Advancing Sustainability

publiShed in:
Municipal World
August 14, 2017
Lisa Prime

A framework strategy for fostering resiliency and innovation in local government.

Communities of the 21st century face a host of increasing challenges for sustainability to meet progressive expectations of a climate agenda. This includes energy demands and transportation, as well as accommodating multiple pressures –including growth, demographic shift, and economic change. Aging infrastructure,competing funding and financing priorities, and the impacts of climate change add to the challenge. Advancing policy and implementation tools for sustainability and innovation at Waterfront Toronto made it evident that what was once transformative is rapidly becoming mainstream.

Notions of good planning have been shaped over the past two decades by the approach to make our communities sustainable. Urban places strive for mixed use, transit oriented, walkable communities, with ample park space and connectivity.In many places, high energy performance buildings have moved to become the norm as LEED Gold or equivalent is a growing expectation. More recently, addressing climate change has become a necessary part of community building.

We need actionable plans. This is critical to the target of becoming a carbon-neutral world, sometime after 2050 but before 2100, as outlined in theParis Agreement (COP 21). This is the point at which greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by human activity must be limited to levels that trees, soil, and oceans can absorb naturally. This aggressive timeline for a carbon-neutral world can only be achieved with strong actionable plans that, beyond significant greenhouse gas reductions primarily in buildings, energy, transportation, and waste, must also drive investment in green technologies and infrastructure more broadly.

Plans must speak to advancing implementation and taking real advantage of the opportunities for new technology. This needs to include systems thinking, considering the big picture, and identifying how key aspects fit and can interconnect. Leading communities will look at how infrastructure systems perform. They will increasingly consider how to take advantage of circular systems; perhaps greywater and waste heat recovery.

Generally, communities have a lack of experience with alternative systems and technologies. This limits the opportunity to try new things and deal with risk, perceived or real. Alternative thinking needs to focus on strategy that addresses the fundamental dimensions to advance strong and evolutionary implementation plans. It needs to address resiliency and leverage innovation, founded in benchmarking and accountability.

Resiliency and Innovation

First, define resiliency and innovation. In this case, we look to experience. Resiliency, as defined by the Rockefeller Institute, is “a dynamic,adaptive, flexible environment with the ability to respond to technical, social,and environmental changes. Buildings, communities, and infrastructure are designed to survive and thrive in response to changing climate and in times of emergency.”

Innovation is about embracing change. It can focus on the integration of systems and circular approaches. It considers the value of new technologies and the strategic advancement of smart applications. These technologies can combine low carbon objectives and improved systems function.

The common theme between resiliency and innovation is the need to be dynamic, adaptive, and flexible.

New Perspectives & Strong Implementation Plan

To reach a carbon-neutral goal and create resilient communities that can adapt to the constantly-changing reality we live in, we must expand our thinking. We need to develop an implementation strategy focused on resiliency and leveraging innovation. Low carbon objectives require plans to implement new technology.Beyond addressing significant GHG reductions, plans must also drive investment in green infrastructure and technology more broadly.

While strategy must always revolve around local conditions and priorities, it is possible to use a more universal framework to develop a strong implementation plan for community building. The framework outlines a process: clarifying a strong vision, identifying guiding principles, and defining the methods of operational implementation. All elements must be present and aligned to ensure expected outcomes.

New perspectives are provoked using this dynamic framework. It encourages adopting new and different ways of thinking about policy, regulation,and performance targets, while also allowing organic evolution by transformative design. An effective change framework goes beyond defining objectives and targets.It must be grounded in the vision for the community and expanded to include the processes to meet the physical, social, and environmental expectations.

While the focus includes design and function, it also includes behaviour and any supporting physical and social infrastructure required. For instance, a plan may include easy access to bicycle networks and reduced parking and transit to encourage people to get out of their cars, or smart technologies for community services access.

For example, Toronto’s Waterfront buildings require separate suite metering in all units for all utilities, tied to building automation. This was done 10 years ago to increase conservation, if not used for billing. Data analytics like this support operational efficiencies and improvements that ensure buildings designed to high energy performance standards operate to their potential.


Figure 1 breaks down the general concept of a framework plan that can be used to achieve these results.

