I always enjoy going to the annual Sustainable Communities Conference, and this year I had the pleasure of being quite involved in the organizing and delivering of content. I was asked to help organize a session for staff on leading change in implementation, deliver a presentation on sustainable local economic development and another on engagement in rural communities. At the event I learned what resonated most with people, and I picked up some new little nuggets as well.

In the ‘Fresh Approaches to Sustainable Local Economic Development, the audience (90 people from municipalities all across Canada) was most interested in new ideas and successful models. One idea that got a lot of traction was the idea that Farmers’ Markets, while a very popular venue for getting fresh and local produce, are also in fact an effective incubator for new locally-based businesses. Why? Low commitment. All you need is to rent a table and supply enough product for weekly customers – and voila! Test a new business for the potential of scaling up. I’ve been amazed to learn about how many successful businesses have started out with a weekly stall at a local Farmers’ Market!

Another aha! moment for many in the audience was recognizing the role that local governments can play in supporting and nurturing a stronger local economy. While social and for-profit entrepreneurs are crucial for launching new enterprises, local governments can nudge this along through:

• Supportive policies and zoning bylaws to favour independent businesses (e.g. location, size, format and design of buildings);
• Procurement policies that support local and sustainability-based purchasing choices (services, food, supplies);
• Providing municipally-owned spaces for markets or other launch-pads for local enterprises;
• Land banking – purchasing and/or holding onto municipally-owned land to be used for local economic development initiatives;
• Creating integrated strategies for providing services such as energy, e.g. developing renewable energy systems with local service providers, or even creating a municipally owned utility;
• Supporting local campaigns such as Buy Local Week, Shop it Forward, Buy it Forward, and ‘shop local’ initiatives, etc.

In a different session, when I hosted a table on planning and decision tools, it was clear that local governments are still struggling with implementation and embedding sustainability into corporate culture. The SCC attendees by and large were from communities with sustainability plans; however, they are still figuring out how to keep the plan off the shelf and make it part of how things are done. Having worked with lots of communities with similar issues, I encouraged local government staff to develop questions to guide their planning and decision-making based on their community goals and sustainability objectives, not just on checklists. Using goals helps to encourage innovation and outcome-oriented planning, rather than just using a checklist that tends to focus on compliance. Also, it is important to use the questions or a tool as upstream as possible, so that sustainability is incorporated into the upfront concept and planning process (and with a proponent/in an RFP where relevant) rather than just at the final decision-making point.

A couple of nuggets I picked up from fellow speakers:

• Leading municipalities are incorporating eco/natural assets into an asset management strategy (e.g. Town of Gibsons);
• Planning for future asset needs (and minimizing them) can be an effective way for smarter land use planning (smart growth thinking);
• Single-use infrastructure is passé; all infrastructure should serve multiple purpose, e.g. Toronto’s Sherbourne Common water treatment facility;
• Cape St. George, NL, shows that small, rural communities (population 948) can innovate and lead in sustainability! This community won the Sustainable Communities Award for small town waste reduction and recycling initiatives, including crushing tin cans along with scrapped cars and sending them to the steel mills. Check out their two-minute video!

Finally, I had the fortune of touring two amazing projects in Toronto:

Evergreen Brickworks – a transformed heritage site (formerly the old Don Valley Brick Works factory), which now houses the Evergreen offices, weekly farmers’ market, children’s play area, store, café, ice rink, bike repair facilities, and large event rental space.

The Centre for Social Innovation – founded in 2004, is a shared workspace, social enterprise incubator, community development facilitator, venture capitalist and social finance innovator (e.g. community bonds for investing in projects with social impact). All I can say is Wow! Check it out.

Check out the FCM website for proceedings from the conference.

Interested in more info? Fire me an email and let’s chat.

By Cheeying Ho
(604) 388-8421