Community Engagement in Whistler2020

Victoria Smith and Chris Ling
Published April 22, 2007 

Case Summary

The Whistler Comprehensive Sustainability Plan (CSP) Whistler2020 is a community-created, and supported initiative seen to be driving change and modelling best practices of community engagement. This case study examines the key elements of the Whistler2020 engagement process and analyses the reflections of 14 community leaders representing various sectors on their involvement in the plan. Other communities developing sustainability plans through meaningful stakeholder dialogue can learn valuable lessons from Whistler’s experience. Understanding the study participants' perceived value of the Whistler2020 engagement process provides important insights into what motivates people to contribute to the vision and creation of sustainable communities.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

Although important work is being done at the international and national levels, much of the practical movement towards sustainable development occurrs at the community level (Newman & Dale, 2005). Roseland (1998) argues that a quiet transformation is taking place in communities all over North America and around the world and although motivations vary, citizens want to improve the quality of community life, protect the environment, share concerns about social conditions, long for satisfaction that money can’t buy and take pride in the legacy left for our children. He goes on to suggest that these motivations are all coming together in a movement toward sustainable communities. Dale (2005) notes “we are entering an age when communities need to define ‘new shared moral cultures’ through deliberative dialogue on the meaning of place, limits, and scale in the twenty-first century context of sustainable development” (p. 14).

In 2004, the Canadian External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities was tasked with extensive community consultation with leaders across the country to “rethink the way communities are shaped, and to help ensure that Canada will be a world leader in developing vibrant, creative, inclusive, prosperous and sustainable cities” (Government of Canada, 2006, p. iv). The final report published by the Committee identified several key findings including that “local, integrated sustainability planning is a fundamental tool to guide the future of our communities” (Government of Canada, 2006, p.v). Dale (2006) suggests that cities are really a set of nested communities and that all communities regardless of size require essential systems conditions for sustainable community development.

In 2004, the Canadian Government announced The New Deal: Sustainable Cities and Communities, a plan that would allot a portion of available federal gas tax funding to municipalities for sustainability-related infrastructure development and programs (Government of Canada, 2004). The budget commitment was framed as a transformative partnership between all levels of government, intended to improve the quality of life in communities in Canada based on the principles of sustainable development (Government of Canada, 2004). This program has created new opportunities for cities across the country to engage in municipal sustainability initiatives with the financial support of the federal government and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (vom Hove, 2006).

Putnam suggests that wise policy can encourage social capital formation, and social capital itself enhances the effectiveness of government action (Putnam, 1993). Rogers argues that communities attempting to create a sustainable future need to focus on rebuilding their community cohesion – to “foster highly motivated, creative responses from a community empowered to effectively respond” (Rogers, 2005, p. 110). As communities struggle with managing perceived conflicting agendas between social, economic and environmental priorities, Putnam suggests that social capital is coming to be seen as a vital ingredient in economic development around the world (Putnam, 1993). He goes on to suggest that stocks of social capital, such as trust, norms, and networks, tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative, and the successful collaboration in one endeavor builds connections and trust-social assets that facilitate future collaboration in other, unrelated tasks.

Dale suggests that “reconciliation of sustainable development imperatives can only be realized through unprecedented levels of cooperation, shared values and collective norms about the meaning of sustainable societies and their physical space, that is, community” (Dale, 2005, p. 25). Rogers (2005) highlights that a consequence of the focus on community building is a growing recognition of the need to genuinely engage people in determining their future. With this understanding, the study of Whistler’s experience in community engagement can yield important insights about the effectiveness of building social capital as a catalyst for, and as a measure of health within, community sustainable development initiatives.

Whistler2020 (Whistler2020, 2006a). The CSP was created with extensive community engagement and focuses on 16 strategic areas including; health and social, transportation, resident affordability, energy, water, learning, economic and arts, heritage and culture (Whistler2020, 2005). Each year over 150 community task force members are convened to discuss current progress on the plan, review monitoring reports on key indicators, and prioritize actions related to descriptions of success for the coming year (Whistler, 2006b). It is implemented by over 50 community partners and organizations in Whistler and the surrounding region, all of which are involved in accepting and executing actions deemed by the community to be most relevant in reaching the sustainability vision for Whistler (Whistler2020, 2006b).

Whistler’s CSP is one of the first of its kind in Canada and is seen as a model of best practices in community sustainability planning in the country (Godfrey, 2005). An important component of Whistler’s CSP process is participation by community leaders as both task force members and senior decision-makers of implementing organizations.

