Canada - British Columbia (Whistler) - Community Engagement in Planning for a Sustainable Future

Once a sleepy town two and a half hours north of Vancouver, Canada, Whistler was transformed nearly overnight into one of the top ski resort destinations in North America. The uncontrolled growth was taking its toll, as residents watched with alarm as real estate spiked and development encroached on their beloved green spaces. A new awareness of the need to protect this unique community gave birth to Whistler 2020, an award-winning strategy for sustainable development. Whistler 2020’s high level of citizen participation has earned it attention from many other communities interested in following in its footsteps.

Introduction and Brief History

Whistler is a resort community and ski mecca located 120 km from Vancouver in the Coast mountain range of British Columbia, Canada. Consistently rated among the top ski and snowboarding destinations in North America, it receives over 2 million visitors annually.

Whistler Valley was originally a trading route between the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations, and the areas north and south of Whistler were settled by the Interior and Coast Salish First Nations, respectively. The settlement by Europeans starting from around 1877 was facilitated by the completion of a trail which linked the Pacific Coast to the Pemberton Valley (north of present-day Whistler), opening the way for prospectors and trappers.

In 1910, a couple who had emigrated from the U.S. to Vancouver, hearing from one trapper about Whistler Valley’s natural abundance, made a trip there from Vancouver (then a three-day journey). They bought some property on Alta Lake (southwest of present day Whistler), and opened up a resort known as Rainbow Lodge, whose opening corresponded with the launch of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. Rainbow Lodge became the most popular honeymoon resort west of Banff and Jasper. This was followed by the appearance of other lodges on Alta Lake and other lakes in Whistler Valley. Because of the fishing and other recreational activities, it was initially best known as a summer resort.

In the 1960s, a group of businessmen from Vancouver launched a bid to host the 1968 Winter Olympics, which failed. One of them, Franz Wilhelmson, began the development of Whistler Mountain, then called London Mountain. Until 1964, there were no roads, electricity or water infrastructure in Whistler Valley. In 1966, London Mountain was changed to “Whistler” after the whistler marmot that lived in these mountains, and Wilhelmson’s Garibaldi Lift Company opened the first lift on the west side of Whistler Mountain. Skiers began to hike up an old hydro road (later paved that year), and built simple A-frame chalets around the base of Whistler Mountain.

In the mid-1970s, another bid was put in for the Olympics, which failed again. By this time, Whistler was growing from a “ski area” into a “ski town,” which led to its incorporation in 1975 as the first--and so far, the only--resort municipality in Canada. In 1977, plans for the town site were laid out, and construction began in August 1978, on what had previously been the area’s garbage dump. Blackcomb Mountain was developed at the same time and opened for skiing in the winter of 1980-81.

By 1992, Whistler was regularly being rated as the number one ski resort in North America. For two decades, the area’s two mountains, Whistler (standing at 2,182 meters) and Blackcomb (2,284 meters) were separate operations which competed with each other until they merged in the spring of 1997.

Today there are 2,800 hectares of skiing area with 33 lifts and over 200 runs. Whistler-Blackcomb is currently the largest ski area in North America. Summer amenities were also added, and tourism has become a year-round business.

With the increase in permanent residents, schools, recreation complexes, medical, fire, library and postal services have been added. As a resort community, Whistler’s 9,500 permanent residents see dramatic increases in its population during the ski season with the influx of 9,100 second homeowners and 4,500 seasonal workers. The per-day population goes up to 31,350 in winter months and can go as high as 45,000 in peak season.

In 1998, Whistler decided to bid a third time for the Winter Olympics, teaming up with Vancouver City and other partners, including the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations. The International Olympic Committee awarded the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to the cities of Vancouver and Whistler.

Controlling Growth

In the mid-1970s, plans to concentrate commercial development in Whistler Village, along with plans to collect and treat wastewater, led to the incorporation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW). Because the newly-created municipality was required to develop an Official Community Plan (OCP), Whistler had to start thinking about the longer term. OCPs are required by law in the province of British Columbia to address comprehensive land-use, zoning, servicing, and environmental issues. Along with this, Whistler created a Community Development Plan (CDP). The CDP was a broad municipal policy statement describing the overall strategy of how Whistler should be developed and managed, and summarized policies on guiding and regulating development, environmental protection, essential services, quality of life for residents, managing the local economy, and maintaining a high-quality visitor experience. It was a background to, and supports the achievement of, the OCP review, which was a more concrete legal framework for implementing these policies in more detail.

The concept of tracking the relationship between accommodation capacity and number of people staying in Whistler, both residents and visitors, began to be articulated during creation of the OCP, shortly after the incorporation of Whistler. At that time, establishing a limit, or “bed unit cap” (the number of people staying in Whistler) ensured that current infrastructure—particularly water and sewage treatment—met the demand. The concern was more connected to demand and capacity for essential services than to sustainability. The bed unit cap became later enshrined in the first revision to the OCP and was revised upward from 30,000 bed units to 45,000 in the early 1980s.

The next increase to 52,500 beds came out of a decision to revise amenity offerings in 1993-94, when Whistler began to accept proposals for summer amenities (i.e., golf courses, tennis courts) as it began to promote itself as a year-round resort. It was also accepting proposals for affordable housing projects, and over half of the amount of the increase was intended for the latter.

Within the last two years, as part of Whistler 2020, there was another upward revision, 100% of which was reserved for affordable, or “non-market,” housing. This was part of Whistler 2020 goals toward enriching community life and ensuring that Whistler was an authentic, vibrant community where people actually lived and worked. The target was having 75% of Whistler’s workers living there (a much higher figure than comparable ski resort towns around North America). However, this latest increase may not go as high as the allotted maximum of 6,650 new bed units, because extending it to this maximum number is conditional upon proven need (i.e., waitlists, etc.).

Mike Vance, General Manager of Community Initiatives in Whistler, sums up the town’s evolution as a resort community: “In the mid-seventies when Whistler became incorporated, the focus was on building the economic ‘engine.’ In the early eighties, the focus shifted to building ‘community,’ for example, schools, community centers, and hospitals. Then, in the mid-nineties, we began noticing the consequences of growth.”

The transformation of Whistler was affecting the local environment and community in various ways. Since 1980, a growth rate of about 11 percent has rapidly converted land within the valley from natural or semi-natural to residential, commercial or recreational uses. Residents watched with alarm as green spaces were steadily converted into hotels and lavishly extravagant residences, many of which were second homes. Real estate values exploded. The prevailing sentiment among many residents, according to Envision Sustainability Tools Dave Biggs (who worked on Whistler’s scenario planning), was “Is it ever going to stop?” These and other concerns led to initiatives which attempted to address longer-term planning.

Environmental Awareness and the Formation of AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment)

Environmental consciousness was growing along with the issues, and the creation of AWARE in 1988 was originally intended to address basic services such as recycling which had not yet been put into place. As members of the newly-formed non-profit began working on recycling, they began to realize the importance of land use, and this coincided with concern over the proposal to build the Green Lake Golf Course. This led AWARE towards greater focus on wetlands and the golf course’s impact on them (though the proposed golf course went ahead anyway). Regardless, this was an opportunity for the group to educate itself about wetlands and to begin doing inventories of sensitive habitats, as well as becoming more involved with design and development issues. AWARE later became one of the The Natural Step Early Adopter organizations.

