Sustainable Community Planning: Comox ValleySustainable Community Planning: Comox Valley
Heather Beckett and Chris Ling
Published January 22, 2007
Many Canadian communities are experiencing increasing growth and its subsequent development pressures. While it is important to recognize that growth and development are inevitable, it is equally important to have responsible and proactive planning in place. The Comox Valley (comprising the municipalities of the City of Courtenay, the Town of Comox, the Village of Cumberland and the Comox-Strathcoma Regional District) is one such community that has to make important decisions regarding sustainability and planning. Politicians, planners and citizens need to respond to, and find meaningful ways to manage, increasing population growth, consequent development pressures and subsequent urban planning issues. This case study explores these issues, identifies key components of sustainable community planning, some of the challenges and opportunities that exist for establishing a sustainable community plan, and recommends possible solutions to overcome identified challenges and realize identified opportunities for implementing sustainability in community planning for the Comox Valley.
Sustainable Development Characteristics
Urban sprawl, a form of uncontrolled development, is presenting a challenge for many Canadian communities. This style of development is unsustainable over the long-term and contributes to increasing traffic congestion, diminishing green space and agricultural lands, and costly infrastructure needs (Roseland, 1998). In response, communities and their governments are searching for ways to integrate sustainability to address the social, economic and environmental considerations into planning processes.
Sustainability requires a shift away from the predominant view that community decisions are best based on short-term goals, where society, the economy and the environment are separate, unrelated parts (Sustainable Measures, 2005). This ideological shift recognizes the interrelated nature of the economic, environmental and social aspects of communities. In order to address the need for more integrated planning, local governments are exploring new approaches to community planning.
The role of local government in advancing sustainability initiatives was recognized in Local Agenda 21 (Agenda 21), an international agreement signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Local Agenda 21 recognizes that the decisions of communities affect the long-term sustainability of both their community and the planet (UN Conference on Environment and Development, 1992; Hallsmith, 2003). Local governments have the potential to affect the necessary changes needed to ensure their community’s future is built on the principles of sustainability.
While it is important to recognize that population growth and subsequent land development are inevitable, it is equally as important to have responsible and proactive planning mechanisms in place to manage growth and development. Although there is no single definition for a sustainable community, there is one common objective: to meet a community’s economic and social needs while not compromising the natural environment (Roseland, 1998; Nozick, 1999). Sustainable community plans aim to use urban space efficiently by minimizing consumption of natural capital and multiplying social capital (the shared knowledge and patterns of interaction of a group of people) while simultaneously engaging citizens and their governments in decision-making processes (James and Lahti, 2004; Roseland, 1998; Hallsmith, 2003).
Critical Success Factors
The critical success factors in this case study are presented in terms of key recommendations developed from the research carried out in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, BC, and are focused on the delivery of sustainable community development in a rapidly growing region.
Recommendation 1: Promote a Systems Thinking Approach
Agencies of knowledge (council members and civic staff) need to have an understanding of the whole system. Without integrated decision-making sustainability remains a process of “applying incomplete knowledge to problems” (Moore, 1994, p. 19). Rather than examining issues in isolation of one another, decision-makers must adopt a holistic and integrated approach; one that equally incorporates the three imperatives of sustainability into planning goals.
Recommendation 2: Find a Champion
A champion is someone, a local government staff planner or council member, who wishes to establish themselves as knowledgeable of sustainability issues. In addition, this individual would be someone who is willing to learn about the issues and find solutions, and in turn would inform other decision-makers. A champion has the potential to be an effective starting point for entrenching sustainability into the planning dialogue because they serve as a credible source of information and have access to those in decision-making positions.
A champion voluntarily takes extraordinary interest in the adoption, implementation, and success of a cause, policy, program, project, or product, in this case, sustainable development. He, or she, will typically try to force the idea through entrenched internal resistance to change, and will evangelize it throughout the organization/community as needed. As a result, such a catalytic individual would play a significant role in advancing government towards actions that support sustainability.
Recommendation 3: Learn from Other Examples of Sustainability
Exchanging information and ideas is integral to expanding sustainability knowledge, understanding and the skill base. Learning from other examples serves to deepen sustainability knowledge and literacy through the exchange of information.
Recommendation 4: Develop Meaningful Public Participation Engagement Strategies
Effective participation depends on the adoption of appropriate tools and processes. Civic participation is the key to overcoming inertia and resistance to achieving sustainability in our communities (Moore, 1997). A plan that reflects the values and interests of the community will ensure its effectiveness and longevity through changing governments. Some public engagement strategies include: local roundtables, community mapping sessions, citizen review boards, and neighbourhood councils.
