Charting a course to sustainability

On Saturday, Ray Anderson told approximately 300 Whistler people the story of his company, Interface Inc., and how it is moving toward sustainability. The afternoon presentation, which marked the public launch of Whistler’s commitment to the Natural Step program, also summed up five years of work by Whistler councils and administrator Jim Godfrey.

First of all we should recognize the importance of having a vision for the future. Think of how many towns in this province are without a plan, just waiting for the economy to pick up or for a major corporation to come to town.

In a resort municipality that is committed to limiting development it is even more critical to have a plan for the future. Sustaining growth in a competitive market while limiting physical expansion is certainly not impossible, but it does run contrary to most Western notions of growth.

The principle at the heart of this equation is sustainability. It’s something that every town and every business hopes for – or takes for granted. Few have a specific plan for how to achieve it. Most haven’t even defined it.

Sustainability as a principle applies to the economy, to the social makeup and to the environment. In Anderson’s presentation he made the point that from a global perspective the economy is subordinate to the environment; the natural environment can survive without economic activity, but economic activity can’t survive without earth’s natural environment.

Whistler isn’t going to save the world from an environmental meltdown, but there may be lessons for others in the course it has set for itself in the post-buildout period. Interestingly, this course was started by council not with the Natural Step but with individual initiatives, such as the Transportation Strategy, the Environmental Strategy and the establishment of the housing authority. It has continued with the Village Enhancement Strategy and the recently initiated Comprehensive Sustainability Strategy.

These concepts and how they apply to Whistler’s future were brought together in the Vision 2002 document – a lot of documents, but Anderson’s presentation gave some life to the principle at the heart of all of them: the whole idea of sustainability and how it can apply to Whistler.

The documents the municipality has produced in the last five years support the core values that have made Whistler successful as a resort and an attractive place to live: the village is the focal point; the natural environment is critical; development should be limited; people who work in Whistler should be able to live in Whistler. These core values are also rooted in sustainability.

We can – and should, regularly – argue over the details and how to balance the social, environmental and economic aspects of this plan for the future, but we should also recognize that there is a sound plan.

One of the interesting sidebars of all this is that any challenger to the incumbents in next November’s municipal election faces a daunting task: how to argue against this vision? There are certainly other things to challenge the incumbents on, the Olympics probably being the most popular, although by then it will be all over but the official bid submission. But challengers will likely adopt most of this vision. It’s a vision that didn’t exist five years ago; it is a product of this administration.

It’s not a Holy Grail, but it is a damn good road map.

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