Sustainable Communities in an Integrating World

2nd UN Conference on Human Settlements, Istanbul, June 1996


Sustainable Communities in an Integrating World

Based on a concept paper shared at the
Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II)
(Istanbul, Turkey, 3-14 June 1996)

With the approaching dawn of the 21st century, governments, organizations and peoples are expending enormous energies to develop communities which are socially vibrant, united and prosperous. The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), which builds on the major global conferences of this decade, is a milestone in these efforts and portends major advances in community development.

In the long term, however, community-building efforts will succeed only to the extent that they link material progress to fundamental spiritual aspirations, respond to the increasing interdependence among the peoples and nations of the planet, and establish a framework within which all people can become active participants in the governance of their societies.

It is to these three foundational elements of sustainable communities that the following comments are addressed.

I. Material progress must reflect spiritual principles and priorities

Human nature is fundamentally spiritual. Communities are unlikely, therefore, to prove prosperous and sustainable unless they take into account the spiritual dimension of human reality and seek to foster a culture in which the moral, ethical, emotional and intellectual development of the individual are of primary concern. It is in such a milieu that the individual is likely to become a constructively engaged, service-oriented citizen, working for the material and spiritual well-being of the community, and that a common vision and a shared sense of purpose can be effectively developed.

It follows that the material aspects of community development — environmental, economic and social policies; production, distribution, communication and transportation systems; and political, legal and scientific processes – must be driven by spiritual principles and priorities. Today, however, the substance and direction of community development are largely determined by material considerations.

Our challenge, therefore, is to redesign and develop our communities around those universal principles — including love, honesty, moderation, humility, hospitality, justice and unity — which promote social cohesion, and without which no community, no matter how economically prosperous, intellectually endowed or technologically advanced, can long endure.

Among the considerations and principles that should guide this undertaking are the following:

  • The protection of the family and the promotion of its well-being must become central to community processes. The family is the primary institution of society and the principle incubator of values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. When it is spiritually healthy, it contributes significantly to the development of happy and responsible citizens.
  • The physical, social, economic, legal and political designs of our communities must serve all members of society, not just the privileged. A truly just and equitable society will require a citizenry which understands that the interests of the individual and of the community are inextricably linked; that the advancement of human rights requires full commitment to the corresponding responsibilities; and that when women are welcomed into full partnership with men in all fields of human endeavor, families, communities and nations will prosper and advance.
  • Work is both a means of livelihood for the individual and a way of contributing to the prosperity of the community as a whole. As such, it helps give meaning to one's life. Therefore, community design must ensure that the creative energies of the individual have a channel of useful employment in which they can be expressed. For his or her part, the individual must assume responsibility in carrying out this trust. Progress in this area will lend great momentum to the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty in the world.
  • "Religion," the Bahá'í Writings state, "is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein."1 In every community, therefore, freedom of religion must be ensured, including the right to establish centers of worship.2 Places of worship provide a venue for prayer and meditation, acts of devotion through which the individual can come closer to the Creator, thereby strengthening his or her spiritual capacities for sacrifice and service. As physical monuments, these buildings also often serve to express the cultural genius of the society.
  • The promotion of beauty, whether natural or man-made, should become a guiding principle in community planning, for beauty can touch the heart and inspire the soul to noble sentiments and actions.
  • Community development will need to incorporate principles of environmental preservation and rehabilitation, not only to bring our current civilization into a sustainable pattern of development, but also to respond to the human spirit's great need for close contact with the natural world. The primary role of the farmer in food and economic security also needs to be carefully considered in the design of all human settlements.
  • The vast forces of science and technology must be harnessed to serve the material, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of the entire human family. This will require that all peoples be involved in generating scientific knowledge and determining its applications. As participation increases, technologies which have tended to desensitize and alienate, to make satisfying work and crafts redundant, to destroy the environment, and to cause sickness, infirmity or death, will, no doubt, be reconsidered, redesigned or abandoned.

II. Interdependence among the peoples and nations of the world will only increase in the years ahead

The peoples and nations of the planet are being drawn together as they become more and more dependent upon one another. Settlements worldwide — from hamlets, villages and towns, to cities and megalopoli — are becoming home to increasingly diverse populations. This growing interdependence and the intensifying interaction among diverse peoples pose fundamental challenges to old ways of thinking and acting. How we, as individuals and communities, respond to these challenges will, to a large degree, determine whether our communities become nurturing, cohesive and progressive, or inhospitable, divided and unsustainable.

Unity in diversity is at once a vision for the future and a principle to guide the world community in its response to these challenges. Not only must this principle come to animate relations among the nations of the planet, but it must also be applied within both local and national communities if they are to prosper and endure. The unifying, salutary effects of applying this principle to the redesign and development of communities the world over, would be incalculable, while the consequences of failing to respond appropriately to the challenges of an ever-contracting world will surely prove disastrous.

