Stepping Stones

Seven insights into community sustainability.

MORE THAN A SET of scientifically based conditions for a sustainable society, the Natural Step Framework has been the foundation for hundreds of innovative sustainability programs around the world.

MORE THAN A SET of scientifically based conditions for a sustainable society, the Natural Step Framework has been the foundation for hundreds of innovative sustainability programs around the world. After five years of applying its community-based approach in Canada, The Natural Step’s executive director Kelly Hawke Baxter and principal advisor Chad Park say the organization has learned a great deal about community sustainability. Here are seven hints to help your community move toward a more sustainable future.

Community sustainability is about creating the kind of world we want for ourselves, our neighbours and future generations. It involves living our lives and making decisions as individuals, organizations and societies, so that the opportunities and quality of life available to future generations are equal to – or even exceed – what we inherited from our ancestors. But what does it take to become a sustainable community? What do we need to get there? These are the questions many community leaders and champions from across the country are asking themselves. As thousands of Canadian communities embrace the challenge of creating healthy, vibrant and safe places to live for today and tomorrow, lessons are beginning to emerge about effective planning processes for sustainable communities.

Best-known for its scientific framework that defines sustainability, The Natural Step Canada is using this knowledge to encourage communities and their leaders to put sustainability theory into practice. Five years and 30 communities later, The Natural Step has learned that community sustainability is about transformative change, not incremental improvements. It is about a new way of thinking, making decisions and collaborating. It’s a longterm process that requires leadership, shared commitment, hard work and sustained effort. Moreover, leaders and stakeholders need to think about their communities as systems, and be ready to embrace change if they are to advance the practice of sustainability.

1. It’s a journey, not a document

Smart plans are about the process. In its sustainableliving initiative, Olds, Alberta (population 7500), adapted a planning process laid out by the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association to suit the town’s unique situation. While the process ultimately produced a document called The Olds Strategic Sustainability Plan, its greatest legacy is the shared sense of purpose and direction that has been created among partners and citizens. Led by the Town of Olds, in partnership with the Olds Institute, itself a collaborative association of major local institutions, the journey involves education and extensive consultation with citizens, including a special effort to reach out to groups often missed, such as seniors and youth.

2. Invest in education and capacity building

A small group of isolated people cannot write a useful community sustainability plan. Instead, a strong core of community and process leaders requires a thorough understanding of sustainability, while a broad crosssection of community members needs to follow the concept if the effort is to be sustained. In the Town of Canmore, Alberta (permanent population of 12,000), eight businesses and community organizations dedicated teams of staff and managers who faithfully participated in a sustainability-training program. This built a shared language within a broad group of organizations. It also developed the capacity of a few individuals, so that they could serve as sustainability experts for ongoing initiatives, such as a visioning process and the creation of new development guidelines that incorporate sustainability.

3. Build shared intention

A strong, shared vision of what the community wants is absolutely critical. But having a well-articulated vision statement is not enough. The most successful efforts build a shared sense of purpose, commitment and intent. When Whistler, BC (permanent population of 10,000), developed its vision for the future, it was much more than a statement of Whistler as “the premier mountain resort community – as we move toward sustainability.” Through extensive community consultation and partnership building, Whistler developed a scenario for the future that is felt in the hearts and minds of its citizens, who deem it to be worthy of their ongoing investment of time and energy.

4. Know your gap

Sustainability isn’t just about how far a community has come or even where it is heading. A community needs to understand the gap between where it is today and where it wants to be in a successful, sustainable future. The tension established by this “sustainability gap” is fundamental to the creativity and innovation necessary to find new ways forward. Called backcasting, it is a planning approach that often leads to questions and decisions that differ from those that emerge from more conventional planning. The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association’s recommended approach to sustainability planning is rooted in the backcasting model, and has guided dozens of communities in determining their priorities and articulating their desired future.

5. Collaborate

Sustainability requires unprecedented collaboration among a range of departments and sectors, citizens, and other stakeholders. In the National Capital Region (population one million plus), the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, along with the National Capital Commission, are partners in a long-term planning process called Choosing our Future. Despite the complexity of involving a pair of cities in two provinces and various orders of government, a regional, collaborative approach is the best way to create lasting results for a sustainable future.

6. Feed the mo’ with strategic actions

Early wins are essential if a community is to build and maintain momentum for the transformationalchange process. To achieve early successes, it is important to clearly understand and communicate how actions taken today will move the community toward its vision of sustainability. Similarly, it is helpful to point out that early actions are flexible stepping stones and that they are generating a positive return on investment. From eliminating the cosmetic use of pesticides to implementing a leading-edge waste management system, the Halifax Regional Municipality (population 375,000) has undertaken hundreds of initiatives, both large and small, and gained broad recognition for its efforts. The municipality developed a “sustainability filter” to ensure that sustainability considerations are factored into the design and planning of all projects, programs and activities.

7. Evaluate progress

As a sustainable community initiative advances, progress needs to be measured. Effective feedback mechanisms will inform decision making, and help the community evaluate and adapt to the transformation as it unfolds. Whistler, BC, created a monitoring and reporting system that tracks the community’s status and progress toward the goals set out in its 2020 plan. A comprehensive list of indicators is published on the Whistler 2020 website for all to see.