You Can Help
Fin's Platform
About Fin




At the local level


"Many millions of people now recognize that we must transform society but they have difficulty imagining what a new society, designed to be sustainable, might be like. Envisioning the way we can make the journey from our present society to this new society is even more difficult.

Any society, but especially a new society, must first exist in the minds of the people. Every society most fundamentally exists as a set of mental constructs that takes many years to learn. Those images are thoroughly entrenched in our psyches, leading most of us to believe that our present society is so solidly fixed that we have not hope of changing it. We fail to realize that modern society has existed for an exceedingly short time, it is changing swiftly, and it will transform because its present trajectory is not sustainable."

Lester W. Milbrath

Envisioning A Sustainable Society - Learning Our Way Out

More About Sustainability:
Index (Click on Titles)


















"Sustainability" is a term that has evolved from the idea of "sustainable development," which was originally defined as the realization of the development needs of all people without sacrifice of the earth’s capacity to sustain life. Sustainability …simply means achievement of a balance between human impacts and the capacity of the natural world that can be sustained indefinitely, taking into account three interdependent elements: the environment, the economy and the social system. A balance between the human and natural world will demand the adoption of a new ethic of sustainability, a new lifestyle and new expectations in order to ensure our collective survival.

From Towards Sustainability: Learning for Change, BC Roundtable


Simply put, sustainability means living within the Earth’s limits. Not so simple, is to figure out just what those limits are, especially at the local or municipal level.

"Sustainability means doing things better – not doing without. Right now, Canadians consume and waste too much. Less than 10% of the energy we generate is actually used for its intended purpose. Our economy is 1/3 less energy efficient than the United States and half as efficient as many European countries. If we want the next generation of Canadians to have the same opportunities that we have enjoyed, we have to start changing now. It means focusing on the creation of genuine wealth, like health, education, rather than just the accumulation of more stuff. It means moving from being wasteful and complacent, to being efficient, modern and thoughtful."

Dr. David Suzuki

Foreword, Sustainability Within A Generation - A New Vision for Canada




The problems we have, whether environmental, social, or economic, are hardest felt at the community level. The need to do something about them is therefore most urgent and, when something is done about them, the benefits are most apparent.

If we apply the idea of sustainable development to communities, then we should also be able to create sustainable communities. What would they look like? Each would of course be different, but we might be able to describe an ideal sustainable community. We would want to take into account environmental quality, adequate social services, availability of jobs, and the kinds of industries and businesses that would best be suited to environmental and social needs.


An ideal community would adopt a series of ecological limitations – limits applied to all forms of pollution and waste to help maintain a clean environment. At the same time, the community would develop social equity goals aimed at creating equal opportunities for everyone in areas such as education, health services, social services, or shelter. Finally, the community would work toward economic viability by developing different types of industry to provide local employment, to support social needs, and operate within the ecological limitations. Traditional planning approaches of government, business, industry, and individuals do not adequately link ecological, social, and economic factors. This staged approach will reveal these linkages, enabling current and anticipated problems to be fully identified and addressed.

To do all of these things and become sustainable, the community would need to put together a plan. This plan, which should be a community project with everyone involved, would pave the way by agreeing on what the ecological limitations and social equity goals should be, what economic viability should mean, and then how to put them in place.

Communities will need to adopt indicators – ways of measuring their progress towards sustainability – to make sure they are going in the right direction. In order to plan effectively, it may be necessary for the provincial government to give communities extra powers, particularly in areas where decisions might have an effect on the environment.

In the meantime, communities are already wrestling with many environmental, social, and economic problems. These have to be solved before any real progress can be made. Solving them in fact will generally make it easier in the long term to reach sustainability status.

There are, however, two things that will play an important part in helping to achieve sustainability. The first is an acceptance of the fact that we, as part of society in general, have to change our attitudes about the environment. It will not be enough to be satisfied with a convenient blue box program. Everything we do will have to be done with the environment in mind. It will not always be convenient and it will often be a personal challenge.

