Whistler has always had a penchant for thinking big
Built by pioneers with radical ideas of what the sleepy fishing town could become, Whistler has long attracted the kind of visionaries who thought outside the box to set the resort on its current path. From our first Official Community Plan (OCP) in 1976 to the one that followed in 1993, and more recently, Whistler 2020, the resort's overarching sustainability plan, we've always looked forward. These guiding documents were put in place with our concern for the environment at the forefront; the snow-capped mountains, pristine glacial lakes, and lush rolling hills are the very things that make this place special, and we know we need to protect them. We invite the world to revel with us in our mountain playground, and with that decision has come the inevitable rise in population and tourism numbers. Combine that with the challenges faced by climate change: more heavy-rain events, longer and drier summers, and milder winters, and it's worrying to see our community continually in the red on its environmental goals.
As the community rallies to update its OCP—which will incorporate the principles of Whistler 2020, effectively eliminating it as a standalone document—and establish a guiding vision for years to come, it's time to look back at how we got here and what we might want to consider as we set this new course in motion.
What is Whistler 2020?
Back in 2005, the resort's award-winning sustainability planning document, Whistler 2020, was finalized. The plan follows an upstream approach, looking ahead to anticipate possible challenges around climate change, affordable housing, staff recruitment programs, and recommended steps towards investing in renewable energy resources. The stakeholders, planners and environmental consultants tasked with devising the plan had to think globally to predict the trickle-down effect locally.
The 35-page document explains how the goal of "sustainability" encompasses different aspects that are intricately intertwined: "Whistler does not function in isolation," it reads. "It is part of a global network, ecologically, economically and socially. Sustainable living is important to Whistler in several ways. We value the natural environment and society and do not wish to contribute to global degradation. Also, unsustainable practices worldwide threaten Whistler's financial, social and environmental well-being. For example, declining natural resources mean higher fuel costs—higher costs for all goods and services—and less inclination by visitors to travel long distances. Whistler must respond and adapt to meet the sustainability challenges presented by today's society and systems."
Although Whistler has had community monitoring since 1993, it was the first resort governance model to layout a journey to sustainability, give it scientific foundations, commit to transparent stakeholder engagement, and develop a comprehensive indicator and monitoring system. It also laid out five priorities the community wanted to focus on and measure in its journey to towards making Whistler sustainable:
- Enriching community life
- Enhancing the resort experience
- Protecting the environment
- Ensuring economic viability
- Partnering for success
The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), Whistler Blackcomb (WB), and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), along with 75 local businesses and organizations helped put the appropriate indicators in place. Task forces were made responsible for assessing the progress on the indicators and recommending prioritized actions for the next year. Progress towards the vision is tracked and reported annually by the Whistler Centre for Sustainability on behalf of the RMOW and can be viewed online at whistler.ca/monitoring. You can see both high-level and more in-depth information for each indicator, with the Whistler 2020 report itself digging further into how we define success for each priority.
A vision statement was also created, to frame the five priorities: "To be the premier mountain resort community as we move toward sustainability."
As the clock ticks closer to the deadline for meeting this vision, visitation numbers have hit record highs, businesses continue to struggle to find employees, who in turn struggle to find affordable housing. But some of the more alarming red flags have to do with our environmental and energy targets.
Whistler has set a goal of reducing its 2007 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions level 33 per cent by 2020. Between 2008 and 2012, the community largely kept pace with that target. But since 2014, Whistler has fallen behind, and a municipal report in late 2017 showed that emissions have increased an average of 4.9 per cent annually in the last three years alone. This has moderated total GHG levels from minus 21 percent in 2013, to now only minus nine per cent versus 2007 levels.
In terms of a "move towards sustainability," it seems like a very slow one. It will also make the goal of reducing emissions by 80 per cent in 2050, and 90 per cent by 2060 that much more difficult to achieve. It's time to ask what can we do to really move the dial? Going back to the upstream system—should we have seen this coming? If so, why didn't we? But first, let's take a look at some of the initiatives that got us off the ground and moving towards our vision.
What were the key things we accomplished with Whistler 2020?
The Whistler 2020 process was incredibly effective in building partnerships amongst organizations in the community. This combined momentum lead to projects like the PassivHaus at Lost Lake, the Fitzsimmons Hydroelectricity Project (harnessing run-of-river power), more jobs through green building standards, geothermal, cost-efficient heating at Meadow Park Sports Centre, and commercial composting throughout the community.
"Critical to achieving any vision is partnerships and working together," explains Dan Wilson, community planning and monitoring specialist at the Whistler Centre for Sustainability. "More than anything, this is what having a common vision has contributed."
Wilson's thoughts echo others in the community.
"It was the first time we came together to map out a broader perspective and shared definition of success in this way," explains Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.
Councillor Sue Maxwell also commented on how critical it is to have a vision that unites people. "Our community really cares about where we're going, how we're interacting with the world and how we're dealing with the environment, social, and economic issues. When we have these shared values, we can all work together in one direction," she says. "Leadership needs a guiding vision so you can look ahead to the future, rather than just focus on the day-to-day. We showed leadership, set up a system and good ideas that came from the community were implemented. Together, we set a new bar and an example for other communities."