In November 1996, a new administrator for RMOW, Jim Godfrey, was hired, and a new Council was elected the following month. One of the newly elected Council members was Ken Melamed, current Mayor of Whistler and former member of AWARE, which meant that the environment now had an advocate on Council. As the administrator and Council settled into their new roles, they began to meet and discuss longer-term strategies, seek community input (and compile input already gathered previously) which would become part of the vision for the first long-term plan called Whistler 2002.

Whistler 2002 (the five-year plan)

This was the first strategic plan for the future and covered a five-year period from 1997 to 2002. While this was not the first time a “vision” for the community had been articulated, it was the first time it was formally spelled out at the policy level.

Although the level of community engagement was not as structured, formalized, or comprehensive as Whistler 2020, the visioning leading up to Whistler 2002 laid out five priority areas. The environment was identified as one of them, along with four others, including building a stronger resort community, enhancing the Whistler experience, achieving financial sustainability, and contributing to the success of the region. Identifying the environment as a priority area was very significant, even a milestone, because it gave the community a sense that the environment was a value that everyone in Whistler shared. Moreover, it allowed RMOW official sanction to pursue environmental initiatives with confidence because they could point to Whistler 2002 and say that they had the weight of the community behind them.

Whistler 2002 was endorsed by the mayor and Council, including the vision, five priority areas, a detailed description of where Whistler would be in 2002 and beyond, and a long-term financial plan.

To realize the environmental goals described in Whistler 2002, a document known as the Whistler Environmental Strategy (WES) was written and reviewed by an RMOW staff working group and community stakeholder advisory group. It was widely recognized as a comprehensive, innovative, and eloquent document whose scale, depth and level of detail were excellent as both reference guide and a common platform for everyone to understand sustainability. However, its scope and density was ill-suited for inspiring the average citizen towards community action.

The Natural Step (TNS)

Given that sustainability planning had become a preoccupation among RMOW and community members, a visit to Whistler by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, founder of The Natural Step (TNS) was a serendipitous event. Although he was there on holiday, Dr. Robèrt gave several presentations describing The Natural Step Framework. They included one to the community and one to the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. The audience had a positive reaction to Dr. Robèrt’s message and was inspired to use The Natural Step Framework as the compass for sustainability planning and as a common language to communicate with stakeholders.

An international educational, advisory and research organization, TNS uses scientific and systems principles to provide organizations with a logical framework for strategic sustainability planning. It was founded in 1989 in Sweden by Dr. Robèrt, one of the country’s leading oncologists. Through his observations of cells, he saw how they had similar basic requirements for sustaining and propagating life, but that industrial activity was undermining their ability to perform these tasks. At the same time, he noticed that during times of crisis, people showed amazing potential for courage, altruism and compassion.

Dr. Robèrt then began defining a set of guiding principles that would transcend the often overwhelming, paralyzing debates about sustainability and the environment to more clearly focus on the systemic relationships between the deterioration of the environment and human health. He began collaborating with some 50 scientific colleagues to map out some kind of consensus on the functioning of the Earth and humans’ interactions with it. The document encapsulating this was distributed to households and schools in Sweden. In the early 1990s, he worked with physicist John Holmberg to articulate a set of sustainability principles based on the laws of thermodynamics and natural cycles (see below), which became the foundation of the TNS philosophy and approach.

TNS gained visibility and credibility among business and political leaders, who began taking part in educational workshops; major Swedish corporations began integrating TNS into their strategic planning. Currently, some 70 Swedish municipalities and 60 corporations, such as IKEA, Electrolux, McDonald's Sweden and Scandic Hotels are using The Natural Step's principles and approach to sustainability. Over the years, the TNS Framework has spread to many other countries and has been refined into both an education and training package and has been recognized as a compass that provides decision-makers with a needed focus and strategic planning tool for sustainability. It has been adopted by hundreds of corporations, municipalities, government agencies, educational institutions and non-profit organizations around the world. The Natural Step has its international headquarters in Sweden and offices in eleven countries.

The Natural Step Framework includes four sustainability principles which define a sustainable society, an ABCD process to guide planning, and a five-level hierarchy to help decision-makers take a systems perspective and understand how different tools and approaches for sustainability planning can be used together. The need for sustainability planning is articulated through the metaphor of a “funnel.” As the ability of the earth to provide resources and ecosystem services systematically decreases, and the demand for those services systematically increases, it becomes obvious that at the systems level this problem will continue to get worse and worse, as if we were moving deeper into a funnel, with diminishing room to maneuver. Using The Natural Step Framework allows decision-makers to understand the system (company, community, etc.) that they are operating within so that they can make strategic decisions about resource usage.

The Four Sustainability Principles

The Natural Step’s sustainability principles give decision-makers the constraints within which to make innovative and strategic choices. This reduces the complexity of understanding environmental problems by looking at their root causes and not dwelling on their symptoms. If the sustainability principles are respected globally, sustainability will be achieved.

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…

  1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust
    This means substituting certain minerals that are scarce in nature with others that are more abundant, using all mined materials efficiently, and systematically reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
  2. concentrations of substances produced by society
    This means systematically substituting certain persistent and unnatural compounds with ones that are normally abundant or break down more easily in nature, and using all substances produced by society efficiently.
  3. degradation by physical means
    This means drawing resources only from well-managed ecosystems, systematically pursuing the most productive and efficient use both of those resources and land, and exercising caution in all kinds of modification of nature e.g., overharvesting and introductions.
  4. and people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs
    This means checking whether our behavior has consequences for people, now or in the future, that restrict their opportunities to lead a fulfilling life, by asking ourselves whether we would like to be subjected to the conditions we create.

Whistler used these four sustainability principles to create its Sustainability Objectives for Whistler 2020, and they remain an important part of Whistler’s vision and language.

The Resource Funnel

TNS’s resource funnel illustrates the global trends of resource availability and ecosystem functional capacity. This metaphor is viewed horizontally which widens at the right and left ends, and through which society can be seen to be moving from left to right. (see for a diagram of the funnel). The upper wall of the funnel represents supply and the bottom wall represents demand. Supply means the availability of ecosystem goods and services (i.e., air, water, energy, waste absorption, topsoil, climate regulation, materials, etc.). Demand refers to society’s use of these goods and services.

At the left side of the funnel, which grows narrower as we move right, we see that the supply is declining at the same time as demand is increasing—not only because of the increase in global population, but because of increases in our consumption levels. This situation clearly cannot continue indefinitely. Both sides of the funnel are getting narrower as we move towards the center of the tunnel. This means that our options also narrow along with the funnel, and our room to maneuver is decreasing. Businesses and organizations that do not respond to these signals are increasingly likely to hit the “walls” of the funnel, which will affect their future.

With the understanding that “we’re all in this [funnel] together,” society can create smarter, better strategies for the long term. Through creativity, hard work, innovation and flexibility, it is possible to “catalyze” a shift toward sustainability and widen the walls of the funnel. Organizations that can anticipate these changes proactively can be better positioned to avoid “hitting the walls,” invest in opening the funnel, and breaking new ground.

Implementation and Strategies: The ABCD Approach

TNS has worked with organizations in creating an approach to integrate sustainability into an organization’s day-to-day operations. The “ABCD Strategic Approach” includes four elements, which are repeated as the organization progresses along various routes toward sustainability. The process usually begins with a short, intensive session with key decision-makers, and then will progress further in accordance with the organization’s capacity, priorities and resources (often with a two-day workshop covering all four steps with a team drawn from across the organization).

A = Awareness. The first step revolves around education. This will lead the organization to a common understanding of sustainability and the “whole-systems” perspective. This involves a presentation of the system’s conditions, the funnel metaphor, a review of the state of the earth’s systems, and the ecological, social and economic trends that are threatening our long-term prospects as successful businesses, organizations or communities. The goal of A is for the organization to gain an understanding of why sustainability planning is important and achieve buy-in from all the involved persons.