Recommendation 5: Develop a Long-term Community Vision
“A long-term vision is the starting point for catalyzing positive change leading to sustainability” (Hallsmith, 2003, p. 21).
This vision must reflect the diverse values and interests of the community, and in doing so will “provide the inspiration, motivation and direction to propel a community forward and encourage the various interest groups to work together with a common purpose” (Fodor, 1999, p. 148). Furthermore, this vision must encompass the environment, economy and social justice issues, and incorporate an intergenerational component. Some useful planning tools for developing a long-term community vision are: a strategic community planning conference; a community task force that focuses on the economy, environment and social issues; and back casting. Ultimately a successful long-term community vision process finds areas of agreement, broadens stakeholder involvement in the process, views planning as a cyclical process, and establishes concrete actions for sustainability (James and Lahti, 2004).
Recommendation 6: Adopt a Bioregional Approach
A bioregional approach could be used to highlight the interdependence of communities, as well as the ecological limitations of the region (Boydell, 2002). By adopting a bioregional approach, local governments better understand how their planning decisions affect surrounding communities, and impact local environmental systems. As a result, sustainability planning and solutions are framed in an inter-jurisdictional and cohesive manner that results in a partnership between all four municipal governments.
Recommendation 7: Establish Sustainability Indicators
Sustainability indicators serve as a key of indices comprising actual steps the community must take to achieve sustainability. Decision-makers can use the indicator framework to identify concrete goals, implementation strategies and feedback mechanisms. This framework would ensure environmental quality, economic improvements and social equity in an effort to bring the communities closer to realizing sustainability. Local decision-makers can benefit from using a variety of current examples from other communities using the sustainability indicator framework. Such examples include the Sustainable Seattle Project and Hamilton-Wentworth’s Sustainable Community Indicators Project.
Recommendation 8: Develop a Regional Strategy for Sustainability
Currently, the interdependence of the communities of the Comox Valley is not reflected in planning goals, and as a result governance systems are fragmented. A regional framework may be an effective way to begin a sustainability dialogue between each of the communities. The communities need to develop strategies that discourage the current trends for development that lead to undesirable land-use and instead promote environmental protection, equitable economic opportunities, and strong social policy (Hempel, 1999).
Community Contact Information
1818 Queens Ave, Comox, BC, V9M 2B9
Detailed Background Case Description
The Comox Valley is situated on the east side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. It is comprised of three municipalities (City of Courtenay, the Town of Comox, the Village of Cumberland), and the Comox-Strathcoma Regional District.
The Comox Valley’s population grew by 51% between 1986 and 2004, and is projected to increase by 1.02% over the next 10 years (Comox Valley Economic Development Society, 2006). The increase in population has caused an increase in development and the expansion of urban boundaries. For example, the Village of Cumberland annexed an additional 22 square kilometers in 2002, which increased the land area of the village from 6 square kilometers to 30 square kilometers years (Comox Valley Economic Development Society, 2002).
Both the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox are continuing to develop within their own current boundaries, while also continuing to look for new land for future urban development. In response to future development options, Courtenay and Comox have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in which land outside their current boundaries has been designated as future growth receiving areas for the two municipalities. There are now ongoing negotiations for a new MoU incorporating the three municipalities as well as three of the Regional Districts electoral areas in a MoU representing a draft protocol for a new integrated growth strategy (Comox-Strathcoma Regional District, 2006).
As a result of continued rapid growth, the three municipalities and the Regional District are presented with an important challenge: the local governments of the Comox Valley can continue to endorse urban sprawl, or they can seek alternatives that advance a long-term vision that equally integrates economic, social and ecological factors. In addition, these communities not only face the challenge of devising alternatives for their own individual community, but must also advance the sustainability of the Comox Valley communities as a whole.
The findings of this case study are based on interviews with staff and elected officials selected because they were involved in the planning decision-making process. The sample size represents more than 50 percent of decision-makers involved in the community planning process (17 of 30 potential participants). The interview:
- Determined the extent of sustainability knowledge and understanding held by local government employees and council members interviewed;
- Investigated how local governments integrate the principles of sustainability into planning practices; and,
- Identified challenges to and opportunities for incorporating sustainability principles into local planning mandates and initiatives.
Understanding and Interpretation of Sustainability and Sustainable Development
Sustainability and sustainable development have different meanings and objectives to the various interviewees. Eight respondents stated that sustainability should incorporate three integral pillars: social, environmental and economic. 29% of interviewees cited an intergenerational and multi-jurisdictional component to sustainability.
