Contributions of Strategic Environmental Assessment to planning and decision making: The case of York Region, Ontario
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Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) has a prominent position in the ongoing search for instruments that can help governments and other organizations to pursue the goal of sustainability. SEA is presented here as a decision-making supportive approach that is meant to improve strategic initiatives, rather than just analysing them. As an approach to planning (as opposed to a mechanical technical instrument that is done on the side and ‘might’ inform the big decisions), SEA has been promoted as a promising instrument expected to be able to provide better informed, more credible and more broadly beneficial strategic initiatives, as well as more timely and clearer guidance for subsequent undertakings. As such, by adjusting and improving planning, governance, and decision-making processes, SEA has a major role in contributing to sustainability. One of the many different planning and decision-making contexts in which SEA can be used is growth-related planning – the object of interest of this research. Planning in a growth context is typically driven by a mix of biophysical, social and economic concerns, and is unavoidably complex, with many independent agents interacting with each other in many ways, all of this involving the full range of intersecting sustainability issues. In this research I explore the concept of sustainability as an overall planning goal, as it relates to a particular approach to planning, i.e., strategic environmental assessment. In addition, this research acknowledges the importance and need to address the context in which SEA applications occur, and therefore, it highlights the need to specify the application for particular areas. This research was guided by an interest in improving understanding of how SEA can help to contribute to sustainability through planning/EA processes and activities, especially in the context of growth-related planning. Above all, this research addressed how SEA best practices can be used to improve regional planning and decision making, including its link to the project level, and how regional planning experience can help illuminate possible means of strengthening SEA practice. As such, this research presents how a sustainability-based SEA approach could contribute to growth-related planning in a rapid growth setting, using York Region, Ontario as the empirical case study. While York Region was not using the SEA nametag, some essential characteristics of SEA were found in a few planning initiatives, in accordance with what some scholars have called a SEA-type approach, i.e., an approach that does not meet formal specifications or definitions of SEA, but which has some of the SEA characteristics or components. This research presents three main scholarly contributions. First, it develops a SEA best practice framework based on the international literature and, as a result, it provides SEA practitioners with a useful generic framework that they can use as guidance and a starting point for SEA studies. In addition, this research brings to light the importance of paying attention to contextual issues in order to make successful use of SEA best practice frameworks. The context of application will always be unique, so the particularities of the case will still need to be carefully considered and incorporated, so that application can be customized to the particular case. Second, this research further develops the discussion about what SEA can achieve, or more specifically, how SEA can help to contribute to sustainability. As such, this research contributes to the discussion about how SEA can help planning and decision-making approaches through a more in depth look at three main components of SEA: sustainability-centred decision making, tiering and communication. The third contribution relates to how SEA adoption becomes a priority or how governments become interested enough in SEA application to actually give it a shot. The concept of a policy window was borrowed from the policy sciences field to provide the framework of analysis for this part of the research, and shows how problem, policy and political streams converged to provide the necessary conditions for the adoption of an SEA-type approach in York Region. In sum, the results of this research suggest that SEA has potential to play an important role in planning and decision making, with particular attention to growth-related planning. In this context, SEA can contribute to planning and decision making that is more integrated, farsighted, open, efficient, credible and defensible, and ultimately brings desirable and durable benefits. Moreover, by providing clearer guidance to the subsequent undertaking, SEA has potential to serve as a bridge to the planning of project-level undertakings.