Planning for Social Change Towards Sustainability? Investigating Local Government Strategic Sustainability Planning in Canada
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This dissertation investigated the condition of local government strategic sustainability planning (SSP) in Canada as well as the contextual underpinnings of prevailing practices. It asked big questions about where we are going, how we are getting there, and what planning for social change towards sustainability should mean and entail. But one body of scholarship, alone, does not address these queries and scholars have tended to use meagre evaluative frameworks to analyse municipal government SSP initiatives. In response to these research gaps, this study developed an analytical framework that integrates ideas from five pertinent fields of study: sustainability assessment, social-ecological resilience theory, collaborative planning, the New Institutionalism, and lessons learned from experience in municipal SSP. When combined, concepts from these areas of inquiry illuminate the core concerns of SSP in any context. Notions from institutional theory help to explain why practice is the way it is. From this theoretical standpoint the research examined the community-scoping frameworks that practitioners have applied in the plan formulation phase of municipal SSP. Community scoping is a type of participatory analysis that aims to better understand baseline local conditions and provide the foundation for sustainability goals. Because community scoping requires practitioners to make choices with respect to contents and processes, it provides an opening for scholars to investigate the range of sustainability (including resilience), social change and effective practice concerns that community-scoping frameworks have tended to cover. Because community scoping requires public participation, it offers an opportunity for scholars to scrutinize the processes that have been used. Finally, because the community-scoping step must unfold within the context of a particular place, it presents a window for scholars to explore the institutional, built and ecological factors that have influenced practice. This study involved two key stages. The first stage included a Canada-wide search for local government SSP undertakings, the selection of sixty-five municipal SSP initiatives, basic qualitative data collection, and an in-depth analysis of applied community-scoping frameworks. The in-depth examination concentrated on the content and process components of the frameworks as well as the community-specific concerns that were elicited from the public. During this stage, the initially generic and integrated evaluative framework was specified for the local government context and teased apart in order to examine the content and process elements of community scoping separately. Building on the findings of this research, the second, case study stage employed concepts from institutional theory to explain the contextual underpinnings of practice. Three cases were selected, the City of Prince George SSP undertaking in British Columbia, the Town of Cochrane SSP initiative in Alberta, and the Town of Huntsville SSP effort in Ontario. Key informant interviews probed into why certain choices were made in the design of the community-scoping step. The findings of the first research stage showed that communities have committed to the concept of sustainability as an overarching idea. The predominant interpretation of the notion, however, conformed to the prevailing capitalist model of economic growth and development. None of the initiatives used sustainability criteria to structure the community-scoping step. Rather, practitioners preferred to use open-ended questions and sustainability pillars or urban planning categories. The findings revealed that open-ended questions were more effective with respect to covering a diverse range of community-specific matters; however, they tended to miss important sustainability (including resilience), social change and practical enactment concerns. The overall lack of attention that was given to place-specific inter- and intragenerational equity issues, among others, evidenced the limitations of the open-ended, pillared approach. Indeed, the findings exposed a general uncertainty with respect to how to do integrative planning. Additionally, the community-scoping frameworks were generally not clearly underpinned by an intention to shift community systems towards sustainability, and strong collaborative processes undergirded by an intention to facilitate learning and paradigm change were not the norm. The major strength of the interdisciplinary evaluative framework was that it was able to expose prevalent and atypical approaches to thinking and practice with respect to the different components of community scoping. For example, the analysis of community-specific concerns that were elicited from the public revealed a dominant vision and a minority vision for community development. The former projected a business-as-usual community development trajectory, supported by an efficiency-based model of resource maintenance and a mitigative approach to the social-ecological impacts of development. It almost completely ignored the distributive dimensions of socioeconomic systems. In contrast, the minority vision expressed a concern for the distributive dimension of socioeconomic systems; it questioned the power of corporations and our dependence on global markets and fossil fuels; it acknowledged critical thresholds and alternative states of equilibrium; and it emphasized the notions of living locally, zero waste, slowing the pace of growth, and limiting growth. On the whole, the findings of the first research stage depicted a mechanistic approach to public sector SSP. The case studies, interviews and concepts from the New Institutionalism suggested that prevailing practices may be underpinned by an actor’s sense of what is right and good for the local context as well as his or her socioeconomic interests in adhering to some well-established norms in local government SSP. Uncertainty, collective understandings, legislative frameworks, relationships of power, and taken-for-granted interpretations of the roles that municipal governments, citizens, and practitioners should play in SSP may also underpin predominant approaches. While these institutional factors contributed to the durability of prevalent practices, the Town of Huntsville case demonstrated how practitioners could acknowledge the need for change, raise the bar on practice, and introduce new planning norms. The research enriches our understanding of the conceptual basis for theory building about planning for social change towards sustainability. It also contributes to each body of research that comprised the evaluative framework. With respect to practical contributions, this study begins to portray the condition of municipal SSP in Canada relative to a representative set of generic and local-government specific SSP considerations. Opportunities for improvement were underscored, especially with respect to how and when social change and practical implementation concerns should be addressed. This study clearly evidenced the need for planning and community-scoping frameworks that cut to the heart of the institutional underpinnings of prevailing (insufficient) approaches to practice. These contributions raise further questions about how the interdisciplinary analytical framework should be applied in other SSP contexts; the planning realities that might discourage and/or encourage the approach to community scoping that I proposed in this thesis; and whether this approach would lead to greater progress towards sustainability over the long term.
Cite this version of the work
Tanya Markvart (2015). Planning for Social Change Towards Sustainability? Investigating Local Government Strategic Sustainability Planning in Canada. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/9225