that would otherwise be discarded or take up space in landfills.

Smart Buildings (see Building Automation.)

Smart Grid - A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology with two-way communications to control appliances at consumers' homes to save energy, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency. It overlays the electricity distribution grid with an information and net metering system. Such a modernized electricity network is being promoted by many governments as a way of addressing energy independence, global warming and emergency resilience issues. Smart meters may be part of a smart grid, but alone do not constitute a smart grid.

 Smart Meter - A smart meter, according to regulatory authorities, is an advanced meter (usually an electrical meter) that records consumption in intervals of an hour or less and communicates that information at least daily via some communications network back to the utility for monitoring and billing purposes (telemetering). Smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the central system.

Sustainability is generally defined as the capacity for a culture to thrive today – economically, ecologically and socially – without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

Tidal Power, also called tidal energy, is a form of hydropower that converts the energy of tides into electricity or other useful forms of power. The first large-scale tidal power plant (the Rance Tidal Power Station) started operation in 1966.

Traffic Calming is intended to slow or reduce motor-vehicle traffic in order to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists and improve the environment for residents. Urban planners and traffic engineers have many strategies for traffic calming. Streets have many social and recreational functions which are severely impaired by car traffic. The Livable Streets study by Donald Appleyard (circa 1977) found that residents of streets with light traffic had, on average, three more friends and twice as many acquaintances as the people on streets with heavy traffic which were otherwise similar in dimensions, income, etc. For much of the 20th century, streets were designed by engineers who were charged only with ensuring traffic flow and not with fostering the other functions of streets. The basis for traffic calming is broadening traffic engineering to include designing for these functions.

Transit-Oriented Development is characterized by a mixed-use residential or commercial area designed to maximize access to public transport, and often incorporates features to encourage transit ridership. A TOD neighborhood typically has a center with a transit station or stop (train station, metro station, tram stop, or bus stop), surrounded by relatively high-density development with progressively lower-density development spreading outwards from the center. TODs generally are located within a radius of one-quarter to one-half mile (400 to 800 m) from a transit stop, as this is considered to be an appropriate scale for pedestrians.

Urban Forest - a collection of trees that grow within a city, town or a suburb. Urban forests play an important role in ecology of human habitats in many ways: they filter air, water, sunlight, provide shelter to animals and recreational area for people. They moderate local climate, slowing wind and stormwater, and shading homes and businesses to conserve energy. They are critical in cooling the urban heat island effect, thus potentially reducing the number of unhealthful ozone days that plague major cities in peak summer months.

Walkability is a measure of how friendly an area is to walking. Walkability has many health, environmental, and economic benefits. However, evaluating walkability is challenging because it requires the consideration of many subjective factors. Factors influencing walkability include the presence or absence and quality of footpaths, sidewalks or other pedestrian right-of-ways, traffic and road conditions, land use patterns, building accessibility, and safety, among others. Walkability is an important concept in sustainable urban design.

Water Reclamation is a process by which wastewater from homes and businesses is cleaned using biological and chemical treatment so that the water can be returned to the environment safely to augment the natural systems from which it came. It is used today as both an aquifer and stream enhancement strategy.

Weatherization is the practice of protecting a building and its interior from the elements, particularly from sunlight, precipitation, and wind, and of modifying a building to reduce energy consumption and optimize energy efficiency.

Work-Force Housing is housing that is affordable to households whose annual income is between 60 and 120 percent of the average median income (AMI) in a given community. Households in this income range have not traditionally qualified for low-income housing subsidies, which are generally provided by government housing programs to households earning less than 60 percent AMI. As a result, many communities have a shortage of housing units, either for rent or for sale, in the “work-force housing” price range. Affordable housing is generally defined as housing with monthly mortgage or rent payments less than 30 percent of a household’s monthly income.

Xeriscaping and xerogardening refers to landscaping and gardening in ways that reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental water from irrigation. It is promoted in regions that do not have easily accessible, plentiful, or reliable supplies of fresh water, and is gaining acceptance in other areas as climate patterns shift.