Citizen-Led, Staff-Facilitated and Politically Innovative: West Vancouver’s “Working Group Model” recognized by the United Nations for community engagement leadership

Note to Reader:

The mountains that form the spectacular backdrop to the City of Vancouver backdrop are where several events for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralymic Games took place. The District of West Vancouver is a community of less than 50,000 people on the edge of the ocean in the middle of a rainforest, surrounded by glaciertopped mountains and the burgeoning metropolis of 2.1 million people that make up Metro Vancouver.

In April 2011, the District of West Vancouver was recognized as a Global Green City by the United Nations.  West Vancouver received an award for its model for citizen engagement and for key projects and initiatives which have resulted from citizen-led working groups. Such initiatives include: energy retro-fits of homes (Cool Neighbourhoods), water meter installation and marine foreshore restoration.

In May 2013, this noteworthy recognition was featured at a workshop organized by BC Hydro PowerSmart’s Conservation Community of Practice. The purpose of these annual workshops is to create an opportunity for community leaders from around the province, engaged in conservation, to come together to learn with and from each other. West Vancouver Councillor Trish Panz spoke about her involvement in the Cool Neighbourhoods program.

Two years ago, the West Vancouver delegation to the United Nations comprised (former) Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Councillor Panz, community leader Tarah Stafford and Stephen Jenkins (the District’s former Manager of Sustainability, Environment and Healthy Communities). 

The story below extracts from their joint presentation at the Sixth Forum on Human Settlements, held in New York City;  and connects the dots to two other related and relevant accomplishments: the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning Process in West Vancouver; and the rainwater component of the Metro Vancouver region’s Integrated Liquid Waste and Resource Management Plan.

Local Government Decision-Makers & Community Champions Align Efforts to Implement Change on-the-Ground

“The best protection of public and private assets happens when political leaders, professionals and volunteer experts come together. West Vancouver’s mission is to inspire excellence and lead by example. We are honoured to have been recognized for that,” stated Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones when it was announced in April 2011 that the District of West Vancouver was the recipient of a Medal Certificate recgnizing it as a Global Green City.

Doing Business Differently

“Five and a half years ago I ran against a popular incumbent Mayor. I won in a victory that no one saw coming. I am almost at the end of my second term as Mayor and in that time we have radically shifted our political decision making and community engagement approach,” Mayor Goldsmith-Smith Jones told the United Nations audience. She was Mayor from December 2005 until December 2011.

“I inherited an anachronistic system of Advisory Committees. We as a community were governing by rote. I suggested that we move away from this old fashioned approach (and)  we tried something new.”

“Council defined our top public policy questions ‐ things like sustainable residential development and how do we adopt a climate action plan. We handed these priorities to citizen led working groups. We wanted these citizens to begin writing our public policy for us. And they have.”

Implementing the Working Group Model

“I jumped at the chance to be part of Pam’s fresh approach to civic involvement. In the early days ‐ five short years ago ‐ we did not realize we were part of reinventing government,” continued Councillor Trish Panz, elected in 2008 as an outcome of her working group involvement.

“To fully grasp that citizens had been given authority to shape public policy was unexpected and I was not alone in wondering what to do with that opportunity. One thing our working group members had in common was that previous encounters with Council had been intimidating and adversarial, and left little room for creative solutions.”

“We forged ahead though, and recommended to Council that its top three priorities should be: 1) Conserving our forested upper lands; 2) Protecting our foreshore; and 3) Taking action on climate change”

“It is truly remarkable that this inversion of how government works ‐ where politicians lead by handing over the reins to its citizens ‐ has resulted in all three of those initiatives coming to fruition,” emphasized Trish Panz.

Changing Role of Local Government Staff

“The role for many West Vancouver staff has changed from being an enforcer of the rules, to that of a facilitator who is encouraged to work with the community’s ideas and foster innovative solutions with our residents. This is in large part due to the change in the governance model,” added Stephen Jenkins.

“In West Vancouver business as usual has changed for staff. No longer do we seek direction only from bylaws, policies and procedures. Instead we are encouraged to work with our residents, people passionate about their community and committed to a positive future. Our elected officials have not only been instrumental in creating the framework that allows this to happen, but they continue to ensure that it does.”

Cool Neighbourhoods

“One innovation, Cool Neighbourhoods, is building low carbon neighbourhoods one ‘hood’ at a time,” stated Trish Panz in 2013 when reflecting on the significance of Global Green City recognition at the BC Hydro PowerSmart workshop;. “This is an outcome of a partnership between Trish Stafford, a community champion, and our Climate Action Working Group. Cool Neighbourhoods, now part of the Cool North Shore initiative, is leading our community aspirations for low carbon solutions; and more importantly, learning and innovating along the way, while building more connected and resilient neighbourhoods.