Whistler is also in a unique position to leverage the opportunity it has as a host city for the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, in its pursuit of a community-wide comprehensive sustainability vision. Major decisions are currently being made about Games venues and Olympic Legacy programs (Whistler, 2006c) that will impact the community for many years to come, and input of the Whistler2020 task force to the 2010 Winter Games development process could afford Whistler the opportunity demonstrate exceptional leadership in sustainability to the world.

Critical Success Factors

  1. Strong municipal vision and political leadership.
  2. Extensive community engagement with task force members representing a diverse range of stakeholders.
  3. Senior community leaders are involved in the development of the plan, which enhances the support for implementation of the actions developed.
  4. Shared implementation responsibility by community organisations.
  5. Annual task force engagement process is structured to review implementation progress of current actions and to prioritise actions for the following year.
  6. Strong, objective and independent facilitators.
  7. As a host city for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, Whistler has the opportunity to demonstrate its sustainability ethic in all decisions related to hosting the Winter Games.

Case Study Contact Information

Victoria Smith –

Community Contact Information

Mike Vance –

What Worked?

  1. Use of the Natural Step as a framework for the development of the comprehensive sustainability plan.
  2. The integration of diverse groups and sectors in the community engagement process.
  3. Engagement of the business and civil sectors in the community meant those responsible for implementation had shared ownership in the development of the plan.
  4. The partnership between local government and community organizations.
  5. The action-oriented and outcome driven nature of the community engagement process.
  6. Formalized ongoing adaptive management principles are utilized as part of the implementation process.

What Didn’t Work?

  1. The initial community engagement process, which involved the selection and use of external facilitation teams without considering feedback from the community.
  2. Not having dedicated staff resources for the coordination and facilitation of the sustainability plan and community engagement process.
  3. Youth and the self-employed were underrepresented in the process.

Research Analysis

It is plausible that Whistler is simply the right combination of community size, economic climate, homogeneous demographic and lifestyle ethic to have developed a community that cares enough about each other and the earth to engage so substantially in a sustainability process. Regardless of the multitude of attributes unique to Whistler, however, the fact remains that the people involved in this research and those who participate on the Whistler2020 Task Force process, are representative in many ways to the leaders of business, government and civil society organizations in other communities.

Conclusion 1 – The Whistler2020 Task Force process is at the heart of the sustainability plan in Whistler and a key reason that community leaders are committed to its implementation.

Recommendation 1 – Continue to engage community members through the Whistler2020 Task Force process to ensure on-going commitment to the plan.

Conclusion 2 - Strong leadership is essential to a community sustainability plan and stakeholder engagement process.

Recommendation 2.1 – Actively seek to engage key community leaders and business executives by showing them the positive links to their enterprise.
Recommendation 2.2 – Ensure that senior decision-makers see the value of their personal commitment to the community engagement process for sustainability planning and implementation.

Conclusion 3 –The framework and facilitation must be extremely efficient, outcome-driven, and effective. The focus on an action-oriented process of community engagement, as well as shared implementation of the sustainability plan by partners in the community, is deemed critical to the success of community engagement by participants in this research. Dedicated Whistler2020 staff resources were identified as crucial to the success of the process.

Recommendation 3.1 –Ensure that the framework is action-oriented and the group outcome produces tangible actions for community implementation. Recommendation 3.2 – Train local facilitators from the community to lead the process or at the very least use outside facilitators in tandem with strong local leaders.

Conclusion 4 - There are numerous extrinsic and intrinsic benefits to people engaged in community sustainability planning beyond the planning process itself.

Recommendation 4 - The indirect benefits of participating in a community engagement in sustainability planning process should be leveraged to attract more people to participate.

Conclusion 5 – A comprehensive engagement strategy strengthens the development and implementation of a community sustainability plan through diverse multi-sector contributions while simultaneously improves the health of the community through ‘multiplying’ social capital as an unintended outcome.

Recommendation 5 – Use social capital as a guiding framework in a community engagement process to better understand fundamental aspects of networks, values, trust, norms and importance of place to a community.

Detailed Background Case Description

The Place

Whistler is located 120 km north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Located in a beautiful coastal mountainous region, it once acted as way-point on trading routes between the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations (Tourism Whistler, 2007). A relatively new community, The Resort Municipality of Whistler(RMOW) was incorporated in 1975 and is now home to 9,800 permanent residents, 2,500 seasonal workers, 9,100 second home owners and over 2 million visitors annually (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2007a). Tourism is the primary economic sector in Whistler and provides $1 billion annually to the provincial economy from its world class recreation attractions such as skiing, golfing, mountain biking, hiking and a variety of other outdoor and wellness related activities (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2006). Not unlike many single resource communities in British Columbia where one company is the primary employer, Intrawest owns the ski mountain, significant commercial real estate holdings and is the largest employer in Whistler.