The second is wider involvement of local government in land use planning and allocation. This is the process of deciding what will go where, whether it is housing, industries, parks or other green areas, transport routes, or garbage dumps. This is the process that should lead us to a better quality of life and one in which we must all share.

Return to Index   



While the greatest future impact on us may be from threats of ozone depletion and global warming, we have some immediate problems that are already affecting many communities. Most of these problems have to do with urban air quality, which in turn is influenced by many different sources of air pollution.

One of the major sources is the automobile because it adds gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides to the air. The nitrogen oxides are converted by sunlight into ground-level ozone (smog) that can be harmful to people with breathing problems. Smoke, such as smoke from wood stoves, is equally a health problem because the fine particles can be inhaled, causing irritation of the lungs. An overall problem is that adequate standards for air quality have not been developed, nor are there enough systems in place to allow for proper management of air quality.


The quality of land must be protected. Where we have areas that have been contaminated by industrial chemicals, we must ensure that there are safe and effective methods in place for recognizing and dealing with them.


Community water quality issues mostly have to do with water as a source of drinking water and the difficulties of keeping the sources pure enough. Most of our water comes from water supply areas or watersheds, natural areas in which water is plentiful and can be controlled and stored. Activities such as logging, uncontrolled recreational uses, and residential lot development, may all threaten water quality. Giardia is a threaten water quality. Giardia is a biological contaminant that can cause a variety of illnesses and that has been showing up in some water supplies as a result of contamination.

In some areas groundwater is a primary source of drinking water, or acts as backup supply. We need to be concerned about the possibilities of contamination of groundwater. Finally, we need to have realistic standards for water quality that will allow communities to seek the right kind of treatment systems where needed.


Managing our wastes properly will be a major challenge. Not only do we have to try and reduce the amount of solid waste we produce – more than 2 kg of garbage per person per day in British Columbia – we also have to change our "throw away" attitudes and behaviour. This does not just mean everyone becoming a recycler, it means being responsible for using "environmentally friendly" product, not buying products in hard-to-dispose-of-packages, re-using containers and other items, and composting. In the immediate future, it will probably cost us more to manage our wastes properly, whether through higher tipping fees at the dump, or through various kinds of environmental taxes. In the longer term, the cost savings will be worth it.

Return to Index 



The task of developing sustainable communities will be difficult and challenging, but it is a task that must succeed. Success will depend, in the end, on the amount of effort that everyone, not just governments, is prepared top put into a "vision of the future."

What is this vision? As the authors of a report to the City of Vancouver have said: "…combine in one place the things to which humanity aspires on a global basis: a place where human activities enhance rather than degrade the natural environment, where the quality of the built environment approaches that of the natural setting, where the diversity of origins and religions is a source of social strength rather than strife, where people control the destiny of their community, and where the basics of food, clothing, shelter, security, and useful activity are accessible to all."

Return to Index 


Among all the inhabitants of the planet Earth, the human species is unique in that it is capable of inducing perhaps irreversible changes in the global environment. Rapid population growth has been exceeded only by consumption of energy and by use of ever-depleting resources, the deleterious by-products of which are discharged as wastes to the environment that sustains us.

We may not know the extent to which we con continue to cause environmental damage without setting in motion a major ecological catastrophe, but we can see the warning signs all too clearly: global warming, progressive thinning of the ozone layer, the spread of deserts into former agricultural lands.

The sphere of human activity in its traditional forms of consumption and economic growth is hostile to the future health of the global environment. Yet economic development is necessary if we are to meet our basic needs. In the long term, the survival of the human race will depend on its ability to find a better way to live in, and share, the global environment. It must be a way that balances the need for economic growth with protection and preservation of the environment and with the creation of a better society both for ourselves as well as for generations to come.

The purpose of this paper is to examine how communities can respond to the challenges of the growing threats to both their internal and external natural environments.

Global warming, ozone depletion, or loss of genetic diversity may be global problems, but the global ecological balance is dependent on the achievement and maintenance of balance at lower levels.

It is the individual, as well as community level, that the consequences of rapid urbanization, uncontrolled economic growth, air pollution, water quality degradation, or rapidly filling landfills are most obvious. It is at this same level that the motivation to solve them is most direct and the benefits of such actions are most readily realized.