B = Baseline Mapping. This next step involves organizational introspection as the organization conducts a Sustainability Gap Analysis of its major flows and impacts. Identifying violations of the four system conditions allows the organization to spot the opportunities to move forward.

All organizations must also analyze the impacts of their entire supply chain; looking at their products and services, energy, and capital (financial, natural, and social) from “cradle to grave.” Another important aspect of the evaluation is the social context and organizational culture, which gives focus to questions on how changes can be introduced into the system.

C = Creating a Vision. Based upon the four system conditions, what would the organization look like in a sustainable society? The work in this phase involves bringing together key decision-makers and stakeholders to create that vision. In the case of business, it is at this point where they can identify the “service” they are providing independent of any one “good” they might be selling. (for example, providing energy services versus oil). Bringing this awareness in at the visioning stage can unburden the company from certain limiting assumptions and encourage innovative thinking.

Once the vision is developed, organizations can then create a strategy and specific action plan to start the company moving towards sustainability. Strategies are developed based on looking at the vision in relation to the current realities, and then charting a course for action to move towards the vision. This is called “back-casting.” This moves the group beyond merely addressing current problems and actually following a shared vision, where each action is a platform for the next. Opportunities and potential actions are identified and prioritized, with priority given to actions that are easiest to achieve (known in TNS parlance as “low-hanging fruit”) or that will move the organization toward sustainability fastest. Emphasis is on flexibility and equal importance is placed on maximizing social, ecological, and economic returns.

D = Down to Action. Based on their vision, companies then set their priorities for improvement. Phase four involves advising and supporting the execution of specific actions by providing appropriate training or tools for implementation. But an important part of implementation is monitoring and measuring progress towards goals so that modifications can be made as needed. Back-casting is used on a continuing basis as a way to assess decisions and actions in terms of whether or not they move the organization towards the desired vision.

Sustainability principles provide a new design framework that drives innovation throughout the business system. This phase also incorporates organizational learning and adaptability, which is necessary for effectively encouraging new ways of thinking and behaving individually and as groups.

A firm grasp of the principles is key in improving skills with the nuts-and-bolts details. The principles are the “compass” and help people to maintain focus during involvement with the “micro” of processing bits of information and shorter-term decision-making. However ambitious the goals are, emphasis is on making sure the strategies to get there are realistic.

The Natural Step places strong emphasis on systems thinking. This type of thinking can be very powerful and allows decision-makers to rise above a single-issue, short-term mindset that often encourages fragmented, counterproductive dialogues.

Systems thinking involves understanding the system, and the interconnectedness of parts, in which decisions are being made. It assumes that stakeholders are informed with all of the relevant facts in decision making and use a much longer timeline in their economic, social and environmental projections.

Individuals are encouraged, through brainstorming or other means, to identify ambitious goals for their organization, even if it would involve a radical restructuring of its approach or operations. With these ambitious goals in mind comes the understanding that some may take many years to achieve and implementation occurs in doable, realistic steps and focusing first on “low-hanging fruit.” A long-term vision, sometimes spanning over 50 years, is created through this process.

TNS often uses the expression “towards sustainability,” which emphasizes that becoming more sustainable is not fixed goal but an ever-continuing series of steps along an evolutionary path, where much learning and adjustment occurs along the way. With this in mind, no one is expected to achieve long-term goals overnight. Expecting big results early on can easily lead organizations and communities to become discouraged. Instead, TNS emphasizes making incremental steps that provide short-term benefits while using the long-term vision as a compass towards which each step is a platform for the next.

Another important aspect of the TNS approach is that it is non-prescriptive. There is no one formula for achieving sustainability, as every organization has its own unique set of challenges, opportunities, strengths, creative abilities and other resources.

The Natural Step Canada partners with organizations for the long term to ensure that the learning is deep and can flow in both directions. Working with Whistler was one of the first projects for TNS Canada, and both organizations learned and refined the methodology for ingraining The Natural Step Framework into municipal planning together. The two organizations continue to work together as partners and collaborators.

Whistler’s “Early Adopters”

One concrete development emerging from Dr. Robèrt’s visit was the formal incorporation of The Natural Step Framework into the policies of RMOW and five other Whistler-based organizations who made the decision to become “Early Adopters.” RMOW was the first municipality to adopt the TNS Framework. RMOW, along with Chateau Fairmont, One Hour Photo, AWARE, Whistler-Blackcomb, and Tourism Whistler became Early Adopters.

This group of Early Adopters came together and agreed to use the TNS Framework with the intention of doing the work of “pioneering,” bringing it into their organizations first, and by serving as an example, a source of inspiration, and a resource for others in the community who were interested in following suit. To do this, representatives of the Early Adopter organizations received training in the TNS Framework. This created the “train the trainer” program, where two to three representatives from each Early Adopter (about 28 in total) would be trained in the TNS process in order to then train their own staff. As well, RMOW and Early Adopters became part of an outreach component, called Whistler, It’s Our Nature, which included a Speaker Series featuring high-profile sustainability and environmental experts; development of toolkits describing TNS, an in-depth description of sustainability and laying out guidelines, co-published by TNS Canada, for households, businesses and schools; and the launch of a large symposium on sustainability.

This activity surrounding TNS continued from 2000 to 2002, and by this time, several important factors were leading to the development of Whistler 2020. The first was that Whistler 2002’s five-year vision was about to expire, spurring Whistler to create a long-term plan. Another factor was the bid that Whistler and Vancouver jointly submitted for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. As Esther Speck explains, “It became very important for the community to have a strong direction in place, so the Olympics wouldn’t happen to the community, but that you could actually direct the Olympics to leave the legacy that you want--as a community.” A third aspect of this was that, while there was by this time a lot of grassroots work being done on sustainability, it hadn’t been integrated into policy in a way that would allow and facilitate the grassroots work.

This led to the development of what was at that time called the ICSP (Integrated Comprehensive Sustainability Plan), which was linked to a program called Whistler It’s Our Future. The ICSP would be later known as Whistler 2020.

Because this kind of ambitious planning had never been done before, the resort was on a high learning curve, and this period was marked by some glitches before it achieved the success of Whistler 2020 that attracted awards and outside attention.

The first phase involved an RFP (request for proposals) where the assistance of some big-name consultants from other resorts around North America were sought to create the ICSP. The reason for enlisting outside consultants was that this was a new and different process that had not been tried before; an outside perspective would be valuable to a small community like Whistler. It was also hoped that the credentials of the consulting teams would enlist buy-in from the community, and there would be an educational value to the community to having these consulting groups present workshops. RMOW gave them some seed funding to develop their proposals on a strategy toward sustainable resort development.

Each team of consultants created its own strategy for Whistler, drawing on their expertise with sustainability and resort development. Some groups had more emphasis on the former, others on the latter. All groups made presentations at a public workshop, and the community was invited to choose which of the groups they believed were best-suited to create the CSP. Community members attended the presentations and made their choice. However, the Council was not entirely comfortable with the prevailing choice of the community, thinking that the group they had chosen may not have been up for the job. As a compromise, they chose to put together two teams of consultants that were intended to draw on the best elements of all the proposals presented. The logic behind this was to try to have the best of everything in one group. However, because the community had attended their workshop and given input that had been solicited from them, they felt undermined by this decision to combine the groups rather than use their input. There was also concern whether taking elements from different teams was enough on its own to make a solid team, especially at first. These decisions were partly responsible for a period of confusion and turmoil during which RMOW had to regain some trust from the community.