To Learn More:

To download a copy of the complete presentation by the four West Vancouver representatives at the Sixth Forum on Human Settlements, click on A West Vancouver Model of Local Governance Citizen Lead, Staff Facilitated and Politically Innovative.

To learn more more about Cool North Shore and Cool Neighbourhoods, click here. Cool North Shore is a citizen-created and driven non-profit society. The primary focus of Cool Neighbourhoods is to support homeowners in reducing and conserving energy use in their homes.

Prototype for West Vancouver’s Working Group Model

“West Vancouver’s Working Group Model had its genesis in the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Working Group, appointed by West Vancouver Council immediately after Mayor Goldsmith-Jones took office following the November 2005 election. Less than three years later, the West Vancouver model was adopted by Metro Vancouver when it appointed the advisory Liquid Waste Management Plan Reference Panel in April 2008,” states Kim Stephens, Executive Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainabillity in British Columbia. He was Vice-Chair of the Clovelly-Caulfeild Working Group and Chair of the Metro Vancouver Reference Panel (2008 – 2010).

A Pilot Project Under the Official Community Plan

“The Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning Process was undertaken as a pilot project under the terms of the Official Community Plan, focusing particularly on the ‘built form and neighbourhood character’ policies. Council designated the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning Process as a means of identifying changes to Council policies and bylaws. The experience gained and the lessons learned then became input into a Community Dialogue on housing choice and character,” continues Kim Stephens.

He elaborates that: “In terms of community engagement, the Clovelly-Caulfeild pilot can be seen as the bridge from the old way of doing business to the new in West Vancouver. This was the prototype for the Working Group Model. Significant lessons were learned. Once local government staff fully embrace the notion of ‘partnering with community champions’, for example, it is breath-taking just how much can be accomplished in terms of developing good public policy”.

The Key Lesson Learned

The Chair of the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Working Group, distinguished former newspaper editor and publisher Paddy Sherman, adds: “But the ultimate challenge is always for a Council to maintain commitment, political will and momentum to follow through and make the needed changes to policy and regulations.”

“Councils and staff change, perspective is lost, history repeats itself and the whole process has to start again, while the unique assets that were to be saved continue to dwindle–irreplaceably. The key lesson we learned is that if  a Council doesn’t quickly seize an opportunity presented to save elements that make West Vancouver so special, that opportunity will likely be lost forever,” concludes Paddy Sherman.

To Learn More:

The Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning process is documented in a Summary Report and set of four supporting Discussion Papers. The latter were used as information tools during the planning process. To download copies, click on:

“Because it is so well-documented, others can learn from the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning Process, in particular our efforts to highlight the economic case for a design with nature approach to property development,” observes David Carter, a member of the Working Group and author of two of the four Discussion Papers. He is a former Director-General in the federal government, and was on the staff of the Crombie Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront (1988-1992).

“The Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning Process was a little seed that yielded some sound ideas for environmental and neighbourhood protection, including how to employ the Development Permit Areas tool to achieve ‘design with nature’ policy objectives. Some of those ideas have sprouted elsewhere, such as in Development Permit Areas for Climate Action, a provincial guidance document.”

“The Clovelly-Caufeild neigbhourhood was also the first North Shore neighbourhood to step forward and participate in the UBC Tree Canopy Interception Research Project. This research has quantified and yielded a science-based understanding regarding the benefits of maintaining a tree canopy in the urban environment,” concludes David Carter.

Tree Canopy Rainfall Interception Monitoring Stations at five locations in the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood of West Vancouver

Metro Vancouver’s Reference Panel: An Adaptation of the West Vancouver Working Group Model

Adopted in May 2010,  Metro Vancouver region’s  Integrated Liquid Waste & Resource Management Plan, established the framework for moving beyond regulatory compliance to transitioning the Metro Vancouver region to an approach where management of liquid discharges and rainwater resources is planned and implemented within a broader, sustainability framework.

“Think about it – the Reference Panel has influenced the waste committee, the finance committee and the way we make decisions overall. It is great,” reflected West Vancouver Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones when the Metro Vancouver Board adopted the Integrated Plan.

When the Reference Panel was appointed in 2008, Mayor Goldsmith-Jones observed that “the essence of the West Vancouver experience is that the community benefits when there is collaboration and a true partnership between local government staff and community members in a working group”.

A Regulatory Driver for Municipal Action

“The rainwater management component of the region’s Integrated Plan is an over-arching framework approved by the Minister of Environment. It provides a regulatory driver for municipalities to tackle property development issues of the nature raised in the Clovelly-Caulfeild Neighbourhood Planning Process. It just requires political will to move from awareness of the ‘need for action’ to taking action at the neighbourhood scale,” concludes Kim Stephens.

To Learn More:

To access the homepage for the Reference Panel and read the complete set of stories about what was accomplished during the period 2008 through 2010, click on Metro Vancouver Liquid Waste Management Reference Panel.