The demographic of permanent residents in Whistler is a young, highly educated and recreation-focused population (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2006). Another factor that adds complexity to Whistler’s community is the socio-economic demographic in recent years, which includes substantial and rapid growth of private and commercial real estate development, with average single family home sales, in 2002, of $1,259,400 and over $90 million spent on new construction, in 2005 (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2007b). Given this economic climate, Whistler has worked hard to manage the challenges of development and housing affordability, and municipal council has responded by setting a development cap on the total number of units that will be built (currently 84% in 2005), and earmarking a percentage of units as ‘resident restricted housing’, which provides non-market-based pricing as affordable options for people living and working in Whistler (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2007b).

In spite of massive development in a relatively short period of time, Whistler can be characterized as a town that has been governed by progressive, visionary and environmentally conscious municipal councils, which enacted legislation such as the development cap, restricted affordable housing, and introduced the Protected Areas Network (PAN) that protects large corridors of sensitive habitat zones from development (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2007b). The current Mayor of Whistler is a strong social and environmental advocate having previously founded the local grass roots environmental organization AWARE (Association of Whistler Residents for the Environment), which is very active in the community (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2007b). Whistler’s values strongly influenced the Vancouver2010 Olympic and Paralympic Bid process making sustainability a key pillar of the bid for the Winter Games. When approached to participate as a 2010 Winter Games Host City with Vancouver, Whistler agreed on the condition that the bid align with the values and principles of Whistler’s sustainability ethic (Coady, 2006)

The Process

The community of Whistler has been actively engaged in sustainability planning since the late 1990s driven by community leaders including the mayor and senior municipal staff, as well as some organizations who were ‘Early Adopters’ of the process, a term used to describe a handful of community organizations that were engaged early in the sustainability process. Whistler’s Early Adopters included: Tourism Whistler; The Resort Municipality of Whistler; Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb; Whistler Fotosource (representing small business); and, AWARE (Whistler2020, 2006c).

Used in the early stages of development as an integral part of Whistler's process, the Natural Step (TNS) provided a rigorous systems and science-based framework in which to define, discuss and assess progress towards sustainability (Whistler2020, 2006c). After several iterations of the Whistler plan “Whistler – It’s Our Nature” and later “Whistler – It’s Our Future”, Whistler2020 was developed, however, not without its challenges. Early in the process, the community was brought together to give input on the selection of the external consultant team that would be tasked with development of the sustainability plan, yet ultimately council ignored the community feedback in the selection process. In spite of obvious disappointment by the community, consultation continued, however, little was delivered in the way of results. The RMOW recognized that to adequately engage the community for the Whistler2020 process, dedicated internal staff resources would be required, focused entirely on delivering the sustainability plan.

Critical to the early success of Whistler2020 was the facilitation team, assembled from various Early Adopter organizations in the community. Team members were skilled professionals who worked on the earlier versions of the Whistler plan - some through graduate work specific to Whistler organizations and sustainability while others had previous experience as participants in the early community consultation process. During the development of 16 strategy task forces, it was determined that at least 10-12 people from various sectors should be invited to participate, to ensure enough diversity of perspective while keeping the group at a manageable size. A list was developed with input from various community and municipal representatives, and invitations to participate were made by Whistler2020 staff. After the first year of the task force process, some important lessons were learned about the process, and during the de-brief session the Whistler2020 team identified several areas for improvement to implement in the engagement strategy the following year.

During 2006, the composition of the groups was thoroughly evaluated in an attempt to broaden representation. Staff began with a Task Force Composition gap analysis and Discussion Paper (Whistler2020, 2006b) to identify areas for improvement, and input was also gathered from task force members. Some groups were deemed as requiring better diversity and representation, which culminated in a targeted invitation process. The community process was also advertised in the newspaper and on the RMOW website to inform and attract potential new members. Largely as a result of the targeted invitations (the public campaign produced little interest), the composition of some task forces were enhanced with the addition of diverse sector representation.

The Whistler2020 Task Force process is very clearly intended to focus on the implementation of the sustainability plan and those who are part of the process year over year are able to see actual results in the community from the ideas generated during previous sessions. In 2006, more than 150 members participated in the process and generated 148 actions for the community of which 90 lead and assist organizations will take to review (Whistler2020, 2006c).