Other interviewees identified the concepts in terms of growth; a mechanism whereby we can anticipate and mange inevitable development. Three of the participants viewed sustainability and sustainable development as a tool to guarantee growth management. As one interviewee stated, “sustainability is a way to expand your tax base and promote planned growth”.
Four interviewees viewed sustainability and sustainable development as problematic terms, ones that can be considered “trite buzzwords” and could “mean a number of things”. These concepts were also considered an “ideal” and there is “no such thing as sustainability, as [society] is unable to reach a neutral and symbiotic relationship” with the natural environment. Instead, society can “merely attempt to minimize [its] impacts”.
Understanding of Sustainability within a Community Planning Context
71% of interviewees linked sustainability and community planning - stating that these both require the development of a long-term vision for the community:
“community planning is about having a long-term vision, in order that we can determine who we are, what we want and how do we get there”.
Six participants saw community planning as being a process that is based on a “predetermined vision” rather than one that is reactionary, ensuring that “the community directs development and land use, rather than developers directing development”. Although there was a clear notion that community planning needed to be directed by a forward thinking vision, 35% of participants felt that market demands and fluctuations played a larger role in the type of community planning occurring, rather than a predetermined community vision, directing planning and land use.
Interviewees also felt that sustainability in community planning was inextricably linked to land use: “it is about appropriate development and appropriate locations for that development”, “making appropriate land use decisions affect the ability for the City to achieve sustainability”, and that “development of land needs to become more site specific; decisions should be based on land details”.
Several participants discussed the role that communication has in defining the future of the community including communication between local government decision-makers and their citizens, and communication between each of the local governments in the Comox Valley. As one interviewee said, “we need to have social engagement; the process must be about educating the public about the issues so they can be engaged”. Many other participants also indicated the importance of involving the public in community planning. As one participant said, “sustainability is about having an open process, having an inclusive majority”. The notion of an open process was cited as important for securing trust among its citizens, according to another participant, the open process “leads to a higher level of trust and confidence”.
While emphasis was placed on the importance of community involvement, participants also discussed the importance of communication between each of the local government bodies: “we need to have an interrelated system of government bodies; they can’t work in solitude”. While some felt their organization had a good working relationship with one of the four local governments, only three participants cited there was a good working relationship between their organization and all four local governments in the Comox Valley. One participant stated, “There is no interest from the municipalities to work on a Comox Valley wide community plan”. Ten of the interviewees felt that a regional growth strategy would serve as a starting point for dialogue between all four governments, one that may be useful for developing a Comox Valley plan to address growth and development issues.
Four participants cited that in addition to communicating within the community, it is important to “exchange ideas with other communities, in order to learn what works and what doesn’t work”. Effective planning requires looking to other communities “for examples and models that exist elsewhere of sustainable community development plans” in order that “we stay current” and can learn from “past mistakes”.
65% of participants felt that their organization did not equally address the three imperatives of sustainability. 59% of participants cited the social ‘pillar’ as the one least addressed or lacking proper policies in planning. It should be noted that participants often divided the social imperative into two main categories: cultural (i.e. arts and sports facilities); and social programs (i.e. affordable housing and homeless issues). When participants felt that the social imperatives were not adequately addressed, they were referring to social programs rather than cultural programs. Five participants felt that it was not part of local government’s mandate or responsibility to provide solutions to homelessness, women’s shelters or affordable housing programs; rather it fell within the provincial and federal governments’ jurisdiction. Other participants identified the lack of a clear definition or understanding of these social issues as a reason for them not being addressed adequately.
53% of interviewees felt environmental issues are being adequately addressed; almost all felt their organization managed economic issues effectively.
Four participants felt their organization equally addressed the three imperatives of sustainability in their planning goals: “We are on the right track to keep the balance of the three pillars of sustainability”. One participant said, “everyone feels they do but it is based on your vision or philosophy whether we really are”. This notion of a relaxed commitment to sustainability was further supported by another participant’s statement: “the official community plan is a key document used to establish the vision for the community’s direction but the weakness is in its implementation”.
Identified Barriers to Implementing Sustainability in Community Planning for the Comox Valley
- Inadequate Funding: 2 participants identified inadequate funding as a barrier to achieving sustainability in the Comox Valley. Specifically, inadequate funding hindered the ability for municipal staff to research and implement sustainability initiatives in community planning. In addition, participants identified budgetary restrictions as a hindrance to the ability to hire planners that address different aspects of community planning (i.e. social or environmental planners).