This framework is based on three core layers: vision, guiding principles, and operational implementation.


The vision defines the future shaped by the desired outcome.This creates meaningful change by taking the time to fully investigate a future vision. Optimal change results by identifying the full range of risks and opportunities for resiliency. The vision can be defined in order to contribute to a positive climate future through resiliency and develop successful, sustainable communities. Big picture questions can consider community objectives and contribute to those objectives.This vision may also include aspirational intentions such as global leadership,but also more specific and focused changes, such as precise low carbon targets,infrastructure resiliency in the face of floods, or transforming a community into a green tech centre to spark revitalization.

The vision is best achieved through consultation with a broad network of stakeholders. This will included those close or affected, but also strategic advisors with knowledge of other places. A review of best practices is informative.

Guiding principles

Guiding principles clarify focus areas to achieve the vision.These drivers of development deliver lasting sustainability, or social, economic,and environmental benefit. The principles capture aspirational goals and the policy context.

The exploration of policy intent and community objectives may include contemplating changes to how we plan and how we set expectations for new neighbourhood design. For example, a plan guided by the principle of “intelligent and integrated” may generate solutions such as using waste heat from neighbouring industrial uses to support neighbourhood development, or recommending the integration of greywater reuse in buildings, or stormwater reuse.

Benchmarking supports the ideal focus areas for both vision and guiding principles. This is important to advance alternative implementation.

When we benchmark, we consider other projects and other standards in different places. By doing this, we can capture the best examples from different categories and not accept the easy response “we can’t do that here.” Examples will help to support confidence and risk management.

Identifying benefits and challenges in other places will helpestablish the right opportunities for community action.

In setting a process for Waterfront Toronto, a steering committee of global and local expertise supported the right focus for leadership. This engagement also supported the best practice review. It brought active discussion around actions and implementation plans.

Operational implementation

Operational context defines the process changes needed to adopt the vision and the measured value of performance. This includes options such asa greater range of value-based procurement processes, value-based programming for technology to support solutions and community benefits, or low-technology approaches to the role of natural systems. By analyzing data and metrics, we can align key areas of value to support specific technological advancements, such as energy performance and infrastructure operations. Opportunities and barriers can be addressed during the operational phase. Pilot projects and design exercises can contribute to unlocking the potential for advancement, such as electric vehicle uptake or net zero design.

Pilots and partnerships are great combinations to determine effective future solutions that can be scaled. In advancing sustainability on Toronto’s waterfront,we consistently looked for opportunities to showcase. For example, new technologies for processing contaminated soils for reuse were piloted, and cost-benefit exercises were carried out to further support outcomes. This provided strong evidence for implementation at scale. In partnership with the Ministry of Transportation, public electric vehicle charging was piloted, supporting data analytics for uptake and scale up expectation. These processes support implementation and help reach the next stretch objectives.

Accountability Plan

The Paris Agreement (COP 21) has brought unparalleled unification among nations to combat climate change. By this agreement, to achieve a carbon-neutral world, all communities need strong, actionable plans that address significant GHG reduction in core areas including buildings, energy, transportation, and waste.

To reach this goal, new strategy needs to be applied to policy and development opportunities. Low carbon initiatives and integrated uses and alternative systems in infrastructure need a resiliency and innovation lens.

Communities will continue to be highly impacted by the stresses and effects of climate change. Resiliency is essential, as is the openness to innovative solutions. Advancing sustainability to focus on resiliency and innovation is the next level of leadership in community development and climate action planning.

Communities need to understand their needs and think differently about achieving them. This includes surveying available data, looking at policy conflicts, defining responsibilities of stakeholders, evaluating risks, inventorying technologies, applying pilots, and assessing value and financing opportunities.How can targets be met over time and investment be made attractive? How can collaboration and partnership support the challenge and advance alternative processes for positive change? The framework presented in this article gives a model to help move communities in the direction of carbon neutrality.

This article was published in Municipal World 2017.

Lisa Prime, MCIP RPP, LEED AP, is a member of OPPI and the founding principal at Prime Strategy & Planning Inc, a Toronto based professional services firm specializing in strategy for complex projects, urban revitalization, sustainability and climate change plans.