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Sustainable development

With the Industrial Revolution, human activities started to produce new impacts on natural resources. Factories were built, producing new sources of pollution on air, water, and soil; many towns and cities started to grow, generating social and human health problems. Progress in science and technology continued to grow until after the Second World War, when it reached unprecedented rates, raising enthusiastic optimism on development. In many industrialized countries, the achievement of better life conditions, economic growth, increased production and distribution of goods, infrastructures, and housing generated an ideal trust in development, eventually changing radically the relationships between man and the environment. The outcomes would become evident soon. The unlimited growth of most developed countries would compromise seriously the terrestrial ecosystem, destroying limited natural resources, causing dangerous conditions for human health, and augmenting poverty in less developed countries, which were unable to contrast the exploitation of resources carried on for the sake of development at their expenses. Soon the awareness arose of the need for new sustainable development models.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first published in 1962 [3], reporting the negative impacts on human health and animal species caused by the use of pesticides in modern agricultural production processes, is widely acknowledged as an embryonic alarm call from which the debate on the environmental issues has arisen and evolved until the present day. In 1972, under the aegis of the Club of Rome — an organization of economists and scientists — the “Meadows” proposed their catastrophic vision with their Limits to Growth [4], a report of a model-based forecast according to which trends in demographic growth, increase in production and consumption, and widespread pollution diffusion would have led in a few decades to the collapse of the terrestrial ecosystem. These widely known early works in the history of the socio-cultural debate on environmental issues are only two examples of the enormous work promoted in the last fifty years or so by the establishment in many countries and carried on with the support of the international scientific community. The evolution of the environmental issues debate and of the initiatives of the many organizations spread internationally, which led to the definition of the principles of sustainable development and the way toward their practical implementation, is rich and is characterized by the important role played by the United Nations. In 1972 the UN promoted the Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm, where those issues which would have later become the principles of sustainable development were discussed. The view of man as “creature and molder of its environment” is proposed in the Declaration of the UN Conference on Human Environment [5]. The document acknowledges the ability of man, enhanced to an unprecedented scale by the progress in science and technology, to transform his surroundings. This ability can be used wisely to bring improvements in the quality of life of the people all around the world, or conversely, if used wrongly can produce incalculable harms to human beings and the environment. Seven proclamations are given in the document, and twenty-six statements are proposed as guiding principles for sustainable development [5]. The UN continued to build on the outcomes of the Stockholm conference, forming in 1983 the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. The commission worked for three years, eventually producing a report on social, economic, and environmental issues [1], which brought the idea of sustainable development into the international view in 1987. The results presented in the report titled Our Common Future, also known as the Brundt- land Report, were discussed at the UN General Assembly, and in 1989 the UN made the formal decision to convene the UN Conference on Environment and Development, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Summit agreed on the Rio Declaration establishing twenty-seven general principles. Moreover, the action plan, Agenda 21, was issued, and it was recommended that all countries adopt national strategies and promote local practices according to sustainable development principles and programs. After ten years, a second World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg (Rio +10), being one of the most important international meeting ever held on economic, environmental, and social decisionmaking, and focusing on promoting further actions to put Agenda 21 into practice.
This brief yet oversimplified discussion gives just an outline of the history of sustainable development. The reader is invited to consider reading the original documents mentioned above for a thorough definition of the principles of sustainable development — which are out of the scope of this discussion — whereas in the following section the contents of Agenda 21 are reviewed critically with the aim of discussing the implications for the GIS application as support to spatial planning practice according to sustainable development principles.



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