by Vanessa Scott, January 2015.

Already 2015 is shaping up as a groundbreaking year in sustainable development. In some key ways, the Comox Valley is ahead of the curve.

During this international Year of Sustainable Development, as governments around the world work for action, local citizens are celebrating that we already have an outstanding plan on the books outlining our path to a stronger, healthier future.

Thanks to a legacy of forward-looking initiatives that culminated in the 2010 Comox Valley Sustainability Strategy, local governments are equipped with the vision, goals and collaborative means to put us on track to sustainability.

Yet progress in practice depends on local champions who are dedicated to turning such goals into reality. Now a local group, spearheaded by Transition Town, has come together to spur the Sustainability Strategy into greater use and action.

Since early January the group has met twice, with over 30 people gathering in Downtown Courtenay to share ideas for revitalizing the Sustainability Strategy. The group has included small business owners, farmers, teachers, community organizers and interested citizens. As well as raising the profile of the Sustainability Strategy, they seek to make 2015 a turning point as its benchmark five-year review. Because 2015 is Courtenay’s 100-year anniversary, the city’s centennial also marks an opportunity to imagine what we want our community to be like in the future.

While there is no single definition of a sustainable community, policies focus on meeting economic and social needs like jobs, housing and food security without harming natural capital or valuable “green infrastructure” in the local environment, particularly for water management. The recent record-breaking two month boil water advisory, and another state of emergency caused by $130,000 of flood damage in Courtenay, makes a vivid case for how timely and important are our land use decisions.

With infrastructure-burdened urban sprawl and tax hikes increasingly unpopular, municipalities are in the position of rethinking how to “do” development. Rather than raising funds to cover expensive maintenance and repairs, the smart option is to weigh long-term consequences up front and develop in ways that are efficient, cost-saving and most desirable for a high quality of life. The Sustainability Strategy lays out how to achieve this, with real targets and plans.

Refined through many rounds of consultation with local government, staff, citizens’ groups and expert advisors, and vetted by the community at large, the Sustainability Strategy is an extraordinary document. It is a joint initiative of all local governments to bring their efforts into alignment and guide regional decision-making. Published in 2010 during updates to the Regional Growth Strategy, the Sustainability Strategy was intended to give direction to regulatory documents like Official Community Plans, parks plans and transportation plans, and to serve as a reference point for development proposals.

When the regional district endorsed the Sustainability Strategy in 2011, MP John Duncan called it “another example of how our government…is helping the Comox Valley build a greener future for its citizens.”

The landmark Sustainability Strategy was produced with $180,000 from the Green Municipal Fund, with the remaining funds provided by the four local government partners. The Green Municipal Fund’s financing came from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the federal government, which in the past endowed $550 million to help municipalities reach higher standards of air, water and soil quality and climate protection. The Comox Valley Sustainability Strategy has since been studied as a milestone in cross-jurisdictional collaboration that gives citizens a say in meeting these challenges. HB Lanarc, the firm that oversaw development of the Sustainability Strategy, even received a prestigious honourable mention from the Canadian Institute of Planners’ City Planning Awards for Planning Excellence.

All participants at the Transition Town citizens’ meetings have agreed that now is the time to take the Sustainability Strategy to its next level of adoption.

It has already informed a few local initiatives ranging from objectives on urban forest management to the CVRD’s support for carpooling. In 2013 the CVRD also partnered with Terratek Energy to install four solar electric sites at two rural fire halls and water service buildings. The installs were fully paid for by the Union of BC Municipalities’ Gas Tax Agreement, showing that funding does exist to advance cost-saving green goals. These solar installations are “renewable energy assets” to the regional district, as they reduce energy costs and showcase alternative energy solutions from a Vancouver Island company.

The Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS) has also used parts of the Sustainability Strategy to support its stated goals, such as the advancement of a vibrant local food economy and leadership in innovation. CVEDS references the Strategy in support of attracting green jobs, green energy and green business opportunities in its most recent Economic Development Plan Update.

A key overarching goal of the Sustainability Strategy was that it become a touchstone for collaboration between citizens, organizations and local governments, leading to just these sorts of partnerships and technologies that will build a more sustainable region. Transition Town aims to advance even more of this positive, proactive work throughout 2015.

The Sustainability Strategy is hailed as an exceptional document because it already accomplished the hard work of finding agreement between stakeholders and laying down corresponding targets and concrete actions. The long and detailed creation process shows the amount of goodwill, dedication and openness that has powered the Sustainability Strategy from the start – and illustrates its necessity.

The largest stakeholder, aside from the environment we inhabit, is clearly the public and future generations.

During the consultation phase of the Sustainability Strategy, the project’s unprecedented public outreach included school districts and led to memorable contributions from local youth. Students’ creative input was valued in the process and their insights were memorialized in 2009, when students from Huband Park School teamed up with Juno award-winning local singer/songwriter Helen Austin to create a song about sustainability. The lyrics of Island Home say it all:

“From kayaking to hands on farms, from Musicfest to sand/If we want to keep our city pretty it all has to be planned.”

All those who want to make sustainable development a reality are invited to stay tuned and contribute to this ongoing project destined to leave a legacy for future generations. FMI visit www.transitiontowncv.org or contact info@transitiontowncv.org.Vision to Action Jan 8 20151