These are the internal challenges that are perhaps best exemplified by population growth and development.

Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Thompson-Okanagan currently contain 85% of the provincial population – a regional disparity that is expected to continue. The two major urban centers, Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria together account for almost 50%. Concentration in these centers is expected to persist. The resulting density increase creates mounting pressure on ecological, social and economic systems – air quality, transportation, housing and waste management. Should these patterns be allowed too persist in the face of rising environmental and socio-economic costs?

Migration currently accounts for 75% of net provincial growth, a figure that will increase to 80% by 2016. Inter provincial migration accounts for 50% of net population growth, and international migration, 25%. The immigrant population is younger by about 5 years than the host population and will contribute to population growth. The current immigration rate for Greater Vancouver is twice that of Canada. It is a desirable trend or are there ways of attracting immigrants to other areas of the province?

As elsewhere, British Columbia has an aging population and significant increases in the older age groups are anticipated. B.C. seniors currently make up 13% of the provincial population consuming approximately 75% of health care costs. Will the Province be able to provide an appropriate level of health care in the future, and how will the health care industry expand its services to meet the anticipated demand?

It will be necessary to address the question of the carrying capacity of communities. Carrying capacity, in this case, means the ability of the community to support an optimum size of density of population. Too low a population will result in unfulfilled expectations for social equity and economic viability – a serious problem in resource-based communities. Too high a population will result in additional, stress on environmental quality s well as degraded urban living conditions. It may be desirable to create ways of limiting population growth in rapidly growing areas such as the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island. Conversely, it may be necessary to ensure the maintenance of adequate growth rates in areas of declining population.

Hand in hand with population growth is the equally challenging issue of growth through development. Management of growth is both desirable and necessary to achieve sustainability goals. Management of growth includes reduction of urban sprawl, densification, creation of multi-functional neighbourhoods, revitalization of transportation systems, affordable housing, retention of open space, and the creation of recreational opportunities.

Development is not, as some would believe, inevitable, nor is it necessarily a direct response to demand. The sustainable community planning and implementation process should use development as an instrument rather than the means to promote growth. The Greater Victoria area, as an example, has seen significant development during the past decade but not without social cost. Unemployment rose by 74%, average house prices increased by 19% each year, and the City of Victoria recorded the highest per capita crime rate in Canada. With growing congestion on the roads, loss of agricultural land, accommodation shortages, and problems with solid and liquid wastes, many of our cities are without doubt, cities under stress.

The concept of the sustainable community is one in which threats to survival, both internal and external, are recognized and understood, and through adjustment of ecological, social, and economic values and practices, steps are taken to ensure that the future generations of the community will enjoy the same quality of life that we aspire to today.

Return to Index 


The three building blocks of the sustainable community model are ecological limitations, economic viability, and social equity.


Ecological limitations are the finite capabilities or limits of the natural environment (ecosystems) to accommodate impacts resulting from human activities. In general, we do not know what these limits are, but we believe that exceeding them may cause irreversible damage to the environment. Living within these limitations will lead to ecological sustainability.

Ecological limitations will be defined by the goals that are set for the management of air in terms of quality, land in terms of productivity, water quality and quantity, the biological diversity of ecosystems, and waste reduction. The objective in each case will be to set standards, create procedures for achieving the standards, and identify ways of measuring progress towards that achievement.

In order to develop ecological limitations it will be necessary to agree on an equitable allocation of jurisdictional roles and responsibilities. It will also be necessary to achieve consensus about the kinds of values, attitudes, and practices needed to support the sustainable community concept,


Economic viability is diversified economic enterprise. It is a balance between optimum population range and jobs, and a balance between the long-term supply of local renewable resources and local consumption patterns. It is economic activity conditioned by ecological constraints.

Economic viability means that communities must pursue economic well being while recognizing that national and provincial policies may set limits to material growth. It means that harvest rates in the renewable resource-based economy must be limited to sustainable rates of production rather than being responsive to an ever-increasing market demand. It means that we must practice full cost accounting in order to encourage maintenance of the natural resource base. It means that communities must choose economic enterprise that is able to function within the goals, objectives, and standards of ecological sustainability.