Some participants had been part of other municipal or business planning processes. Virtually all commented that no other process was as comprehensive as this engagement process, and many of those interviewed had been part of the process since its inception. In terms of group composition, diversity was named the single most important element in the structure of the task force and efforts to be inclusive deemed critical. Although the Natural Step played a key role in the early stages, when asked if there was a common language used during the session, only a few of the participants name TNS as the ‘shared language’ of the task force process. Others felt that the groups tended to use sector-specific language in the meetings, such as environmental terms in the Natural Areas task force, or scientific language in the Water Strategy. This has important implications for how broadly the groups can engage the general public.

The framework, process and facilitation of the Whistler2020 Task Force was cited most often as the central factor in successfully engaging the community in sustainability planning. Staff involvement and preparation was cited by most participants as one of the single most valuable aspects of the Whistler2020 task force process.

In terms of the framework for the meetings, the Whistler2020 process was structured such that individuals felt that each had an equal voice and some commented on the specific tactics for successful engagement. Community engagement, in most participants' view, should include anyone who is committed to the process, not just community leaders and sector experts.” The importance of two-way conversations with the community defined engagement for many, as opposed to some who have experienced ‘consultation by government’ that felt more like information-giving than conversation. Others commented that community engagement is the ‘real conversations’ that are happening, that “if you could take all the coffee shop conversations, locker room conversations etc, and get that input back to your community leadership, that to me is community engagement”.

Some critical groups were missing from the Whistler2020 dialogue, namely youth and self-employed adults in Whistler. Many felt that youth were “totally missing” and “mandatory” to have at the table, yet most felt that the process had to “go to them” and create opportunities for engagement. As for those self-employed, the nature of the full day sessions appeared to be a barrier to substantially engaging many important pockets of the community.

Based on some feedback, there appears to be an opportunity structurally in the task force process to further address the traditional ‘silos’ or sector specific dialogue in community engagement through a cross-functional task force concept, which may address any gaps in the process and a number of participants felt would add further value to the process. Adding a cross-functional task force would, however, likely mean more meetings and although some saw value in the concept, they also cautioned “not to create too many more meetings”.

Impact on Individual Participants

As most had not been part of a sustainability planning process before, the educational component of the Whistler2020 process expanded participants' thinking. The personal impact of participation in Whistler2020 was noteworthy, as one senior leader commented “I’ve been to a lot of facilitating workshops but this was mighty outstanding, the most important thing is how it affected me personally. I’ve learned a lot about the environment and have become more passionate about protecting the world”. For others, the value was one of feeling a part of something greater than themselves. Developing stronger personal relationships in the community occurred for some through the process; others literally took the discussions home, stating “the process has impacted me sitting at home discussing, having some friends over for a social evening but also with the focus of talking about issues and sort of an informal brainstorming”.

For one person, the Whistler2020 process was a bright light in a difficult professional role “it is a positive aspect to a negative job”, while for another it provided “a bit of a common language for the community with the people that you may not have met before, but it is a common focus for the community and it’s neat to be able to relate to somebody on that level”.

The professional value of engaging in the Whistler2020 task force extended beyond the contribution made by participants, and took a variety of forms: from leveraging the multi-sector forum for feedback on their organizational priorities, to building their professional networks and developing their staff through participation on task forces. In terms of networks and exposure one very senior leader noted that “my circle of influence has drastically increased contacts and the ability to gather expertise from places that I would not have had in the past”. This networking opportunity is an important benefit to many task force members.

Impact on the Community

Whistler is described by task force members as a young, strong, vibrant and forward-thinking town. Another strong element participants noted is the environmental ethic seen throughout the community.

Several interviews captured a much more intangible essence of the community. One person noted that he saw “various communities within the community”, while another offered the perceptive and subtle observation of the “contradictory nature” of Whistler, perhaps referring the significant divide between young, transient seasonal workers and the established families in the community. She felt that this was a “very fruitful part of the community culture and I don’t think it has really been exploited”. Finally, one long-term resident who has been active in political life acknowledged that “we do lack diversity when we compare to what might be considered a normal community. I think that is an important part of the characteristic of it, Whistler is a fairly unique community”. This aspect of Whistler is perhaps self-reinforcing as like-minded people are attracted to the uniqueness of the community because of its strong outdoor recreation orientation and in turn bring with them an environmental ethic that seeks to protect that which they enjoy.

The Experience

When asked about initial thoughts prior to participation, task force participants stated that they generally entered the groups with little pre-determined ideas or expectations about their involvement. Some, however, noted concern or scepticism that a process facilitated by local government might be overly bureaucratic, and others expressed concerns given the history of being asked for their opinions and not being heard. Overall, most participants were fairly open to see how the process would unfold and generally had “no big expectations” about engagement.

