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As we move towards sustainability

Since Whistler adopted the Natural Step several years ago sustainability has become the buzz word — the S-word — in this valley.


Since Whistler adopted the Natural Step several years ago sustainability has become the buzz word — the S-word — in this valley. We’ve had speakers come to town to talk about various aspects of sustainability; our comprehensive development plan has become the comprehensive sustainability plan; we’ve learned there are three legs to the sustainability stool: economic, environmental and social; and Whistler has re-defined its vision as to become “…the premier mountain resort community — as we move towards sustainability.”

Down the road, a centre for sustainability is part of Whistler’s future, a place where residents and visitors can learn about sustainability and how to incorporate it into their lives.

But for all the talk about sustainability, despite all the examples of people and businesses adopting more sustainable practices, it’s not clear that Whistler really gets it, yet. This point was made earlier this week with the London Drugs issue.

Monday’s London Drugs/retail strategy open house ignited passion in Whistler townsfolk the way the Whistler2020 sustainability plan never has, probably due to the fact that it’s a fairly simple concept: you are either for or against London Drugs taking up residence in the village. Choose your arguments.

Many of those in favour of London Drugs have referred to the retail study done by municipal consultants and interpreted it as saying there should be no additional retailers in the village. The consultants tried to clarify this at Monday’s open house, saying they were not advocating there be no new retailers but that there be no additional retail space. There is more than 500,000 square feet of retail or retail-related space in the village now, and more than 800,000 square feet in Whistler, and based on the size of the town, the number of visitors and the number of hotel rooms it doesn’t make sense to create additional retail space.

It’s not sustainable.

Which leads back to a bigger sustainability issue than buying fair-trade coffee or using biodiesel fuel. At the heart of the sustainability question in Whistler is what is needed to sustain what we’ve already built. How many people are needed to sustain 800,000 square feet of retail space? How many visitors do we need annually to hit a sustainable occupancy level for all the hotels we’ve built? How many employees do we need to run all these businesses, and how much employee housing do we need to meet our goal of having 70 per cent of employees live in Whistler? And what sort of impact will all of this have on the environment?

These are some of the fundamental questions of economic, social and environmental sustainability locally. They are tough questions to put numbers to but until we’ve made an attempt to answer them we’re just nibbling around the edges of the sustainability issue. We talk about backcasting from the future we want to achieve, but we also need to forecast from our present position.

An example of making decisions without knowing the numbers came up last fall with the renovation and expansion of municipal hall. The first proposal brought forward by municipal staff included 11,000 additional square feet of space, as well as much-needed renovations, at a cost of $8.7 million. Council members in favour of the proposal and those who opposed it both cited the Whistler2020 plan in justifying their positions.

The first proposal was defeated, barely, and staff was asked to come up with a projection for how many municipal employees were expected to be working out of the new municipal hall after 2010. This would seem to be a reasonable request and a sound basis for making a decision on how much additional space was needed. However, no staffing number was offered and a scaled down proposal that fit within a previously approved $5.7 million budget was passed by a 5-2 margin.

The point here is that too often we don’t know enough about ourselves to make sustainable decisions. The monitoring report, part of the Whistler2020 plan, is collecting some of this baseline data but we are still early in the process. We have a long way to go to figure out our own sustainability.

And what if we decide we want to adjust our economic and social base a little, diversify it by focusing on education, for example? There would be economic, social and environmental impacts, and presumably we would do some research to quantify some of those impacts before we made assumptions about how to proceed, or whether it was worth proceeding.

As with most journeys, it’s not the end goal that’s hard to define, it’s the details in how we get there — “as we move towards sustainability” — that must be mapped out carefully.