Social equity is the achievement of an equal opportunity for all members of the sustainable community to enjoy a good quality of life.

It is based on the assumption that the individual members of the community – and therefore the community as a while – have rights and obligations that are essential to meeting the basic needs of life, health, and well being. These rights will be an expression of broad societal values and will therefore lie beyond the scope of individual communities to develop.

Achieving social equity, and therefore social sustainability, means having access to: the decision-making processes affecting the sustainable community; equal opportunities for education and training; adequate recreational opportunities, health care, social support services, and housing; a quality environment; and an opportunity to earn a livelihood.

   Return to Index                                                                                                                                        



The sustainable community model is based on the adoption of a set of environmental values or guiding principles that will provide a context within which each of the elements of the three building blocks – ecological limitations, economic viability and social equity – is reviewed and acted upon.

The model assumes that it will be necessary to establish the ecological limitations in parallel with the development of goals for achieving social equity. Creation of ecological limitations and social equity goals will then provide the framework within which economic sustainability should be pursued.

The achievement of economic sustainability goals will lead, in turn, to the creation of the sustainable community.

It is anticipated that the individual elements of the model will be highly variable in "real world" applications. The large urban community as typified by the City of Vancouver may place more emphasis on defining its ecological limitations and social equity goals than on its already diversified economy. Rural centers, possessing a more intimate relationship with their resource-based hinterlands, will require a more balanced treatment of each of the building blocks.

Return to Index 


The process of achieving sustainability will require a number of actions by community. These actions will only be effective, however, if sustainable environmental and land use planning becomes a requirement at the regional district level and if the provincial government is prepared to allocate appropriate statutory responsibilities to the community level. This argument is based on the need for a sustainable policy framework that takes into account regional characteristics. Provincial level planning would be too broad and municipal level planning is too detailed.

The process should consist of: sustainable community planning, including population change; community empowerment; selecting indicators of sustainability; and the development of methodologies for auditing ecological, economic, and social performance.


Return to Index 


The suggested community planning process is derived largely from the 1988 Planning Action Forum held in Vancouver.

bullet Develop a community value system that encompasses the environment, the economy, and social justice that is based on the rights of present and future generations;
bullet Identify sustainable community goals for environmental quality, economic viability, and social equity;
bullet Select sustainability criteria;
bullet Inventory existing natural and cultural resources;
bullet Identify driving forces and development future scenarios;
bullet Develop alternatives for achieving sustainable community goals;
bullet Estimate tradeoffs among alternatives;
bullet Implement chosen alternatives and identify policy and institutional gaps;
bullet Monitor the outcome, respond to feedback, and adapt the plan.


Return to Index 


Achieving sustainability will require that communities possess not only a vision of the future and the planning skills and capacity, but also the statutory powers to support their initiatives.

Although local governments derive their powers of the Province, and while many provisions in the Municipal Act, Land Title Act, and Waste Management Act can be used to achieve sustainable community goals, these are not adequate to help communities meet all the challenges that lie ahead.

"With the minor exception of the severely restricted development permit powers, local governments do not have powers delegated to them to directly preserve natural features and resources, guard the quality of surface water and atmosphere, or avoid the creation of new environmental problems" (Don Lidstone, 1990).

In June 1990 the Sustainable Development Committee of the Canadian Association, British Columbia Branch, published collection of appears entitled "Law Reform for Sustainable Development in British Columbia". In the Paper Municipal Land Use Planning, Lidstone put forward a set of recommendations that would give municipalities and regional districts improved statutory tools to create sustainability.