The team which RMOW had chosen was divided into two smaller groups. One was given the task of writing a paper outlining key success factors for Whistler, while the other was chosen to outline key sustainability factors. These were prepared, and both were presented at public workshops, and the material from this would be incorporated into the next phases.

Whistler 2020

Whistler 2020 is the comprehensive planning strategy for Whistler’s long-term future extending to the year 2020 and beyond. The first draft was released in May 2004 and was adopted later that year. It describes the values, sustainability principles, vision, priorities and directions for Whistler. A second version, where the first draft was fine-tuned, and volumes II and III were added, describes concrete strategies. It was presented to the Council in the summer of 2005.

In a nutshell, Whistler 2020, which was at that time known as the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, was developed in four phases. The first phase involved identifying factors of success (which would later become descriptions of success used in the Task Forces). The next phase involved scenario planning workshops using MetroQuest software, where five alternative futures were explored and evaluated in terms of sustainability. The third phase involved cobbling together a blended future and developing a draft strategy. The next phase involved transforming this blended future into Whistler’s vision, and the completed draft plan was called Whistler 2020-Moving Toward a Sustainable Future. This was when Task Forces were brought in to develop the long-term strategies and create Action Plans, which are monitored yearly and re-created every two years.

Envision Sustainability Tools, “Whistler Quest” and Scenario Planning

Soon after the RFP process described above, Mike Vance, General Manager of Community Initiatives, was hired by RMOW in 2003. He brought in Envision Sustainability Tools to work on the scenario planning. The scenario planning process involved workshops using MetroQuest software, led by Envision Sustainability Tools. This Vancouver-based firm works with information technology to help communities understand sustainability and the often poorly understood relationships between seemingly unrelated elements in a community, and their implications for long-term sustainability. Through workshops and training sessions, Envision’s team uses its technical expertise in integrated model development, and scenario visualization for communities planning and envisioning their shared future.

MetroQuest software was first applied to the Greater Vancouver region, and since then has been used on four continents. Based on the video game “Sim City,” MetroQuest allowed people to see in a visual and concrete way various future scenarios based on choices they make today. It also helps to expose the trade-offs associated with certain choices in the larger scale and longer term.

While use of scenario planning software in community workshops has become increasingly common, MetroQuest is unique in the sense that participants can immediately see the consequences of their choices, thereby establishing a more direct cause-effect relationship. Other organizations usually present the results of community scenario development workshops a few months after the workshops have taken place. This means that participants, if they even attend these follow-up presentations at all, may not remember clearly what they did in the workshop and connect their decisions with the scenarios being presented. (See our case study of Portland, Oregon.)

Based on results of surveys and other community input of what was most valuable to them, five scenarios were presented, each with a distinct snapshot of Whistler in the year 2020. Each scenario had different assumptions underlying it, and differed mainly around economics, the level of affordable housing, and the percentage of community members working in Whistler. It also looked at questions involving densification. For example, if development were to happen, what type it would be? Would there be new neighborhoods, or would there be densification (i.e., denser developments built on existing infill sites, etc.)? How much growth was acceptable, and for what purpose would this growth be acceptable? Four of the five scenarios were distinct choices, and a fifth scenario amalgamated elements from all of them, though two scenarios were drawn on more heavily than others.

The basic summaries of each of the “futures” were:

  • F1 - No New Development: Whistler remains a premier destination mountain resort community and all development is capped. This means that only 48% percent of workers in Whistler would be able to live there (this would have implications for neighboring communities and greenhouse gas emissions because of the increase in commuters into Whistler).
  • F2 - Housing in Existing Corridor: Whistler remains a premier destination mountain resort community and development is permitted in the existing corridor for resident housing.
  • F3 - Neighborhood in Callaghan Valley: Whistler remains a premier destination mountain resort community and resident housing is permitted in the Callaghan Valley (which lies 13 km south of Whistler Village).
  • F4 - Diversify the Economy: The economy is diversified beyond tourism, and resident housing is built in the corridor and the Callaghan Valley.
  • F5 - Increase Market Housing: Whistler remains a premier destination mountain resort community, and resident as well as some market housing (to pay for resident housing) is permitted. A target of 75% of Whistler employees also living there would be set.

Called “Whistler Quest,” the software analyzed these five different scenarios in various visual representations. One was simple graphs and charts which compared, for example, amounts of developed land across the scenarios, the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, or water use. Another way these values were expressed was on a “spider web” diagram, where each arm radiating out from the spider web represented a relevant aspect of the community. The “arms” were lumped into four of the five priority areas which are now enshrined in Whistler 2020.

  • Jobs
  • Municipal Budget
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Water Use
  • Newly Developed Land
  • Visitors, Residents
  • Travel Time
  • Employee Housing

Each of the above eight “arms” represented the x-axis of a graph, and plotted values on each arm were connected around the “web.” Each scenario had 2002 values and 2020 values, so that workshop participants could see how these values would change between 2002 and 2020, and they were told to keep in mind that the closer to the center these lines were, the more sustainable the community would be.

Documentation following these workshops emphasized that regardless of the future chosen, without comprehensive policies, strong leadership and commitment from the community, nothing would reorient Whistler off its current trajectory and toward a more sustainable future.

Scenario planning involved another round of community involvement, where input was sought through various means: open houses, online opportunities, and mail-in questionnaire booklets. The results of the input were compiled, and BF, the “blended future” was most favored by the community. Among other points, the blended scenario had 75% of employees continuing to live in Whistler (which meant affordable housing was key), that the economy would remain based on tourism (rather than diversified), although within tourism there would be diversification (for example, emphasis on all seasons and not only the ski season), and an emphasis on densification as much as possible. This blended scenario was presented at an open house with a question to the community: “Is this what you said you wanted?” The response was, “Yes.” The result of this was the five priority areas laid out in Volume I of Whistler 2020:

  • Enriching the Community Life
  • Enhancing the Resort Experience
  • Protecting the Environment
  • Ensuring Economic Viability
  • Partnering for Success

The Task Forces

At this point, Esther Speck and Shannon Gordon were brought into the 2020 Team. Using the information that emerged from the scenario planning, TNS, and other background material, they drafted a basic framework on the Whistler 2020 Vision document. As well, a draft process was developed for the strategies as well. In other words, the vision was the “what,” and the strategy framework was the “how.” The community was given another opportunity to give input on these drafts at an open house and online. At this point, the visioning aspect was already completed and would not be revisited, and this stage was more of a recap of work that had already been done. The strategy framework, however, was new, and was going to involve another level of participation—it would be more intensive, it would require a certain level of expertise, and it would require a time commitment sustained over an extended period.

The 16 Areas of Focus identified were:

  1. Arts, Culture and Heritage
  2. Built Environment
  3. Economics
  4. Energy
  5. Finance
  6. Health and Social
  7. Learning
  8. Materials and Solid Waste
  9. Natural Areas
  10. Partnership
  11. Recreation and Leisure
  12. Resident Affordability
  13. Resident Housing
  14. Transportation
  15. Visitor Experience
  16. Water

The approach to be used with the strategies was “back-casting.” The way to do this was to develop a vision specifically for each area of focus, which could be thought of as a “mini-vision.” Back-casting would consider the vision, and then ask the question: “Given this is where we want to go, what are the actions we need to take to get there?”

