How does a group of diverse community representatives start with an agreed upon vision for future community improvement and then turn ideas into tangible results through a planning process? Once community stakeholders have created a set of objectives aligning with their vision and goals for community improvement, the community must set about designing a revised organization and structure to move forward with the development of a plan that will minimize chaos and unintended consequences. “Planning” could be defined as creating a process that allows a group of people, such as in a community, to take action that will result in an outcome that would otherwise not have come about.
When thinking about planning for a community, maintaining and even increasing the assets available to people living in the future is an important operating principle. When developing a plan to improve the local area, you can see your whole community as an enterprise unto itself – one that serves its customers – all citizens – by satisfying human needs. By building your capital (e.g., natural, built, social, cultural, financial, political, and human), you are increasing your ability to satisfy human needs now and for future generations.
A strategy is a way of describing how you are going to get things done. It tries to broadly answer the question, “How do we get there from here?” Since a strategy is something that drives or governs a set of actions intended to accomplish a specific purpose, deciding which actions are the best ones will depend on the parameters of your project, the circumstances and details of your environment, and the abilities of and resources available to your team. The action you take is the skillful implementation of an appropriate strategy. So, in the planning process, action is the embodiment of strategy: it is the doing, the movement, the physical energy that drives completion of goals and objectives.
Strategic planning is important because it provides a reference point with a detailed time line and assignment of accountability for accomplishing tasks. A strategic planning process that is preceded by the formulation of community-identified vision, goals, and objectives lends credibility. A strategic plan shows members of the community that the complex, community-based program they have created is well ordered and dedicated to getting things done. The extent of the planning process will serve as a check that no detail is overlooked and provide ample opportunity for community members to understand what is and isn’t possible for the community to do – focusing on actions that are feasible and realistic. And finally, a well-orchestrated strategic planning process provides accountability to people both in the community and outside because all measurable activities are documented and evaluated. This will increase the chances that people will do what needs to be done and collaborators will follow through with their commitments.
As the strategic planning process progresses it is imperative to keep an eye on what I refer to as the 3 Cs of sustainability. It is extremely important to understand the many, diverse Connections in capital assets and human-nature interactions associated with action planning so Choices made do not produce unintended Consequences. This is the number one principle of any planning process and is what makes the planning “strategic.”
Strategies the environment can sustain and that citizens want and can afford will generally be quite different from community to community. Moreover, strategic planning for a sustainable community is continually adjusting to meet the social and economic needs of its residents while preserving the environment’s ability to support it. However, there are several processes that communities seem to execute in common. These include:
- Create a shared vision of sustainability;
- Identify impacts and priorities;
- Assess current sustainability initiatives;
- Develop strategies, goals, and actions to improve sustainability performance;
- Develop a business case for pursuing sustainability;
- Identify and select improvement projects that meet the chosen sustainability framework criteria for assessing a project;
- Develop metrics and reporting; and
- Communicate to community members and encourage their participation in the overall effort.
To make use of the information we possess about how communities function and how stakeholders can choose alternative paths toward improvements, we must be continually aware of basic factors affecting how our human and natural worlds operate. That is exactly what assimilates the idea of sustainability into strategic action planning. We have learned that economic development (the foundation of today’s globalization pattern) that is sustainable must be both environmentally sound and shared fairly among all societal members. Members of a strategically planned sustainable community realize that long term economic viability is not only about scientific and technical information guiding the planning process, but also must be supported by moral and ethical concerns and decisions.
Sustainable Community Development (SCD) has emerged as a compelling alternative to conventional approaches to development: a participatory, holistic and inclusive planning process that leads to positive, concrete changes in communities by creating employment, reducing poverty, restoring the health of the natural environment, stabilizing local economies, and increasing community control. The economic component involves the sustainable management of human, material and financial resources to meet the material needs of as many people as possible. A project is economically sustainable if the goods produced or services provided adequately meet the actual needs of the population through the efficient use of the materials, energy and human resources required to produce them.
The social component involves making sure similar opportunities in the present are also available to future communities for continually improving quality of life. Specifically, it means meeting the needs of a population in terms of health, education, individual aspirations and safety, and encouraging healthy lifestyles (physical activity, diet, hygiene, consumption) and cultural dialogue and sharing (language, arts, religion, traditions) so as to foster the emergence of a sense of individual freedom and collective responsibility in existing human settlements. The social component also involves taking into account demographic trends (age, gender, cultural communities) in society’s make-up and organization to ensure a balance in society and the longevity of communities.
The environmental component involves the maintenance and sustainable use of all natural resources, and the preservation of biological diversity and ecosystems. Among other things, this means meeting the needs of the natural environment, which implies careful use of natural resources to ensure their sustainability, and committing to sound management of human activity to ensure it does not overtax the environment.
Strategic actions are best developed by taking a system’s approach to understanding, forecasting, and decision-making. Only through the use of a sustainability framework (e.g., the Natural Step, 3-overlapping circles model, Triple Bottom Line) applied consistently throughout the SCD project can a community be assured that it is incorporating the concepts of sustainability during its process for systemic strategic planning.