Lidstone’s recommendations and others that flow from the preceding pages of this paper include the need for:

bullet more powers to achieve environmental protection and other sustainability goals, and where jurisdictions overlap, provide for complementary actions;
bullet broadening of authority to cover third party use of Crown land;
bullet specific authority to withhold development approvals on the basis of ecological factors, social equity, and economic viability pending resolutions of sustainability concerns;
bullet making explicit reference in the Land Title Act to sustainability considerations as a basis for withholding and guiding subdivision approvals;
bullet specific authority for entering into or requiring contractual arrangements with owners and developers regarding the achievement of sustainable community principles, goals, and objectives;
bullet mechanisms and resources to ensure that sustainability problems that transcend community boundaries are dealt with at the appropriate governmental level – regionally, provincially, and federally – in a concerted manner.

      Return to Index                                                                                                                                         



Using Sustainability Principles Day to Day

These principles are more than abstract ideas. They can be of practical use on a day-to-day basis, providing a reference point for your journey towards sustainability. Although they are general and somewhat idealistic in nature, they can be used to orient actions in the direction of sustainability if they are built into your vision and all decision-making processes. Think of them as a checklist to be referred to at every stop on the voyage.



General decision-making and governance principles:

Integration: Integrate development and conservation, recognizing the effects of development decisions on the environment, and the effects of conservation decisions on development (assuming the effects can be positive and negative in both directions).

Cooperation: Work cooperatively, using processes such as public / private sector partnerships, interagency collaboration and community involvement to support decision-making processes that are integrated, informed and open.

Managing change: Anticipate and manage change towards desired ends, rather than just reacting to change. With these ends in mind, be adaptive, flexible and responsive in ongoing decision-making.

Autonomy and responsibility: Grant communities a greater degree of autonomy while recognizing community responsibility to the region and beyond – "Act locally, think globally."

Economic and resource use principles:

Self-reliance: Enable communities to be self-reliant and reduce their dependency on external services, resources and economies.

Economic health: Promote long-term economic stability by enhancing the community’s capabilities and stimulating economic diversification.

Renewable resources: Ensure that the use of renewable resources permits the continued use of these resources indefinitely and protects ecosystem productivity.

Non-renewable resources: Hold to a minimum the depletion of non-renewable resources, and extend their life by reducing their use, recycling them, reusing them, and, wherever possible, replacing them with renewable resources.

Individual and community health principles:

Community culture: Build a community culture which helps to meet individual needs and leads people to be drawn together by, and committed to the character and identity of the place where they live.

Individual needs: Promote a healthy and dynamic community life where individual needs are met:

bullet basic needs such as food, shelter and services contributing to health and longevity
bullet opportunities for people to realize their potential and lead lives of dignity and fulfillment including access to education, good employment and recreational and cultural activities
bullet freedom from violence / tensions such as racial tensions, family violence, and crime

Equity: Aim for a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and the costs of resources use, environmental protection and social programs within and between communities.

Environmental principles:

Life support systems: Protect life support systems, meaning the ecological processes that shape climate, cleanse air and water, regulate water flow, recycle essential elements, create and regenerate soil, and enable ecosystems to renew themselves. This requires us to limit our impact on ecosystems so as to stay within their carrying capacity (the capacity of interrelated communities of plants and animals to withstand impacts of human use without dangerous deterioration).

"As a species, we have to come to grips with the fact we are part of the ecosphere. . . we are completely dependent on it for our existence. . . and we are its stewards."


Biodiversity: Conserve biodiversity, ensuring that the natural variety of life forms and habitats in the environment is maintained, and that natural gene pools are maintained.

Attitudinal principles:

Learning: Encourage life-long learning for community members and take a learning approach in decision-making. Look at plans, programs and projects as experiments that provide the opportunity for learning and improvement through adaptation over time.

Attitudes and values: Promote attitudes, values and actions that support sustainability, including any necessary lifestyle changes.

    Return to Index                                                                                                                                                 



with examples of how the principles of sustainability might be applied

Taking stock: Think through what you need to know about your community and its trends in relation to the topics covered in the principles.

Creating a vision: Look for ways that your community can tailor each of the principles to the unique characteristics of the community in its vision and its goals for the future. Use the principles to prompt creative thinking about possibilities and desired end points.

Practicing leadership: Reflect on who might need to be involved and how they might be encouraged to bring their knowledge and skills to bear. Identify how other communities have build support and commitment to common ends. Consider how to develop leadership through education and mentoring.