After identifying these areas of focus, task forces for each of the strategy areas were then put together. Under these task forces, key sectors or points of view were identified, and then individuals or organizations representing these perspectives—or who had some relevant expertise or commitment—were approached. For example, in the category of Arts, Culture and Heritage, independent musicians, visual artists, First Nations, and Tourism Whistler, were identified as important viewpoints to be represented. Membership to the task forces at this stage was limited to individuals with a certain level of knowledge or investment in the subject because the team wanted to prevent the task forces being “hijacked” by strong personalities or special interests. As Councilor Tim Wake says, “They didn’t want [a task force] to be a lobby group with six different people lobbying for their own thing and then coming to some kind of compromise. That’s not what this was about.”

Shannon and Esther began to put together material which was going to be essential to the task forces to do their work. These included current realities and descriptions of success for each task force. Current realities described, in facts or numbers, what was happening in the strategy area at the present time. By looking at the current realities in the context of the description of success, the task forces would be better equipped to “back-cast” and identify strategies that would move toward the description of success.

Laying out current realities required an extensive amount of research, which involved pulling together secondary research, existing documents, and other monitoring reports that were in existence. The 2020 Team at this point had expanded, and various team members were designated the job of working with certain task force(s), and so it was their job to prepare the research for the current realities, and then (since it was logical to do so) later facilitate that particular task force process. Team members worked long hours to accomplish everything in a limited amount of time.

After the initial meeting with task force members, a four-meeting process was set up in order to make sure facilitation was going to be standardized as much as possible among all groups. The description of success made up by the team was intended only as a “draft input document,” or a starting point for further revision by task force members that would be used for something else. Task force members made various changes because, as Speck stresses, it was necessary that they “make it their own, make it right for Whistler and [articulated] in a way that would be understandable and relevant to the local context.” Task force members provided input on the current realities documents as well, suggesting other resources or details to be included. The role of the facilitation team, at this stage, was doing “legwork,” basically pulling together everything behind the scenes that would assist the task forces in refining the descriptions of success and current realities. This stage was completed only when task force members felt they had enough detail to have productive discussions on taking actions and prioritizing them.

This was in 2005, and the task force meetings went on between February and June. By this time, the Vision Document had been adopted by the Council, which meant that the “what” was out of the way, and the “how”—the strategy—was the next hurdle. Four meetings were scheduled, where task forces were to develop these strategies (which would later be adopted by Council in August of 2005). In total, some 140 people spent about 40 hours each. This was to become easier the next year, because the framework and process were in place, but the first year was extremely labor-intensive and required a deep level of commitment and dedication from the task force members. As Speck says, “I don’t know what other community you’d find that in.”

While each 2020 Team member was facilitating and supporting their own task forces, they made sure to harmonize it so that the structure and design of the meetings and facilitation was the same across the board. A common PowerPoint presentation and “input materials” were created for all task forces. Before the meetings, the Team would flesh out what each meeting would look like as well as the concrete outcomes for each of them. While there was still enough flexibility to allow for differing task forces, groups, and facilitators (Speck points out that “the Economics Task Force always took on a life of its own”), special effort was made for all meetings to stay with the format as much as possible.

The model and design for this facilitation process was mainly drawn from the past experience of the 2020 Team, as well as the TNS ABCD approach and framework of “back-casting” using the vision and current realities. In order to focus on the back-casting perspective, the vision and descriptions of success for each task force needed to be done first. As well, the 2020 Team took a one-day facilitation course in order for everyone to refresh their abilities, and get “on the same page.”

The next meeting was essentially asking the question “Here is our current reality, here is our description of success. Given this is where we want to go, [and] given this is where we are now, what are our strategic opportunities to move in this direction? And what are some potential barriers for moving in this direction?” This meeting was essentially a brainstorming session, where people wrote down both the opportunities and the barriers, and pasted them up on the wall for everyone to see. When everything was written down and put up on the wall, the task forces spent time grouping them within some rough categories.

Next, people were asked to vote on the category they thought was not only the most important, but the most strategic to getting towards the description of success. The group was given three “sticky notes,” and they as a group had to decide which three (of the approximately eight or so) categories to put them on. This was said to be one of the best meetings because it sparked a lot of engaging and lively discussions over the category areas of importance. By the end of this meeting, each group was to have chosen three priority category areas of importance around which actions would be developed.

In the next meeting, task force members reviewed what had been done previously about identifying barriers, opportunities, and the three (either barriers or opportunities) deemed most important by the group. With this in mind, another brainstorming session began where task force members had to brainstorm all sorts of possible actions that could be taken to move towards the descriptions of success. In order to help task force members visualize what had been accomplished so far, a huge matrix was displayed on the wall, showing descriptions of success across the top, and actions displayed vertically. Actions were further divided into categories, for example, policy action, education, communication, financial incentives, etc. The three priority barriers/opportunities were also displayed on the matrix.

Task force members were asked first to brainstorm on actions independently, and then facilitators would go around the table gathering the results of this, put it up on the wall, and then organize these actions by category. At the end of the exercise, there would be about 30 or 40 actions posted on the wall, which they were told to prioritize with a given number of dots. They were then asked to vote on the actions. (In order to avoid political strategizing to influence this voting process, they had to write down numbers individually so no one else would see what others were voting for.) The value of this was that because no one could see what everyone else was voting for and change their vote in a strategic attempt to block other actions, everyone had a chance to focus on actions they thought were most important, rather than be dominated by one prevailing voice.

In order to evaluate the newly prioritized actions, four strategic questions were used:

  1. Does the action move toward the description of success?
  2. Does the action move toward the description of sustainability? (For both of the above, if not, why not?)
  3. Is it a flexible platform for future improvement? (In other words, if the action does NOT get us toward success and sustainability, is it something we can build on, or are we investing a lot of resources on something without potential for further development?)
  4. Is it a good financial investment?

The task forces then had to look at all the actions stuck up on the walls, and evaluate them using these four questions. They were asked to flag the actions that did not meet the criteria outlined by the four questions. If an action was flagged, then this was a starting point for other brainstorming. For example, for the Visitor Experience Task Force, building an open ice rink was one action. This was flagged for being energy intensive, and not necessarily the best use of resources. The task force then thought, “If we abandon this, do we want to choose this action in a different way? Are there other ways we could do this?” An action that emerged from this was to explore using the lakes as existing skating areas instead of building a new one.

Thus some new revised actions came out of the brainstorming. Following this, actions were voted on, and two-year action plans were developed. The actions that had a high number of stickers were incorporated into the action plans.

Speck emphasizes that the more “lively” task forces helped to make the whole process more “robust.” The Economics Task Force, for example, was the most challenging of all task forces to get “buy-in” for the process, because of the assumption that sustainability was entirely about the environment, and that economics was by definition at odds with the environment. Also, at the time, the economy had taken a downturn following a number of good years around 1999 and 2000. There was a lot of concern among the business community that the timing was not right for sustainability planning. Their main concern was about kickstarting the economy and getting support for that instead. The 2020 Team’s challenge was linking sustainability in their minds to economics, and by introducing the concept of TNS and sustainability slowly.

Despite the challenges of facilitating the Economics Task Force, whose members were more critical than other groups, this experience also made the process more sound. In other words, preaching to the choir—the more sympathetic community members—was easy; working with tough skeptics would prepare any facilitation process for application in the real world with people of all political stripes, backgrounds and preoccupations.

One way that the Economics Task Force was instrumental to the process was the creation of a “resource impact matrix” that would show different actions in relation to each other, and their impact in terms of its success and its impact on resources. (The matrix would show a range of actions with respect to resource use on the y-axis moving from “low impact” from the bottom to “high impact” toward the top, and the x-axis would show actions with lowest impact in terms of moving towards success on the left and the highest impact on the right.) After the initial prioritizing of actions, each action could be located on the matrix, which would show both how effectively it moved the community towards success, and its level of impact on resources.

