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Community Steers Castlegar Sustainability Plan

On Friday the City of Castlegar changed tack on the Sustainability Process as a result of concerns from community participants. This is a letter I sent as input into why things needed to be changed. The City’s notice to the Focus Group Participants is at the end of the post.

The Integrated Community Sustainability (ICS) Planning process has been running for almost 6 months now, and the direction that is being proposed by the consultant appears to not sit well with a number of the people selected to participate in the Focus Groups.

The City succeeded in getting a group of busy individuals, business owners, managers, lecturers and other professionals to dedicate some time to consider the future of the City. I had my misgivings about the process earlier this year, I voiced them quietly, but didn’t want to make waves.

Last Tuesday night about twenty of us gave up an afternoon for a follow-up session from the initial visioning exercise in May 2009. The purpose of this session was to pick a preferred development scenario from the three presented by Urban Systems. A lot of thought had gone into this work and preparing the displays and plans. Unfortunately, there were number of people around the room who were not prepared for this direction – the distillation of the visioning process into several “Guiding Principles” that apparently lead to the development of the three colourful maps of Castlegar that sat on the table in front of us. These maps are a useful tool for the planning department and to guide city policy and bylaw development, including the OCP, but it was too big a leap from the previous meeting’s vision and energy to the OCP zoning process. I hope that staff and the consultant got some useful information from Tuesday night, there were some great suggestions made from all tables.

But the concerns of the residents, from the last meetings did not revolve around traditional town planning issues of where to put new people and how to get the cars moving around, but seemed to be more focused on community, revitalization, localization and simple transportation. People were not decrying the lack of strip-malls, big box stores, parking lagoons, car-yards, casinos or fast-food restaurants in Castlegar. Many of the issues we face relate to the existing and improving that, less on the

The three maps identified the areas most likely to undergo some type of revival or development over the next 20 years, assuming a 1% per annum growth rate, and Urban Systems used a program called CommmunityViz to analyze metrics of each scenario. This was moderately successful in showing that higher density would use less of everything.

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It feels like the City and it’s residents are being shoe-horned into the sustainability plan that Urban Systems sees for Castlegar. They are land planning experts and have crafted a process that focuses on Planning and Infrastructure, but sustainability feels like an afterthought in the process of dividing up the remaining land of, and around, Castlegar. Answers given during the meeting always led back to the “plan”, or pointed to the computer model and its arbitrary metrics attempting to recreate human behaviour choices.

ICS Planning is defined as “long-term planning, in consultation with community members, that provides direction for the community to realize sustainability objectives it has for the environmental, cultural, social and economic dimensions of its identity”.

The community, (through the focus groups and community input session) discussed and presented future visions for Castlegar, from which sustainability objectives can be distilled. But rather than turning this into a land planning exercise, the City, including the community, with the help of the Consultant should be working to identify the issues that must be addressed to achieve the community vision and presenting solutions to those in an Action Plan that has measurable strategies and outcomes.

I understand that all of this is just a step in the process toward the OCP, but the premise of managing growth when we’re barely keeping ground, and facing demographic shifts seems less than strategic. Many of the issues we face as a community, and those agreed upon by most of the Focus Group participants are not solved by land use planning or infrastructure plans. When asked to rank the indicators for the impact of development, I struggled to choose any of them, because the existing City and its problems by far surmount anything that a 1% per annum population growth could do to “impact” air quality or some other metric, particularly when it is hard to imagine a 1% growth being sustained over 20 years! I’d hope that a strategic look at future scenarios would openly acknowledge the potential for a decreased population and possibly even less economic activity as well. Regardless, the aim is for a community that is vibrant and livable, whatever the circumstances we face.

Council should realize that the value from the consultants preparing this information and facilitating these sessions is excellent, but the value of the community’s time and energy should not be underestimated. The City has received about 240 man-hours of input from some of the smartest people in the community, who spent an afternoon visioning and pondering the future of the City, and another poring over maps of the City and offering suggestions to the consultant and the City on how to improve the planning. I was there, and I think it is fair to say that most everyone chose to be there because they care about the people and the future of Castlegar and the Region. This is some seriously valuable time and energy from the community, that looks to be nudged to the sidelines as the development maps get rolled out.

[ad#125-right]Aside from that, I felt that the groups spoke loud and clear about some of the ideas:

  • Encourage multi family development
  • Encourage Mixed-Use development at nodes
  • Fix the existing before worrying about growth
  • Rezone areas of town that could revitalize and densify
  • Don’t develop the Horcroft Farm area
  • Transportation is still the missing piece
  • Build regional strategies, particularly acknowledging
  • No Commercial Zone at the airport.

Planning is at the heart of a municipality’s business, but sustainability is at the heart of a community. The City asked for the community’s input, as required by the Gas Tax funding – the question now is what is the City going to do with the input?

Email from the City Planning Department

Much feedback was received from the Focus Groups and Council members regarding the meetings Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.   Although we had some excellent exchanges during the meetings, we have also heard many concerns about the direction of the plan and the process.  Accordingly, we have decided to take a step back and make some changes to the planning process.

Three main themes have emerged from the feedback regarding the meetings:

  • That the 1st Focus Group meeting in the spring generated an incredible amount of thoughtful and informed comments from the leaders of this community. This was not reflected in the 2 page summary (Guiding Principles).
  • That this is not the appropriate time to create development scenarios. Rather, it is the time to use the valuable information received during the 1st Focus Group meeting to craft a comprehensive document outlining the recommended goals, objectives and policy on a variety of topics.  This document should be used to assist planning and policy for the next 20 years. In terms of the Official Community Plan, the information in this document that is relevant to an Official Community Plan should help guide its policy.
  • That it is not reasonable that the consultants simply refer to the notes from the 1st Focus Group meeting several months from now when they are putting together the policy statements of the Official Community Plan.  The Focus group members want to use the information they provided and have a hands-on role in how it is interpreted and compiled into suggested goals, objectives, and policy.

City staff is forming a Steering Committee to provide better direction to consultants and to manage the input from Focus Groups, citizens and other governmental agencies.  The Steering Committee intends to review work done to date and craft an action plan and timeline for the completion of the ICSP project.  Peter Holton has generously offered to facilitate the Steering Committee.  We will be following up to the Focus Groups and Council Joint Committee with this action plan and timeline after we convene the Steering Committee.

Once again, thank you for your valuable input.  This feedback will help ensure that the final output reflects the time, effort and ideas that you are contributing.  If you have anything to add, please do not hesitate to forward your comments.

Final Comments

This change in direction sets the stage for further community involvement in determining the future direction and policies of the City of Castlegar. It shows dedication to the root purpose of the project, to map out a path toward community sustainability. Thank you City Staff and Council for you consideration of this matter, it can take courage to change direction on a project of this size, but doing this right is more important than getting it done.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

3 thoughts on “Community Steers Castlegar Sustainability Plan

  1. Mike, I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know how much I adore your blog. I grew up in the Kootenays and went to the Selkirk campus in castlegar for 2 years – I love to hear about the City of Castlegar doing exciting things in community building and sustainability.

    Thanks for the updates.

  2. The email from the City is encouraging. It shows that with pressure from the grassroots, they can be held in check by the people when the people refuse to be bulldosed.
    Keep up the good work, Mike, along with your colleagues. Castlegar is lucky to have you on our side.

  3. I think it’s important for cities and communities to have plans for Sustainability. I attended Arizona State University and they have a great sustainability program. From promoting local foods to alternative energies, they did it all. If you are interested in studying it, I suggest that school.

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