Whistler shows growth isn’t a downhill slope

  |   Community Engagement   |   No comment
(originally published in the Toronto Sun)

When you think Whistler, you think skiing. But the British Columbia town is also positioning itself as a leader in managing growth.

Once a community of 500 people scattered along Whistler valley, the population of year-round dwellers is now 14,200, with at least that many more as seasonal residents and workers, plus another two million visitors annually.

That explosive growth — which in some years earned Whistler the dubious distinction as “fastest-growing community in Canada” — has put tremendous pressure on local residents.

Those pressures include escalating living, housing and business costs; changing demographics; a growing wealth gap; declining natural resources and habitats; increasing land, water and air pollution; and inadequate transportation infrastructure.

In the 905, we can relate — and have our own dubious distinction as the fourth fastest growing region in North America. With developers clamouring to build on every patch of land, we’ve had to sort through some of the same issues as Whistler.

They’ve come up with a blueprint for “sustainable” growth, called Whistler 2020. The town’s mayor, Ken Melamed, spoke at a public forum in Halton last week on building sustainable communities. He had two key pieces of advice for Halton to manage our growth in a sustainable way.

First: Engage in a process called “backcasting,” part of a larger planning strategy called The Natural Step. The program, available free online at, provides a definition of “sustainability” along with a process for communities to start moving in that direction.

A key component is community engagement. Backcasting asks communities (as opposed to governments) to define what success would look like 10 or 20 years out, then look “back” to the present to determine how to get from where we are to where we want to be.

Whistler’s plan was developed and committed to by approximately 30 formal partner organizations and businesses, and 160 task force members. They meet annually to review and improve the plan, which touches all areas of life, from enriching community life to protecting the environment and the local economy.

Though local government initiated the process, it helped that people like Melamed — president of a local environmental group for six years before being elected — were on council.

Backcasting differs from forecasting, in that forecasting typically projects where a community will end up if it keeps on its current path, then tries to plan for that inevitability. It’s a passive/reactive approach to planning, rather than a proactive one.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about the provincially-mandated ‘Places to Grow,'” said Melamed in a telelphone interview. “Places to Grow was really forecasting.”

As a result, some cities are struggling with it. Places to Grow, while trying to anticipate and plan for inevitable growth in the GTA, doesn’t lay out an overall vision of what “success” would look like when the dust settles, he said.


Plenty of local environmental and community groups have been developing that vision and lobbying government officials — with some success. But sustainability is still piece-meal here — on a project by project or development by development basis. What’s needed is an overall vision that integrates every aspect of community, from arts and culture to waste management.

The Natural Step has a word for that too — it’s called the “systems” approach, and it worked well in Whistler.

Melamed’s second piece of advice for Halton is to evaluate our “carrying capacity” — a fancy way of asking “are there enough schools, roads, hospital beds and other services to meet the needs of a growing community?”

It’s something local environmental groups have long been pushing municipalities to do before they allow any more growth — with some success.

Halton Regional Chair Gary Carr has effectively shut down development unless someone — developers or various levels of government or both — ponies up the cost to pay for all the added services a growing community needs.

In the meantime, local governments would be wise to look at The Natural Step strategy.

“It’s a suggestion — it’s a method into which each community plugs its reality,” said Melamed. “Absent that, we’ll continue to beat around the edges of sustainability.”

No Comments

Post A Comment