Ideally for most of the prioritized actions, the aim is to have as many “easy wins”—low resource-high impacts. This did not mean that other actions not meeting this low resource-high impact would not be included if there were other advantages to choosing them.

This resource-impact matrix, spontaneously developed with the Economics Task Force, proved to be so successful it was integrated into the 2006 process with all the task forces. It was incorporated at the point where actions had been prioritized, and then they were put on the matrix. With the understanding that resources were limited, this was another way to weed out—or possibly postpone as a lesser strategic priority—some of the brainstormed actions. From this revised and pruned-down list of actions from each group, two-year action plans were developed.

Action Planning

Implementation of the action plans were, and are, carried out in a very structured, specific way. For each action, the task force responsible for creating it would assign a lead organization and often several assist organizations to carry it out. The organizations could be from the business, non-profit or public sectors. All actions were organized by the 2020 Team on Excel spreadsheets with the number of votes for each action, the lead and assist organizations, the rationale behind the action and description of it. After compiling and organizing the information in a more presentable form, the 2020 Team came back to the task forces and asked them, “Is this what you said?” The task forces either confirmed this or corrected it, and the Team reworked it and returned it to them again for another round of confirmation. When everything was approved, the actions were organized on the spreadsheets, and individual spreadsheets were prepared for the implementing organizations.

These finalized spreadsheets were then brought to the lead and assist organizations with the question, “This is what the task force has recommended; do you accept or decline this action for the next year? If you decline it, you need to provide a rationale as to why.” (While the action plans covered two years, they focused on one year at a time with the implementing organizations.)

Since this was a public process which would be posted on the website or presented to Council, there was a level of transparency and accountability that was necessary, in order to build credibility for this process within the community, and as Speck says, “to hold these organizations’ feet to the fire.” In other words, there was no point in making all this tremendous effort to create strategies and action plans without having some way to make sure they were carried through.

Once the actions are accepted, status updates are sought in the following year (the plan is to do these twice annually). RMOW will ask them about the actions they have accepted, and the status of the action (in-progress, complete, not started, etc.). At the end of each year, a tally of the accepted action is undertaken.

In the first year (2005), of the 215 recommended actions, 67% or 144 of these were accepted. In 2006, 160 were recommended and 72% or 115 of these were accepted. Of the 144 actions accepted in 2005, 79.9% either achieved full outcome (39.6 %), partial outcome (13.9%), or were in progress (26.4 %). Fifteen actions were committed to the following year, and less than 7% weren’t initiated at all. This tally is important in terms of accountability as well, because it shows the community that RMOW is following up on the progress of the actions, and shows that the majority of actions are actually being done.

On the Whistler 2020 website, users can find a comprehensive list of all the actions which shows the name of the action, its status (in progress, committed to next year, achieved, or removed from program), the strategy, the priority, and the lead and assist organizations.

Speck cites how both the long and short terms are addressed by action plans:

“So people often ask, ‘Well, can you afford to do this?’ And my answer back would be in one part of it, ‘Can we afford not to do this?’ But in the shorter term, it should be a more effective use of existing resources. It’s not about adding on actions that you wouldn’t really think about otherwise. But it’s actually picking those actions that have the highest impact for the community as a whole and doing them together, or aligning who would best do what, rather than having a number of organizations concurrently on different pieces and not knowing that the other is actually working on it.”

After the actions go out to the different implementing organizations for their responses and then track their progress at the end of the year, the 2020 Team presents to the Council what has been accepted and declined, and the work program for the coming year. Then between February and April of each year, the task forces will reconvene to assess progress. Progress is assessed both against the previous year, and against the current realities in order to develop a work plan for the coming year. Despite being new and still evolving, something of an annual schedule for this ongoing process has taken shape.

Ultimately, another part of this process is the goal of integrating various actions together so that they reinforce each other. There are various ways that integration is being done, and there are plans to expand on this further in the future. In the first year of the task force process, much of the integration was “behind the scenes,” first in the sense there were some obvious links between many of the task forces (i.e., Built Environment, Energy and Transportation), and common information for the current realities was provided among them. In another way, some people would be on multiple task forces and so therefore would be valuable conduits between them. As well, when the 2020 Team got action plans back from the task forces, if they found similar actions from two task forces, the team re-worded it to make it one action, and then brought it back to both task forces to confirm if the wording was correct. Another example of this would be to show the links between groups if, for example, an action from one task force supported the description of success from another task force.

Efforts to increase integration in the future continue. This year, for example, the first task force meeting was a joint meeting for everyone. Task force members reacted positively to seeing how many people (approximately 140) were involved, and how they were part of a much larger effort. Such integrated meetings will continue to be held in the future. At this year’s meeting, “indicators” were posted so that task force members could get information on indicators from other strategies, giving them more access to information than they’d had before. Next year, the 2020 Team is thinking about how to bring multiple task forces together in places where it makes sense. Even though their scopes are different and this needs to maintained, there is an increasing need to, as Speck says, “capitalize on the synergy that you create across [the task forces] through conversation and ideas.” In other words, when strategic opportunities are identified among different task forces, the actions will align better as well.

The Natural Step methodology is also a good vehicle for integration, because a common framework for sustainability was built into the whole process and supported opportunities for synergy among different groups.

The Whistler 2020 facilitation process and strategizing, especially use of the four strategic questions, have gone beyond Whistler 2020 and are being applied to planning, budgeting or organizing within the municipality and covers areas such as the community enrichment granting program, the purchasing policy, and the request for proposals. For example, before making decisions on whether to allocate funds to a certain project, the four strategic questions (Does the action move towards the description of success? Does the action move towards the description of sustainability? Is it a flexible platform for future improvement? Is it a good financial investment?) are posed in order to make a more sound decision consistent with a framework already in place. Key organizations in Whistler are also starting to do that internally as well.

Another important part of Whistler 2020 is the 14 organizations who have signed partnership agreements with RMOW. By signing a partnership agreement, an organization is publicly endorsing the vision, the basic principles of how to work toward it, and their role in the process. This is another way of demonstrating that they are behind RMOW and the community. RMOW has a target for 35 partnership agreements by the end of the year, and these agreements will be framed and publicly displayed so that everyone will see them.

Whistler 2020 Monitoring Program

The Whistler 2020 Monitoring Program is a fundamental part of the implementation process, and is essentially a monitoring and reporting process that tracks progress on its way toward sustainability.

Indicators are benchmarks to show concretely progress on the path towards success and sustainability. These are an important part of TNS and Whistler’s process because they show concrete results to the community, and other communities interested in following in its footsteps. It also offers valuable feedback which helps the community to make changes if indicators do not show expected progress in a certain area.

Identifying appropriate indicators was the first step the 2020 Team took after the creation of Whistler 2020’s Vision and the Descriptions of Success for each of the 16 strategy areas. This was done through research on, for example, best practice indicators of other communities, as well as identifying what information was already available about Whistler. Potential indicators were compiled from this, and feedback was sought from the task forces as well as other users or data providers. Based on this feedback, the list was modified and then evaluated against a list of criteria. These included standards such as:

  • Reliability
  • Validity
  • Resource Intensity / Information Availability
  • Comparability

The 2020 Team developed five to ten progress indicators for each strategy related to the description of success for each task force. Some of them would be more predictable than others. For example, for a strategy for affordable housing, indicators using “market baskets”—a fixed list of items used specifically to track inflation—would be included here. Others might include results from questionnaires. For example, in the Arts, Culture and Heritage strategy area, a questionnaire was given to residents, second homeowners and seasonal residents about their level of satisfaction with cultural events.