- Economic Valuation: 6 participants identified the protection of short-term economic interests over long-term sustainability interests as a barrier to sustainable community planning. Sustainability is seen as “too costly” - “economic pressures have too high a force to bring in the other values of social and environmental; economic values often win out”.
- Willingness to Pay: Two participants identified willingness to pay as a barrier to achieving sustainability. One participant stated, “the biggest barrier is the public’s willingness to pay, it is not there to achieve sustainability”.
- Lack of Political Will: 53% of participants identified a lack of political will as a barrier: “[political] will, both political and citizen; there is a reluctance to change the tradition” crucial because “innovation and technology exist, the barrier is will to embrace it”.
- Inadequate Policies and Legislation: Many participants identified the importance of tools such as Official Community Plans (OCP) and bylaws in community planning, but these were seen as being “inconsistent”, “weak”, “outdated” and “difficult and cumbersome to use” with “different standards being applied within the four communities”. Two participants identified a weakness in implementation as a barrier; and a “lack of legal mechanisms in place to support sustainability”.
- Limitation of Jurisdiction: Eight interviewees identified this barrier. The manifestation of this concern is the divide in provincial and municipal responsibilities and the existence of four local governments - “we can’t have one set of standards on one side of the highway that differ from the other side”. Therefore, to achieve sustainability, Comox Valley municipalities will “need to set joint standards”.
- Lack of Information Sharing: Lack of information sharing was identified as a barrier by 6 participants, both between and within the four municipalities and between the decision-makers, and those with the knowledge required for sustainable community development.
- Lack of a Collective Community Vision: 6 of the 17 interviewees identified a lack of collective community vision as a barrier to sustainability. There is a mismatch between the rural planning and municipal planning goals, as well as between the organizational and political levels of the municipal governments.
- Fluid Nature of Council: Two participants identified the fluid nature of councils as a potential barrier to achieving sustainability. Changing ideologies means that the Official Community Plan should be a vital tool to provide continuity between elections. If the public has enough vested in the OCP – then they will hold elected officials to account based on its contents.
- Urban/Rural Divide: 53% participants cited an incompatibility of urban and rural goals as a barrier to achieving sustainability. There exists “a different cultural element; people choose to live rurally for a reason and people choose to live urban for a reason”, “the urban/rural divide is based on political desires; the attitude of the municipalities is that they can keep expanding”. This attitude represents a “philosophical divide between urban and rural” meaning reaching consensus around a community plan is more challenging.
- Cultural Norms: 7 participants identified deeply embedded cultural norms as barriers: “we are dealing with a public that wants it all, to have the environment taken care of but also want their single family home and ‘SUV’”; “culture – the desire to have a house, two-car garage, driving culture and privacy” as a major barrier to sustainability. Society wants to “maintain the status quo – people are afraid of change”.
- Insufficient Knowledge: 7 (41%) interviewees cited a lack of understanding or awareness that alternative methods to planning and development exist: “knowledge poses a challenge; the knowledge held by developers and by members of council”; “each member of council has a different base of knowledge of the issues, there is an ignorance of elected officials on the issues”.
- Lack of Common Language: Seven participants identified a lack of a common language as a barrier to sustainability. As one participant stated, “[we] need to find a common language and knowledge of the terms, [such as] green space – to some this means a golf course and to others a natural forest”. Another participant stated, “The biggest barrier is a misunderstanding of what is sustainability. We need a real analysis of what it really means”.
- Competing Values and Issues: 29% of the participants cited competing values and issues as a barrier. One participant stated, “Economic pressure has too high a force to bring in other values of social and environment”. Another participant cited the ‘Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon’; there is a conflict between government initiatives (i.e. multifamily housing) and public perceptions of these initiatives. As a result, the public does not want these initiatives to be included in their community.
Identified Opportunities for Implementing Sustainability in Community Planning
Learning from Examples
Ten participants cited the importance of learning from relevant examples of global and local sustainability initiatives; decision-makers and the public can then use this information to challenge the norms of community planning standards: “use examples from people doing development and community planning differently; examples that demonstrate there is an economic value to planning and developing differently. Then leverage on their successes – use what has been successful in the past”; “use other communities that you can learn from, figure out what you like and don’t like”; “exchange ideas with other communities, find out what works and what doesn’t work”; “use examples of local developers looking for higher standards than what is offered through the current OCP”; “as people develop differently and it works, it sets an example”.