Using legislation: Seek out laws, bylaws and regulations your community can use to support activities that will achieve the principles.

Making choices: When choosing between competing or mutually exclusive alternatives, see which alternative reflects the most principles. Make conscious decisions about which principles need to be compromised and why.

Meeting costs: Consider the implications of the principles for the longer-term costs and benefits of a given program, project, etc. Use the principles to suggest factors to include in full cost accounting.

Forming partnerships: Take the principles as a starting point to explore the shared interests of the organizations involvement in the partnership.

Monitoring progress: Make any measures or indicators of progress support community goals, which in turn support the principles.

Build capacity: Use the principles to prompt thinking on strengths and capabilities resident in the community and those that can be developed.

From Navigating for Sustainability A Guide for Local Government Decision Makers

   Return to Index                                                                                                                                                       



Unless the means are developed to measure progress along the way, the process of reaching the targets established for the three components of the sustainable community will be somewhat similar to sailing without navigational aids in a fog. The commonly accepted method is to select certain attributes that can be used to record changes, and thereby chart the consequences on the environment, the economy, and society of actions under-taken to achieve sustainability.

Perhaps the most comprehensive attempt to measure such attributes was the Environmental Trends Program of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Published in 1981, the report contained 264 different biophysical, environmental, and socio-economic attributes of the continental United States, including population growth, water consumption, pesticide residues in fish, radiation levels, sulphur oxide levels, and dissolved oxygen content of major rivers.

In most cases, however, neither the data nor the resources to collect the data are available to initiate a comprehensive program of measurement. Consequently, attributes must be selected that can be measured and that are held to be "indicators" of a set of conditions. These conditions might be represented by either single or multiple sets of data. Thus, a single data set might be the ratio of green space to urban development whereas an example of multiple sets might be an index of air quality, reflecting the relative abundance of a number of air pollutants together with certain meteorological parameters.

As an example, in 1990 Zero Population Growth carried out the second in its series of Urban Stress Tests. Their survey measured 11 interrelated criteria in 192 cities. The criteria used were: population change, crowding, education, violent crime, births, community economics, individual economics, hazardous wastes, water quality, air quality, and sewage. For each of the categories, cities were rated from 1 (best) to 5 (worst). "Model" communities scored 1, while those that scored 5 were "stressed". Each rating was defined so that under the swage category, for example, model cities were defined as those with greater than secondary treatment. No model cities existed for this category but 22 stressed cities were recorded. The general conclusion reached was that the smaller the city, the more likely it was to achieve model status in one or more categories

This table represents a candidate list of indicators of sustainability and contains both aggregated and discrete attributes. It is not intended to be and exhaustive list, but rather it suggests examples of the types of indicators that could be used to monitor change.

    Return to Index                                                                                                                                                      


Environmental Social Economic
Air Quality Index Social Stress Index Diversity
Water Quality Housing Employment Rate
Fecal Coliforms Public Health Average Wage
Dissolved Oxygen Education Levels Per Capita Debt
Per Capita Waste Recreation Growth Rate
Noise Levels Food Banks Energy Consumption
Species Diversity Public Participation Balance of Trace
Green Space Cultural Activity  
Natural Habitat    


Auditing is the process of managing and controlling the performance of all of the activities required to create a sustainable community. It represents structured and consistent approach to the evaluation of selected indicators, to their interpretation, and to an initiation of necessary adjustments should the performance not measure up to expectations.

It will require an integrate approach that recognizes the connectivity inherent in natural systems and will also require enough data to validate the process. In this contest, it will be most important that agencies, and particularly provincial government agencies, the necessary steps to ensure that data collected in the past is both available and accessible to communities. Government agencies must similarly be prepared to be responsive to needs for new or additional data that will support the use of indicators, allow the prediction of consequences, and move towards a better understanding of the ecological limits to human activity.

Return to Index 


Home | You Can Help | Fin's Platform | Sustainability | Endorsements | About Fin

This site was last updated 24/06/09