Whistler 2020 was designed to work backwards from the resort's ideal, big-picture goals, providing an effective foundation to guide local leaders, according to Wilson.
"The process was effective at embedding the concept of starting from the point of success and sustainability in all substantial planning projects," says Wilson. "The language of working toward economic, social, and environmental outcomes was captured in subsequent economic planning, recreation planning, and transportation planning, for example, in what was called 'descriptions of success.' With such new ways of planning, these descriptions of success were important for helping to translate the vision to specific strategies like moving people around the resort in a comfortable and efficient manner. These descriptions of success provided strands of a common vision to all the individual plans created along the way, such, as the RMOW Corporate Plan, Economic Partnership Initiative, Housing Plan, and Transportation Strategy."
Indicators & Reporting
The indicator reporting has also helped to structure conversations about community resource allocation and priorities for budgets. "The five priorities are clear, and built on over 90 indicators that we report on annually, and directly contribute to policy decisions," comments Wilhelm-Morden. She went on to explain how the recent updates to the RMOW's Climate Action Plan were a direct result of the indicators monitoring, and that the municipality is currently working on implementing 40 recommendations.
"Annual monitoring and reporting helps to highlight progress each year, especially where targets exists, so that community leaders at least have to the have the conversation about where to allocate resources given the progress or lack thereof," says Wilson. "This review and associated targets helps to keep us accountable to our vision."
What didn't go so well, and what can we learn for our OCP visioning process?
Looking at the Whistler 2020 indicators (available at whistler.ca), you can see that the economic and community enriching priorities are tracking well (represented in green), but the environmental and partnership sections are showing a lot more red and yellow. In an academic paper titled Challenges to the Resilience of Whistler's Journey Towards Sustainability, Simon Fraser University professor Alison Gill mentions that this could be a case of an "issue-attention-cycle." Coined by American political scientist Anthony Downs in the 1970's, the concept refers to how environmental issues come into prominence, remain in the public eye for a short time, but then fade from attention as the daily news cycle keeps churning on. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Whistler wasn't immune.
"The withdrawal of the protective niche offered by the Olympic planning process, that had distracted a range of stakeholders from local politics over an extended period of time, resulted in a refocusing of attention on the crisis of the day— empty hotel beds (54 per cent occupancy rate), low tourism numbers and consequently business losses," explains Gill. "It is evident that in 2011 attention was focused on the current crisis in the business sector, diverting attention away from the comprehensive ideas of sustainability, which in any event suffer from ambivalence and complexity with respect to goals."
To this point, Claire Ruddy, executive director of AWARE, says she believes that Whistler's environmental vision needs to be more embedded within the community for it to be effectual and resilient to political and economic change.
Wilson agrees, but expands on the need for adaptable strategies.
"Our vision should be set in stone, but the strategies from year to year may change in how we get there. These strategies shouldn't be so distracting, however, that we cannot get back on track," he said.
We've already shown that the path to realizing this vision is not always going to be an easy one. Putting environmental issues before economic drivers back in 2008 would have been a tough sell, but short-term gains should never be put ahead of long-term sustainability. If we are determined to make progress on our energy and climate goals, we have to understand that that commitment will come with some bad decisions along the way—even if they're not necessarily the decision we want to make at that point in time.
Empowering Action through Process
Like a lot of environmental initiatives, on paper, Whistler 2020 is easy to champion. But translating its ideals into concrete action is another matter entirely.
"Whistler 2020 did a good job of capturing the guiding principles and how we defined them," comments Ruddy. "But it didn't jump the gap between principles and what every individual in a community could do within their own context. It didn't translate the values into actions that could be owned in businesses, homes, and lifestyles."
In Ruddy's opinion, one major flaw in the Whistler 2020 plan is that some of the actions were assigned to groups with no access to the resources to implement them—like her own.
Maxwell seconded this sentiment, stating, "We need to help people understand and empower (them) around the subject of sustainability. We need to see results and be able to act on them." Both believe these issues can be solved with a stronger process that incorporates key short-term milestones, individual accountability, and resource allocation.
More Perspectives at the Table
Another essential lesson from Whistler 2020 was the need for a more diverse representation of the community at the planning table to identify issues before they arise. The RMOW's more recent Economic Partnership Initiative, made up of representatives from council, the local tourism and accommodation sectors, Whistler Blackcomb, and the chamber of commerce, helped cultivate a positive economic environment and led to tremendous visitation growth.
But with that boom in business came the need for a larger workforce and an expanded housing supply, and given the consistent challenges employers have had attracting staff in recent years, it's easy to argue Whistler wasn't fully equipped to deal with its own success.
"Tourism is a very people-hungry industry, so any growth is going to lead to a demand for more people and housing. It's been called an unintended consequence, and typically unintended consequences are a result of compartmentalized planning," Wilson says. "Perhaps having more seats at the table and a slightly broader mandate could have identified this issue sooner."