Obviously, humanity must be prepared for the opportunities and responsibilities that are emerging as a result of this growing interdependence. People need to develop the knowledge, values, attitudes and skills necessary to participate confidently and constructively in shaping the world community, on all levels, so that it might reflect principles of justice, equity and unity. Education will play an indispensable role here. It must help the individual develop a sense of place and community — not limited to the local or national level, but extending out to include the whole world.3 It should cultivate virtue as the foundation for personal and collective well-being, and should nurture in individuals a deep commitment to the welfare of their families, their communities, their countries, indeed, all mankind.4 Education should also encourage thinking in terms of historical process, seeing in history an inexorable movement toward a world civilization, a movement whose successes are the patrimony of all peoples and whose challenges we must now, as a single race, address.

III. Humanity must move toward more participatory, knowledge-based and values-driven processes of governance

Top-down models of community development can no longer adequately respond to modern day needs and aspirations. The world community must move toward more participatory, knowledge-based and values-driven systems of governance in which people can assume responsibility for the processes and institutions that affect their lives. These systems need to be democratic in spirit and method, and must emerge on all levels of world society, including the global level. Consultation5 – the operating expression of justice in human affairs – should become their primary mode of decision-making.

Naturally, old ways of exercising power and authority must give way to new forms of leadership. Our concept of leadership will need to be recast to include the ability to foster collective decision making and collective action. It will find its highest expression in service to the community as a whole.

IV. Toward a common community, a common destiny

In conclusion, communities that thrive and prosper in the new millennium will do so because they acknowledge the spiritual dimension of human nature and make the moral, emotional and intellectual development of the individual a central priority. They will guarantee freedom of religion and encourage the establishment of places of worship. Their centers of learning will seek to cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness and will pursue as a major goal the participation of all peoples in generating and applying knowledge. Remembering at all times that the interests of the individual and of society are inseparable, these communities will promote respect for both rights and responsibilities, will foster the equality and partnership of women and men, and will protect and nurture families. They will promote beauty, natural and man-made, and incorporate into their design principles of environmental preservation and rehabilitation. Guided by the concept of unity in diversity, they will support wide-spread participation in the affairs of society, and will increasingly turn to leaders who are motivated by the desire to serve. In these communities the fruits of science and technology will benefit the whole society, and work will be available for all.

Communities such as these will prove to be the pillars of a world civilization – a civilization which will be the logical culmination of humanity's community-building efforts over vast stretches of time and geography. Bahá'u'lláh's statement that all people are "born to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization," implies that every person has both the right and the responsibility to contribute to this historic and far-reaching, collective enterprise whose goal is nothing less than the peace, prosperity and unity of the entire human family.6


1. Although enormous injustices have, throughout history, been perpetrated in the name of religion, it is impossible to deny the primary role that faith has played in social progress, motivating individuals to develop spiritual qualities, empowering them to sacrifice for their fellow human-beings and to contribute to the betterment of their communities.

2. Centers of worship, and the institutions and activities to which they give rise, should become a fundamental part of every hamlet, village, town and city — indeed of all types of human settlements in every nation — but they must contribute to the community's overall harmony, peace, well-being, understanding and tolerance. If not, they will only serve to retard the development of sustainable and prosperous communities, and the people will eventually abandon them as they come to recognize the divisive and parochial role they play in society.

Of course, almost any place can serve as a center of worship. One of the prayers revealed by Bahá'u'lláh stresses this point: "Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain, and the refuge, and the cave, and the valley, and the land, and the sea, and the island, and the meadow where mention of God hath been made and His praise glorified." The importance, however, of physical, community-based centers for the development and expression of faith cannot be overemphasized.

The Bahá'í Mashriqu'l-Adhkár (the Dawning-place of the Praise of God) is one such center which, by its very design, integrates worship and service, or, put another way, expresses the spiritual in practical ways. At the heart of this complex lies the House of Worship which is open to all people, regardless of faith. Surrounding the House of Worship, and animated by it, are to be nine dependencies – or institutions – dedicated to social, administrative, humanitarian, educational and scientific affairs. As each Mashriqu'l-Adhkár complex develops, these dependencies will include "a hospital, a drug dispensary, a travelers' hospice, a school for orphans, and a university for advanced studies." This practical model for harmonizing the moral and ethical, the physical and environmental, and the economic and social aspect of human settlements is worthy of study by those involved in community-building processes.

3. In this regard, community might be conceived of as a set of concentric circles, with the local community being the smallest, and the global community being the largest.

4. The concept of world citizenship helps integrate all levels of community: being a responsible citizen on the local and national levels is not at odds with love for all humanity; rather, these multi-layered allegiances and obligations form a tightly woven web, an inseparable whole.

5. In consultation, the individual participants strive to transcend their respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals. In an atmosphere characterized by both candor and courtesy, ideas belong not to the individual who presents them, but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued. Consultation succeeds to the extent that all participants support the decisions arrived at, regardless of the individual opinions with which they entered the discussion. Under such circumstances an earlier decision can be readily reconsidered if experience exposes any shortcomings.

6. It is interesting to note that a number of the concepts in this paper were also present in the statement that the Bahá'í International Community delivered to the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in 1976. More recent Bahá'í statements which shed light on the subject of sustainable communities include The Prosperity of Humankind; World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development; and Turning Point for All Nations.

Last updated 28 February 2005