When consulted about the dynamic of the initial task force groups, the strong facilitation, framework for engagement and key tactics to ensure everyone participated were overwhelmingly highlighted as the central themes of experience for participants. A shared perspective was the comprehensive nature of the process, such as “I had no idea the task teams would become such a monumental initiative”. Some struggled with individual members with strong agendas and yet commented on the importance of diversity.

An important observation a number of task force participants made about their experience was surprise that such a diverse group with different interests could agree on a few points, and noted that the cooperation surprised them. It appears that the strong level of cooperation is due to the strength of the process of facilitation in which each person is given an “equal vote during the brainstorm” instead of letting the strong personalities dominate the results. For others, what stood out the most for them was a new appreciation for the value of stakeholder processes, and one commented that his negative perception of government bureaucracy was gone. One inherent value of participation in a community engagement process is breaking down the barriers between people. As one person noted, Whistler2020 was “a process of me becoming less cynical about Whistler and seeing that the stereotypes or the way that people tend to categorize aren’t necessarily true. There is a lot of complexity and you can’t characterize people in that way”.

Lessons Learned

The majority of the participants felt that all of the process components could be leveraged to other communities, with the provision that diversity of representation and customization of the process for the specific context be considered. Well over half of those interviewed argued that the size of the community may impact the success of the process, such as, for example, “a big city may be more difficult due to size – perhaps big city issues could be broken down to specific neighbourhoods or cultural groups”.

Another important consideration given Whistler’s challenges at the start of the process was to engage, wherever possible, local facilitators. This has important implications for capacity building within the community if the expertise does not currently exist. As well, consistent representation on the task force was highlighted as a key requirement for success.

The most important aspect of the process was inclusive engagement and strong leadership in the community. When asked about the value of involving people in the sustainability planning process as opposed to a plan being developed in isolation of community input, most participants considered a formalized engagement process paramount to the success of the sustainability plan.

The heart of change lies in leveraging the critical points within a system that will affect the most significant impact. Meadows (1999) noted that the best way to intervene in a system, the point with the highest leverage, is to change people’s paradigms or mental models. In the case of Whistler2020 the imperatives for leveraging a community of people to work toward a vision of sustainability includes:

  1. exceptionally strong leadership from government and community leaders;
  2. excellent facilitation and a framework for engagement;
  3. the recognition that broad community engagement is crucial for success;
  4. a shared and genuine desire for inclusive and diverse participation;
  5. an action-oriented process;
  6. shared organizational responsibility for implementation;
  7. strong community networks; and,
  8. mobilising leaders to work together during a critical stage of development in the community.

As a result of these factors, as well as a clear and intentional effort by local government to engage the community, the Whistler2020 Task Force model created a very high degree of support and enthusiasm by leaders to participate in the process.

Governance and Civic Engagement

The Whistler2020 Task Force process demonstrates that local governments can play a central role in facilitating sustainability planning and implementation in our communities. Almost all participants in the study noted ‘inclusion and diversity in engagement’ as a critical requirement for them to continue participation in the Whistler2020 Task Force process. Without seriously considering the input from the community, the potential for disengagement is high – as experienced by Whistler early in the community process.

The RMOW, by taking such a strong leadership role in acting as a catalyst for the Whistler2020 process, addresses what the Ontario Roundtable on the Environment and Economy suggests as a major barrier to community sustainability planning - that of a reluctance of city hall to be part of the quest and the process (Roseland, 1998). Whistler2020 has been clearly supported by the RMOW with staff, resources, and a genuine commitment to the process by the organization.

The municipality has demonstrated leadership in sustainability through the construction of LEED Silver buildings, practising pesticide-free landscaping, purchasing hybrid fleet vehicles, developing of green building standards, and implementing sustainable purchasing guidelines and capital procurement tools that require department managers to evaluate expenditures against Whistler2020 priorities (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2007a). These practices and tools will be made available to others in the community in an effort to broaden the reach of these important sustainability philosophies and practices in Whistler, which serves as an important demonstration of municipal leadership in community sustainability.

Without the harmonized and long-term view of community development embraced by leaders in each sector through the Whistler2020 process, structural impediments to sustainability – traditional independent silos (Dale, 2001, 2005; Seymoar, 2004) would continue to dominate the municipal culture and structure, as well as the interactions between the private and public sectors. Instead, diverse sectors engaged across the task force groups regularly prioritize their actions and measure progress against that plan. To further demonstrate real commitment to sustainability, the municipality is practicing integration within its own domain and is beginning to make structural adjustments to the organization based not on traditional departments, but instead on the Whistler2020 priorities (Resort Municipality of Whistler, 2007a).