Wilson adds the caveat that too many task forces can be hard to manage, and can often create siloes as well. The solution, he believes, is to collapse "like" topics into a smaller number of categories. Right now, the RMOW counts more than 15 active committees, several of which have overlapping mandates.
While Maxwell agrees that too many task forces can be unwieldy, she believes they are necessary. When comparing municipal task forces to committees, she comments that the latter are not comprehensive; missing many key areas and existing to merely fulfill a requirement. "Many do not meet frequently or exist in name only; like the Illegal Space Task Force. They mainly revolve around RMOW actions, are not very open to the community input, have limited transparency ... and have limited public and partner involvement," she says. There is also very limited reporting back or integration across the committees; even for council."
What is the OCP?
The RMOW's Official Community Plan is a provincially mandated document that details policies regarding land use, development, servicing, and the protection of the natural environment.
The insertion of a "vision" to this document is a relatively new practice, but one communities are doing to align policies with the direction they want to go. The last time work was done to update Whistler's OCP was in 2011, but the long-awaited new plan was eventually quashed in 2014 when the B.C. Supreme Court determined that the provincial government had not fulfilled its obligation to adequately consult with the local Squamish and Lilwat First Nations. (With new legislation introduced in 2014, Whistler is now one of only three resort municipalities in B.C.—along with Sun Peaks and Islands Trust—that requires ministerial approval of its OCP, which has raised some questions over why this added layer of oversight is necessary and only applies to a small number of resort communities.)
This current refresh builds on the more than 2,500 hours of community and stakeholder engagement back in 2011 and will include a new vision, address changing factors affecting the community, recent RMOW studies and surveys, and closer engagement with First Nations. Phase 1 of the update is now complete, and includes another 500 hours of engagement. The new draft OCP can be found online at whistler.ca/ocp/community-vision, and the public has until July 13 to give input.
This is our North Star, the guiding document that our leaders will be using; so take a look, know it, and have your say.
Ongoing Communications & Engagement
Downs, the American economist, has pointed out that people need to be consistently engaged on the issues that matter most or they quickly lose energy and momentum.
"It can't be a one-time event, and it needs to be regular. There need to be town halls and Aprés in Action events. Maybe we should bring the task forces back?" questions Maxwell. "How do we pull together key partners and volunteers to plan actions and provide feedback, and then share that knowledge? We need a strong public engagement system and policy, both online and in-person. We also need to see the feedback, what happened, and what the results were. People need to see the difference to trust in it and believe in it."
On the topic of engagement, Maxwell is concerned that the current initiatives to update the OCP aren't as robust as they were years ago when the community was developing Whistler 2020, and that this quicker turnaround could result in a lack of buy-in from the community.
Maxwell, a former waste-management specialist, is also concerned that, with the principles of Whistler 2020 effectively being rolled into the new OCP, the community is losing one of its most important guiding visions as a standalone plan.
"I feel that some aspects of sustainability, particularly thinking of the impacts outside of our community, are getting lost. I feel that in this rush to do this, we are not ensuring that a holistic, comprehensive view is being maintained. In trying to do this quickly, we are missing an opportunity to reinvigorate community participation and ownership of the vision. We are also losing the implementation piece," she notes. "As we can see from some other plans, a nice vision or plan that sits on the shelf is a waste of time, so how do we make sure that there is action based on this vision? If actions are to be based on the OCP, then we cannot afford to have key strategy areas be weak or we are going to exacerbate the problems highlighted by the indicators."
Our New Vision
Last week, the RMOW released the 163-page draft OCP document that offers the community its first glimpse at Whistler's new, comprehensive vision.
One of the key changes to its updated "Natural Environment" chapter commits to integrate climate-change planning into the new OCP. It also adds a policy restricting development to Whistler's least ecologically sensitive areas.
The updated Transportation chapter also supports the effort to reduce emissions through its emphasis on both local and regional transit options, its commitment to enhance focus on "non-highway transportation connections in the community," and promoting policies that would utilize technology to "increase travel efficiencies and reduce GHG emissions."
Maxwell believes the update reflects "where the municipality has directed its attention and has commitees, so the concern is that this will further distinguish between those areas supported by committees (that for the most part are doing well) and those without committee or support that are not," she says. "I hope that the community feedback will help rectify and strengthen the weaker areas."
The journey towards sustainability is certainly not an easy one. It's going to require understanding and support from the whole community, the space for innovation and open discussions, ongoing collaboration and continual engagement, and community champions that believe in it enough to fight for it.
It's time to think big as we, as a community, update the OCP. What do we want Whistler to look like in 15, 30, or 50 years time? This guiding principle is like the North Star; it will set us on a course, give us direction, and help us navigate the often murky waters of the future. But it's us, as a community, that have to decide on the path we want to travel, how we're going to get there, and who is making sure we stay on track. If there was a time to show up, have an opinion, and fight for it—it's now.