Out of these indicators, the best ones are pooled and become “core indicators.” These are best for showing a quick snapshot of the state of the community, and represent a mix of social, environmental and economic areas. On the website, this information is organized so that core indicators are an entry point which allows one to move into the next level of detail in a specific category of interest.

The indicators were developed by the RMOW team in 2005 for the first year working with task forces, and in October 2006, they launched the first of the monitoring reports from the last year which show progress against the indicators.

There are three important elements of reporting on performance:

  • Core Indicators: These are deemed the most fundamental measurements which provide an at-a-glance overview of Whistler’s progress related to its overall vision, priorities and sustainability objectives.
  • Strategy Indicators: These provide more detailed information related specifically to the Descriptions of Success for each of the 16 strategy areas.
  • Context Indicators: These are not directly related to Whistler 2020 but provide additional information about the resort community.

The list of indicators is expected to be in continual evolution as the community learns and as the process becomes more established and the capacity for reporting and monitoring improves.

Tracking progress toward Whistler’s vision is valuable because:

  • It gives opportunity for the community to recognize and celebrate its achievements and milestones (and build on them).
  • It is a self-correcting mechanism for when the community deviates off course.
  • It is an important source of information for action planning, by making sure the action planning is conducted in a focused, prioritized and informed manner. It also highlights trends that are relevant to other decision makers in the community (non-profits, individuals, investors, and others) and helps them to make more informed and intelligent decisions.
  • It is an important way to maintain transparency and accountability to all stakeholders.
  • It has educational value by giving relevant and timely information in a way that helps to illuminate the important connections among policy, actions, and the health of the community.

Effective monitoring and reporting is based on the following set of characteristics deemed essential by the 2020 Team:

  • Completeness: Including performance in all relevant areas.
  • Balance and Credibility: Ensuring reporting is as fair and unbiased as possible, and verifiable and found to be reliable by users.
  • Materiality: Reflecting the needs of key stakeholders.
  • Timeliness: The information must be as current as possible in order to be relevant.
  • Accessibility: The communication aspect is important as the volume of information could easily overwhelm users, so it must be clear and easy enough to understand for users without sacrificing accuracy or depth. One way this is done on the Whistler 2020 website is to present information with options for the user to move into increasing levels of depth.

Actual collection of data occurs in various ways. In some cases, data was taken from existing sources (such as Tourism Whistler, RMOW, Stats Canada, BC Hydro, etc.), and in other cases it had to be solicited through questionnaires or gathered in other ways. In the past two years, two new research tools were set up: an annual Whistler community survey and a Whistler affordability report.

The Whistler 2020 Website

An important part of the “feedback mechanism” is transparency. In October 2006, RMOW set up a community-accessible website ( with all information on Whistler 2020 available to the public. It shows, at a glance, progress measured against indicators, as well as all the actions recommended by task forces, what has been accepted, and their progress. The software used on the website is Credit 360, which is a UK-based company that does database management and reporting around sustainability. This has been a valuable tool for the RMOW team because it gives the partner, lead and assist organizations access to it. In this way, they can log on and write the updates themselves without having to request the RMOW team to do it for them. This allows for a more streamlined process which takes some of the coordination burden off the RMOW team.

Through the website, the community has access to anything it needs to know about Whistler 2020, The Natural Step, and information about the strategy areas, descriptions of success, current realities, action plans, and monitoring programs, at-a-glance or in greater depth. The website is organized in a consistent, comprehensive and user-friendly manner with appropriate links to relevant information.

For instance, users can go to “Measuring Progress” and find a choice of how to search for a desired piece of information, for example Core Indicators by Priority, by Strategy. One indicator is greenhouse gas emissions of the community. The page gives a comprehensive, well-organized, and clear overview of the indicator. It explains why monitoring this indicator is important and what the indicator measures (and doesn’t measure). In this case, there is a graph which shows the total greenhouse gas emissions from primary energy sources, with an indicator definition, the method of calculation, the time period measured, the frequency of collection, and the source. It also has a latest analysis which describes the trends, and features an arrow which expresses either “Down Towards Vision” or “Up Away From Vision” (down points towards the narrowing of the TNS “resource funnel” and up points away from it, which will “hit the sides” of the funnel, representing unsustainable actions). The same page also provides links to related strategies or priorities. Each page also shows the Four Sustainability Objectives (TNS four system conditions) with a set of examples of actions which favor or avoid them.

Despite the level of detail presented on each page, the information is organized in an engaging way that supports the users’ various needs. More importantly, it also facilitates integration of various strategies by providing relevant links from one page to the next.

Some successes emerging out of Whistler 2020

  • Adoption of a new watershed management plan;
  • Installing geothermal heat exchange systems for heating and cooling at a community building and a housing project;
  • Increasing public transit—Whistler’s municipal bus system—ridership from 325,000 riders in 1991 to over two million in 2000;
  • The launch of a community and regional ridesharing program, and installing bicycle and ski racks on all transit buses;
  • Completion of a bicycle master plan that focuses on commuter transportation;
  • Channeling excess tipping fees from Whistler's landfill to the Environmental Legacy Fund, the interest from which funds community environmental projects. The creation of the Re-Use It Center, has also been credited for diverting waste from the landfill and has been a valuable source of income for community services projects (while this was not an action directly to come out of Whistler 2020, it shows the potential for further integration among various actions);
  • Installation of a chemical-free weed and pest control program in all its municipal parks.

Supporting conditions for Whistler’s success

  1. The use of task forces required a deeper, more sustained level of community involvement which went beyond the usual soliciting feedback through surveys or public workshops. Task force members already had a level of expertise—or at least commitment to—their strategy area, and their participation was sustained over a long period at a very deep level of understanding and participation.
  2. The people of Whistler: Everyone interviewed stressed the unique character of Whistler residents, using adjectives like “progressive,” “community-minded,” “opinionated” and “caring deeply about what happens [here].”
  3. Investing resources in sustainability planning: While there are never enough municipal finances to devote to new projects of this scale (let alone existing ones), municipalities who make sustainability planning a priority and devote resources to it are likely to be more successful than those who rely exclusively on unpaid advisory committees or overworked bureaucrats to take on the administrative and organizational challenges of comprehensive sustainability planning projects. RMOW hired paid staff whose job was exclusively to coordinate the extensive research, facilitation and outreach that was needed to harness the resources of community members (most of whom were unpaid) in an effective way.
  4. Strategic and efficient use of resources: The design of the Whistler 2020 process helped the community to use its resources in a more coordinated, strategic way toward realizing its vision. This was true also for partner organizations, because everyone had a better understanding of what others were doing, which prevented them from unnecessarily duplicating efforts or working at cross-purposes. In this way, instead of tracking down more funds, existing budgets and other resources were mobilized in a way that ensured everyone was moving together towards a shared goal. As Esther Speck says:

“The real purpose behind all this is to align everyone within Whistler to work towards this common vision, and to use resources, information and knowledge in the best way possible…. So rather than having multiple actions going on between a number of different organizations going in all sorts of directions, [to find some common direction], and perhaps jointly fund some actions that would otherwise not happen but are really important for the community.”