Framework and Facilitation

The Whistler2020 Task Force strategy was a vast improvement over earlier forms of public input process employed in the community, which suggests an important learning and improvement process took place. The formalized, o-going engagement strategy is consistent with the principles of adaptive management. By engaging the task force year over year to measure progress against the plan, evaluate key indicators and determine priority actions for the coming year, the framework is designed to provide a critical feedback loop to task force members – a key component of adaptive management. This process is imperative in Whistler2020 Task Force meetings to evaluate the results of the group’s earlier decision-making, and helps task force members to understand the reasons for implementation challenges or failures while informing subsequent recommendations.

One of the key strengths of the Whistler2020 process is the shared implementation responsibility among the community’s businesses, civil society and government agencies. Many of the over 90 partners and implementing organizations identified in 2006 will take on a key shared responsibility of implementing the projects and delivering the services deemed most important by the Whistler2020 task force groups, while reporting on those activities in a clear and accountable way. Given that most, if not all, senior leaders of these partner organizations sit on various task force groups, it stands to reason that when those who are charged to implement are fully engaged in the initial deliberations, execution of those actions has a much higher likelihood of occurring.

One of the challenges in facilitating a multi-sectoral process is the management of individual or sector agendas that can dominate a group process. A key contributor to the high level of engagement and support for the Whistler2020 process noted by the study participants was due to the excellent facilitation. The skill of the facilitation team was of tremendous importance, as was their objectivity. Participants suggested that the facilitation was very strong and was seen to differentiate between municipal policy development and community-created and owned sustainability planning.


The experience in Whistler suggests that inviting people to look out 50 or 60 years and discuss their vision for the community helps move people away from focusing on their individual agendas, and is an excellent way to engage citizens to genuinely work together to make the best overall decision for the community.

The findings of this study show that by articulating shared values in a plan, sharing in the implementation of the actions and supporting staff in various organization to participate, the community does move toward thinking, living, governing and doing business in a sustainable way. Some participants in this study leveraged the task force process to inform their own organization’s strategic plans to ensure a strong alignment with the values and input from the community. Others demonstrated that as key community partners they are doing business and offering services in a way consistent with Whistler2020 community priorities


There is no question that understanding the importance of ‘place’ in Whistler’s sustainability process is one of the keys to evaluating the determinants of success in community engagement. Most people living in Whistler have relocated to this mountain community by choice, creating perhaps what one could loosely categorize an intentional community with shared values related to the natural environmental. Not intentional in the sense of creating ‘relationship to each other’ perhaps, but intentional in creating ‘relationship to place’. 


It appears that leaders in Whistler are very motivated by a sense of contribution to community development and to their own organizations, which has important implications for positioning engagement opportunities to other participants and starting such processes in other communities.

Once involved in task force engagement, more reasons to participate seemed to emerge. Those interviewed often said that they received as much from the process as they contributed to it. Motivators included:

  1. pride / privilege;
  2. networking with peers;
  3. inform business / organizational priorities;
  4. sense of contribution / make a difference / participate; and,
  5. strong belief in the vision / healthy for community.

Other motivational themes centered more on the ‘exploratory nature’ of the process. Some participating sectors that were not previously perceived as a priority in the community, were “thrilled to have a focus on their sector”. Others were “fascinated” to see what would happen, while a number were “curious about the process” or saw it as a way to “brainstorm with peers”. Perhaps because of the reconciliatory nature of sustainability philosophy, it is one of the few initiatives in a community that truly can integrate all sectors with a common focus. Given that this type of broad, multi-sectoral approach is relatively new at a community level, it appears to have appealed to many people in this study in part because of its unique and comprehensive approach, something most participants felt they had not experienced before.

Arguably, both perceived opportunities and external threats to a community can drive a sense of urgency to change to more sustainable practices. The Whistler2020 plan was created during a time when the community was experiencing economic challenges after a period of rapid expansion and development. The findings of this research suggest that the shared concerns about the economic reality played a role in catalyzing the community to find new and creative ways to work together.

Having corporate executives at the community table was invaluable in Whistler’s pursuit of sustainability. Arguably, there is a perceived benefit to the companies that participate in Whistler2020; the value of being viewed as good corporate citizens. However, and more importantly, these businesses and organizations are some of the most significant implementation partners of the task forces recommendedactions. Without them engaged in the planning process, less would get executed on the ground. The process by which Whistler2020 engages community members to evaluate their decisions against sustainability criteria and long-term consequences, has started to cultivate and nurture ‘long-view’ leaders who are concerned about the impacts of their decisions on the community of Whistler.

