Sustainability topics

Topics included in community sustainability plans

Since the late 1980s, sustainable development has emerged as an important concept for all sectors to address. Some of the greatest leaps have been made at the local scale, including through collaborative community sustainability plans. So what are cities thinking when it comes to sustainability?

Through a survey of 37 Canadian municipalities we found some interesting information regarding the topics addressed in community sustainability plans. In total there were 16 different topics that were addressed in the plans (in alphabetical order): Air, Civic Engagement, Climate Change, Ecological Diversity, Employment, Energy, Financial Security, Food Security, Housing, Land Use, Local Economy, Safety (Crime), Social Infrastructure, Transportation, Waste, and Water. The four most common topics, covered in almost all of the plans, were Transportation (97.5%), Water (97.4%), Waste (91.6%), and Air (90.3%). The four least common topics, covered in approximately half of the plans, were Housing (65.8%), Safety (Crime) (57.8%), Employment (57.6%), and Financial Security (40.7%).

Considering how the topics were broken down into the environment, social, and economic categories, the visible pattern shows a majority presence of environment-related topics, followed by social, and then followed by economic. This pattern mimics the Canadian trend of how sustainability has been viewed, though increasingly we are starting to see all three themes represented.

In addition, many of these community sustainability plans are collaborative, meaning they involve organizations from the three different sectors of public, for-profit, and not-for-profit. Some sectors are more involved than others, depending on the topic. It is most often the public sector taking the lead. When considering all topics together, both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors equally make up the second tier of involvement. When considering specific topics, the roles between sectors differ.

The below graphic shows the topics from most included to least included and how the topics are divided into the environment, social, and economic categories.

What are Canadian Cities Thinking?

This content has been derived from:

Clarke, A., Huang, L., Roseland, M., and Chen, H. (2014). Do Collaborative Planning Processes Lead to Better Outcomes? An Examination of Cross-sector Social Partnerships for Community Sustainability. Administrative Science Association of Canada conference paper and presentation.

See below for a video summary of the process and results of the Canadian survey mentioned above.

Remote video URL

Topics included in community sustainability plans– international study

Although community sustainability plans are commonly used by Canadian municipalities, there is little known about the topics addressed in international community sustainability plans. To understand the topics addressed in community sustainability plans globally, an international survey was launched in 2014 through partnership with ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI).

The survey targeted local governments who implemented community sustainability plans or similar initiatives through multi-stakeholder partnerships. The survey was provided in English, French, Spanish, and Korean and received 111 responses from six continents - Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. The largest number of responses came from North America (61.3%), followed by Asia (15.3%), and Australia (10.8%). The population size of the respondents greatly varied, with communities with under 50,000 residents (31.8%) being the most common, next to communities with a population size between 1,000,000 – 5,000,000 (19.1%), followed by medium sized communities with a population of 50,000 – 100,000 (18.2%).

In total, 16 topics were addressed in the plans (in alphabetical order): air, civic engagement, climate change, ecological diversity, employment, energy, food security, housing, land use, noise pollution, poverty alleviation, safety, social infrastructure, transportation, waste, and water. Compared to the Canadian survey, the topics of local economy and financial security were not included within the 16 topics, instead poverty alleviation and noise pollution were incorporated. It is evident that there is a prioritization of waste, energy, and water topics, with the four most common topics, including waste (84.7%), water (82.9%), energy (82.9%), and climate change (78.4%). The four least topics included in the sustainability plans were safety (crime) (27.9%), food security (27%), poverty alleviation (25.2%), and noise pollution (15.3%).

The distribution of the topics in environmental, social, and economic categories follow a similar pattern to the Canadian study. Majority of the community sustainability plans addressed environment-related issues, followed by social, and then economic topics. However, there is an evident decrease in the commonality in the topics in the respective order of environment, sustainability, social, and economic topics in the international community sustainability plans.

The infographic below shows the topics in the order of most included to least included and the division of the topics into environment, social, and economic categories.

What are International Cities Thinking?

Implications and future areas of research

The findings of the study suggest the possibility of utilizing community sustainability plans as an umbrella strategy to facilitate the community-wide implementation of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a local level. The recent trend for community sustainability plans reflects the silo effect, where plans such as climate change, energy, transportation, and affordable housing are in separation. Therefore, the usage of holistic and integrated approaches and ensuring policy coherence is critical. The popularity of community sustainability plans, as well as the integrative nature of the topics, place community sustainability plans as a potential avenue for addressing the SDGs at a local level. Furthermore, the findings of the research could be considered in implementing the finalized New Urban Agenda, as it provides the current international situation of the community sustainability plans.

This content has been derived from:

MacDonald, A., Clarke, A., Huang, L., Roseland, M., and Seitanidi, M. (2018). Multi-stakeholder Partnerships (SDG#17) as a Means of Achieving Sustainable Communities and Cities (SDG #11). Handbook of Sustainability Science and Research, World Sustainability Series,

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