53% of the interviewees identified the benefits of building relationships between the governments in the Comox Valley, as well as with the public. As one participant stated, “change the political culture to a process that is more inclusive, allows for opportunity to incorporate diverse values”. Another interviewee saw the “interactive relationship between the planning staff, community and council members” as an opportunity to achieving sustainability in the Comox Valley. Some participants recognized the need for the political community to “cooperate with each other and have a dialogue about what decisions affect each other” and that “each community in the Valley has something to offer – we need to celebrate this and work together”.
Increase Sustainability Awareness and Knowledge
Eight participants identified increased knowledge of sustainability issues as a key opportunity for creating change: “educate the council and public regarding sustainability issues, this leads to community knowing what they want and knowing they have control to tell developers what they want”. Other participants feel it is crucial to educate the public regarding sustainability issues because “if there is a raised level of awareness, the public will expect a higher level of governance to build in sustainability”. Another participant stated, “interest by the community leads to a ‘bottom-up’ rather than a ‘top-down’ approach; the public will then define what they want in their community”. While another participant felt “the community is where the real push for change in community planning is – the power of the people is very strong”.
Better Use of Planning Tools
41% of interviewees identified planning tools such as Regional Growth Strategies, OCPs, bylaws and zoning regulations as an opportunity to establish sustainability for the Comox Valley, provided these were updated, or integrated. While some interviewees were content to build on current planning tools, others thought opportunity lay in different tools such as through an “examination of different incentives and tax structures” or a “community task force – roundtable forum – led by a facilitator to determine what we are and where we are going as a whole valley”.
Current Growth Patterns
It is interesting to note that 35% of the participants cited current rapid growth as an opportunity for implementing sustainability planning. As one participant stated, “rapid growth is forcing Comox to examine its future – the pace of development is a concern, it provides an opportunity to look at growth in a broader sense”. High housing costs means “you get better development; people are willing to look at high density and multifamily developments. High housing costs change the housing form”. The Comox Valley is “coming to growth 25 years later” than other communities, therefore “[has] communities [to] learn from”. There is an “opportunity to be more selective… to step back and do development more slowly and be thoughtful about where we want to go”.
- Decision-makers in the Comox Valley may be familiar with the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development, but they lack a deeper understanding of the basic tenets of these concepts, and how these can be incorporated into community planning goals.
- Social issues are being overlooked in planning priorities, whereas economic and environmental concerns are perceived as being addressed adequately in the community planning process.
- Economic demands played a larger and more influential role than other priorities, such as a long-term vision.
- Communication between and within stakeholder organizations is an important component in community planning, but lines of communication are lacking.
- Research results show there is a need for better cohesion in bringing the communities of the Comox Valley closer to the challenge of achieving sustainability.
- Community planning offers an excellent base for local decision-makers to address sustainability issues and affect positive change at their level. It also provides opportunity for communities to find common ground on growth and development concerns, as well as find solutions addressing their various needs.
- How can local decision-makers inform themselves/be informed about sustainability issues?
- What are the most effective social, ecological and economic indicators that would guide local decision-makers towards the goal of sustainability?
- How can the knowledge and lessons of one community be best transferred to others for incorporation into their planning goals and initiatives?
Resources and References
Boydell, Tony (2002). Sustainable communities in Canada: Does one exist? e-Dialogues for sustainable development.
Comox-Strathcoma Regional District (2006), Comox Valley Growth Management Strategy takes Next Step – Press Release dated June, 29th 2006
Fodor, Eben (1999). Better not bigger: How to take control of urban growth and improve your community. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Hallsmith, Gwendolyn (2003). The key to sustainable cities: Meeting human needs transforming community systems. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Hempel, Lamont C. (1999). Conceptual and analytical challenges in building sustainable communities. In Danial A. Mazmanian & Michael Kraft (Eds.), Toward sustainable communities: Transition and transformations in environmental policy (pp 43-74). Cambridge, MT: MIT Press.
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Moore, Jennie Lynn (1994). What’s stopping sustainability? Examining the barriers to implementation of Clouds of Change. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Moore, Jennie Lynn (1997). Inertia and resistance on the path to healthy communities. In Mark Roseland (Ed.), Eco-city dimensions: Healthy communities, Healthy Planet (pp 167-179), Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
Nozick, Marcia. (1999). Sustainable development begins at home: Community solutions to global problems. In John T. Pierce and Ann Dale (Eds.), Communities, Development, and Sustainability Across Canada (pp 3-23). Vancouver: UBC Press.
Roseland, Mark (1998). Toward sustainable communities: Resources for citizens and their governments. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
Sustainable Measures (2005). What is sustainability, anyway? An introduction to sustainability.