Finally, keeping leaders in this study motivated to stay engaged in the Whistler2020 Task Force process ultimately depended upon achieving results: either seeing actions successfully implemented or seeing indicators exhibit positive trends over time.

Social Capital

The initial success of the Whistler2020 community engagement initiative can be understood in terms of its strong base of social capital as a precursor to the process. This may have been the result of a strong sense of place, shared values and the direct link between the economy and the natural environment. The stock of social capital in Whistler has been strengthened by the Whistler2020 Task Force process as an unintended outcome of the engagement strategy.

According to Rydin and Holman (2004), implementing sustainable development policy is susceptible to five key barriers: lack of stakeholder involvement; lack of will or desire; conflicts over the definition of sustainability; lack of resources; and, lack of cooperation between stakeholders. In the Whistler2020 case study, all of these potential barriers were addressed through the formation of the task force process, development of the vision of sustainability by the community, strong support by local government with resources, and cooperation among stakeholders.


Schindler and Cheek (1999) propose that successful public partnerships indicate that trusting relationships are more likely to be sustained where there is continuity in personnel and philosophy, evidence of agency commitment, a focus for group actions, and a mechanism in place to maintain communication. The Whistler2020 Task Force process demonstrates strong alignment with these key factors of success through demonstrating an enduring sustainability ethic by local government, commitment of resources by the municipal agency to the Whistler2020 process in both staff and budget to support the implementation of actions, a forum to develop and prioritize actions by the task force process, and a comprehensive Whistler2020 website that provides extensive monitoring of key indicators, action status updates to ensure ongoing communication with the community.


The Whistler2020 Task Force process leveraged the existing networks in Whistler and built stronger and more diverse networks as an outcome of the engagement strategy. Many participants in this research noted the importance of the connections that were formed with key community members through the process, and how the task force engagement strategy added value to their existing networks of professional and social relationships.

In Whistler the environment that fosters network building is the natural environment in which the town is situated including ski hills, bike trails and walking paths throughout the village corridor. Participants of the task force process and the community in general often meet in an outdoor recreational context and have arguably built stronger networks based on shared interests, experiences and regular contact, which have been further enhanced by connecting with each other on the Whistler2020 task force process.

Strategic Questions

  1. Is it the process undertaken or the nature of the community that has resulted in success?
  2. How important is community size in formulating engagement processes?
  3. Is the plan actually contributing towards sustainable development in the long term?
  4. Do different strategies need to be adopted to engage different sectors of the community?
  5. Is engagement valued differently in different sectors of the community?

Resources and References

Coady, L. (2006). Vancouver2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games – Sustainability Update. Presentation, Whistler, Canada.

Dale, A. (2001). At the edge: Sustainable development in the 21st Century. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.

Dale, A. (2005). Social Capital and sustainable community development: Is there a relationship? In A. Dale, & J. Onyx (Eds.), A dynamic balance: Social capital and sustainable community development (pp. 13-30). Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.

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4. Do different strategies need to be adopted to engage different sectors of the community?

I believe that different strategies need to be adopted to engage different sectors of the community. Adaptive management requires consideration of a variety of plausible alternatives to the way we approach our world; consider a variety of possible strategies; favour actions that are robust with regard to uncertainties; hedge; favour actions that are informative; probe and experiment; monitor results; update assessments and modify policy accordingly; and favour actions that are reversible (Ledwig et al. 1993).

During the development of strategy task forces of the Whistler Comprehensive Sustainable Plan (CSP), it was determined that 10-12 people from various sectors should be invited to participate to ensure enough diversity of perspective while maintain a manageable size. After the fist year of the task force process, a Task Force Composition Gap Analysis and Discussion Paper (Whistler2020, 2006) was initiated to identify areas for improvement and gather information from task force members. It was determined that a targeted group invitation will enhance some groups that require better diversity and representation. In addition to a targeted group invitation, the community process was also advertised in the newspaper and on the The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) website to attract potential new members. The public campaign produced little interest, however, the targeted invitations composition of some targeted force were enhance with the addition of diverse sector representation.

(Helen Huang)


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Smith, V., & Ling, C. (2007 June). Community Engagement in Whistler2020. Retrieved from…

Whistler2020. (2006). 2006 Task Force Composition discussion paper. Unpublished paper. Whistler, BC.