While sustainability planning has become a buzzword among municipalities, the value of such planning in and of itself is limited, and risks looking good only on paper. There also needs to be deep public participation, a vision articulated by the community, and a concrete strategy to realize its stated goals. There also needs to be a shared understanding of the current state of the community, and the specific measurements it can use to track its progress towards its goals. This requires considerable effort in researching, compiling and effectively communicating information and data to the community. Once in place, however, these tools give the community critical information and feedback about the effectiveness of its actions. This also provides a self-correcting mechanism to adjust strategies when indicators show where progress is not occurring as expected. In addition, concretely being able to show success, sometimes with hard numbers and facts—a language which is hard to dispute—is a persuasive argument to other communities interested in following its example. Whistler 2020 was effective in these above points by:

  1. Creating a common language and tools. The TNS Framework, the Whistler 2020 facilitation process, partnership agreements and the development of success indicators were key because they brought together a vocal population with diverse opinions “on the same page.” It gave them a common vocabulary, and set of shared assumptions and goals which was an important basis for productive public dialogue on moving forward.
  2. Creating a monitoring program, benchmarks and indicators for success. This helped to build accountability and credibility in the process, helped to reassure stakeholders—and other communities—that Whistler 2020 wasn’t just another great plan that looked good on paper, helped to keep Whistler on course on its path toward sustainability, and helped to inform action plans and priorities around them.
  3. Scenario planning with modeling software. One of the values of scenario planning software like MetroQuest—in this case “Whistler Quest”—was that it worked at a high enough level of detail and precision that it was able eliminate (or at least minimize) unproductive speculation, debate, and false assumptions over the future consequences of certain choices.
  4. Use of the four strategic questions and its adoption outside of the Whistler 2020 process. These questions, especially the third question, “Is this a platform for future improvement?” forces people to consider the long term in a new light and sometimes raises interesting dilemmas about whether short-term gains in sustainability would be canceled out by long-term obstacles to greater levels of sustainability. Another way to ask this question would be to say, “….and then what?” until each resulting action leads toward increasing sustainability. An example of this was during the time when Whistler first began working on 2020, one of its issues was finding energy sources to meet increasing demand in this growing community, and its implications also for social, cultural and economic sustainability. Whistler’s main energy source for heating was propane, which was shipped in by energy provider Terasen. A proposal was floated where Whistler’s future energy needs would be met via a $42 million dollar natural gas pipeline extension. This was initially considered a good idea by RMOW because of its long-term scope and its more immediate results in terms of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But then they posed the question, “How is the pipeline extension a springboard for future actions towards our vision of success (which describes shifting towards renewable energy)?” Or, “After the pipeline, then what?” Only then did it emerge that if this investment went into the pipeline, future energy infrastructure around the community would be organized around natural gas. This “sunk-cost investment” would lock the community into dependence on natural gas—and its rising prices—for the long term. This question then helped to elucidate how this extension was not a good first investment toward the vision of success. However, instead of abandoning the proposal flat out, they returned to Terasen and began discussing a mix of alternatives, including renewables, energy efficiency measures, setting up a municipally-run utility and smaller capacity pipeline which can be retrofit to carry hydrogen. This is an example of reframing an issue by asking the right questions, and how finding the answer sometimes requires technical research and a multi-disciplinary group of people who can envision the big picture. Finally, the level of effort for this technical evaluation needs to be proportional to the scale of the proposal or investment as well as its relationship to other systems.

EcoTipping Points Dynamics and Principles

The Negative Tip

Because it brings economic opportunities to multiple sectors, tourism unleashes many interlocking, mutually reinforcing feedback loops which are hard to reverse once set in motion. In the early stages, inexperienced communities tend to slide down the “path of least resistance” (uncontrolled growth) without being fully aware of the environmental, social and, ultimately economic, costs of tourism. Individuals will make rational choices (i.e., take advantage of these new economic opportunities) even though these choices will be detrimental to everyone in the long term (tragedy of the commons).

Whole regions may be part of a larger pattern of “serial degradation” where one destination is “discovered,” experiences a “boom” to the point where its most valuable natural or cultural resources are degraded (those which attracted people there in the first place), leading to a “bust” as tourists head for more pristine destinations.

Strategies to prevent this boom-bust dynamic for emerging tourist destinations include anticipating growth early on, bringing together all stakeholders to plan for growth, and looking at the larger scale (spatial and temporal) in order to then make more informed and proactive choices about the direction they want to go as a community. Whistler 2020 embodies this approach.

In the case of Whistler, the “negative tip” was becoming apparent in environmental degradation, concerns over air and water quality, sprawl, real estate spikes, and a widening divide between seasonal workers and affluent homeowners (or second homeowners).

The Positive Tip

In EcoTipping Point terminology, positive “tips” involve interrupting vicious cycles and replacing them with virtuous ones. Because Whistler’s work on sustainability is so recent, it is not yet clear how some of the negative tip elements described above will be reversed.

Certain EcoTipping Points elements common to our case studies are also integral to this case:

  • Mutually reinforcing actions and policies to create “virtuous cycles”: Part of what makes vicious cycles so “vicious” is the tendency for all elements in the cycle to reinforce each other (e.g., real estate booms fuel land speculation, causing property prices to rise further). By making efforts to integrate actions among all task forces, by linking actions among task forces and showing where there are possible points of synergy, positive actions are more likely to feed off each other’s momentum, mutually reinforcing one another.
  • Community involvement for “Triumph of the Commons”: By being involved to the level that they were in the task forces, the community has a sense of ownership over its accomplishments, and there is a measure of social pressure on all organizations charged with certain actions to follow through on their commitments because not doing so will affect the community as a whole. (This is an example of “Triumph of the Commons,” the opposite of the Tragedy of the Commons where individual, unsustainable actions make more rational sense because there is no understanding of how this affects the community in the long term).
  • The influence of outsiders at key points: Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt and The Natural Step team, some members of the RMOW team, and Envision Sustainability Tools (which did the scenario planning workshops) were outsiders. Though the community was also resistant to the process involving consultation teams from outside (especially when it ultimately did not follow its recommendations), it did take the detached observation of outsiders to offer a fresh perspective and new ideas. As General Manager of Community Initiatives Mike Vance notes, “We [in Whistler] never get out enough, and we’re suffering for that now.”
  • Amplification of choices: Envision Sustainability Tools allowed the community to imagine alternative growth scenarios and their consequences.
  • Rapid success: The TNS concept of “low-hanging fruit”—steps which are easiest and achieve fast results—corresponds to the ETP concept of “short feedback loops,” which provide early encouragement for further progress.
  • Small and homogenous community: Although diversity can expand choices, the relatively small size and homogenous population of the community (racially and economically) made it easier for it to make decisions and come together in a way that a larger, messier, more spread out and diverse metropolitan area like Greater Vancouver could not have.


Articles, Documents

  • Center for Sustainable Community Development. Dossa, Karim and Peter Williams. “Whistler It’s Our Future: Summary CSP Survey Responses,” July 2004.
  • Mustel Group Market Research. “Whistler’s Blended Future: A Community Survey,” September 2004.
  • Speck Consulting and Associates. “Comprehensive Sustainability Plan: For Review; Sustainability Assessment of the Blended Future,” May 2004.
  • Waldron, Dave, et al.


  • Meetings with representatives of Whistler 2020 team, The Natural Step Canada, RMOW Council, Envision Sustainability Tools, VANOC, and Whistler 2020 Task Force: Esther Speck, Mike Vance, Tim Wake, Tina Symco, Anouk Bertner (TNS), Greg McDonnell, Ken Melamed, Dave Biggs, Victoria Smith, Jim Godfrey.


Acknowledgement and thanks to everyone listed above.

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