I chose this case study because it focused on the community engagement process in the development of Whistler’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan (CSP) using the Natural Step as the framework. I am particularly interested in this case study because I am passionate about deliberate or participatory governance structures and processes. It also ties to my research proposal on creating the framework for a community engagement strategy for a grassroots coalition in London, Ontario that orients around sustainable transportation and urban form. I found it intriguing that the lessons learned from this case study substantiated what I had read in the community engagement and social capital literature. One example is at the inception of the community engagement process, the community was solicited for feedback on the selection of the external consultant team. The outcome was that the council excluded this feedback, which undermined the trust factor of relationship building at the beginning of the process. Head (2007) warns against tokenism or bad faith that is evident in some examples of consultation as this can lead to disengaging experiences that result in consultation fatigue or an unwillingness to participate in future community engagement programs. 

1. Is it the process undertaken or the nature of the community that has resulted in success?

I believe that both of these elements – the process undertaken and the nature of the community – were contributing factors that culminated in the success of the development of Whistler’s CSP. 
The municipality embedded an engagement ethos that was adopted at all stages of the engagement process from the get-go (aside from the very beginning that was mentioned earlier). Members from civil society, the business sector and the municipality were involved in the development of the plan. When it was discovered that perspectives from sectors were absent, individuals were specifically targeted to ensure diverse representation of the task force. Experts in facilitation were used to facilitate the group sessions and each individual was given an equal footing in having his/her voice heard. Having skilled facilitators also ensured that individuals did not dominate the sessions and serve their own personal political agenda. Also noteworthy was the collaboration and cooperation between the multiple task force groups. Head (2007) identifies collaboration as a precursor for high risk/high reward scenarios that may lead to entirely new systems with the sharing of responsibility. The insularity in traditional silos was not present in these cross-sectoral groups. Over 90 partners and organizations have committed to the shared ownership and achievement of implementing the projects that came out of the plan. The task force uses an adaptive management framework to monitor, prioritize, and create feedback loops to evaluate and analyze the advancement of initiatives. 

I feel that it is the unique geographical space and the qualities of the landscape features (being surrounded by mountains and the car-free concept in the main village) in which the community was situated that contributed to the Whistler residents’ connection with sense of place. Some of Whistler’s residents might have specifically relocated to this community and have sentimental attachments to these landscape attributes (Dale, Ling & Newman, 2008). This sense of place may help to foster environmental values (ibid), which may have stimulated a greater commitment and responsibility with the development and implementation of the CSP. 

2. Is the plan actually contributing towards sustainable development in the long term? 

I think this will depend on several factors. It will depend if the individuals that are currently engaged in the implementation of the plan loses momentum over the given timeframe. Several colleagues have mentioned this in previous postings on the discussion forum; that is it absolutely essential to have strategic leadership in place. It was established that Whistler already had a commitment to sustainability, which was evident through the legislation that protected the Protected Areas Network (PAN) and the mayor being a proponent of environmental causes. Further, municipal staff from RMOW and community leaders was fully committed to the process. I believe that this leadership is a crucial component in actualizing the vision of the Whistler2020. 

I also believe that the cohesiveness, shared values and norms in the task force groups helped to build bonding social capital. Meeting in a recreational environment may have helped to build greater connections through shared interests and experiences. Network formation may have been facilitated through the engagement process resulting in diverse networks that augmented already existing social and professional connections in the community. All types of social capital are important in sustainable communities because bonding capital can act as social support within an immediate group but bridging capital can enhance inclusion and reduce social isolation (Firth, Maye & Pearson, 2011). Whereas, linking capital gives a community access to resources that would not normally be available (ibid). These three forms of social capital appeared to have manifested in the community engagement process. This multiplication of social capital could possibly be a precursor to increasing human capital, which improves social wellbeing (Roseland, 2000). Therefore, because of the reconciliation of the social imperative, it may lead to the realization of the vision of the CSP that was shaped through this engagement process. 

Reference List

Dale, A., Ling, C., & Newman, L. (2008). Does Place Matter? Sustainable Community Development in Three Canadian Communities. Ethics, Place and Environment, 11(3), 267-281. doi:10.1080/13668790802559676

Firth, C., Maye, D., & Pearson, D. (2011). Developing “community” in community gardens. Local Environment, 16(6), 555-568. doi:10.1080/13549839.2011.586025

Head, B.W. (2007). Community Engagement: Participation on Whose Terms? Australian Journal of Political Science, 42(3), 441-454, doi:10.1080/10361140701513570

Roseland, M. (2000). Sustainable community development: integrating environmental, economic, and social objectives. Progress in Planning, 54(2), 73-132. doi:10.1016/S0305-9006(00)00003-9 

Smith, V., & Ling, C. (2007 June). Community Engagement in Whistler2020. Retrieved from…