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Sustainability Comes to the Canadian Prairie: Lessons and Caveats from the Town of Okotoks, Alberta

by Ernest J. Yanarella


Nestled along the Sheep River valley in farm country some 20 kilometers south of Calgary, Alberta, the quaint Canadian town of Okotoks presents an interesting study in the advancement of sustainability. The winner of multiple awards—including the Federal Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Communities Award (2000), the Alberta Emerald Award for Government Institutions (1999 and 2002), and the International Dubai Award for Top 100 Practices (2000)—Okotoks’s sustainable community program, called Sustainable Okotoks, has attracted attention and emulation from small towns and communities across Canada and the United States. Town representatives note that, however committed it may be to retaining its small-town environment built upon a village concept, it is a community and a population on the move—with exciting and evolving plans for enriching its heritage and expanding within the bounds of its water supply. The town motto, Okotoks: Historic Past, Sustainable Future, serves as warm homage to the past and bold promise for the future.

Fields, prairies, and mountains surrounding Okotoks.
Okotoks is located on the prairies east of the Canadian Rockies.
Photo courtesy Alberta WebRide.

In early August 2005, I undertook a field study of Okotoks’s community sustainability program. In the course of this investigation, I interviewed key public officials and town planners, spoke with everyday citizens and community activists, reviewed an extensive array of the town’s primary documents and other materials, and toured key sites comprising some of the major components of Sustainable Okotoks. In this article, I seek to clarify some of the strong points and rough edges of this initiative and then to draw lessons and offer caveats about its possible futures.

Sustainable Okotoks: Native Resources, Promising Developments, and Unresolved Problems

The official story of Sustainable Okotoks is the story of an innovative and farseeing municipal manager and an in-house planning team with a superior vision of the future. It is also a tale of a small town at the crossroads.

Comparatively, it is a narrative about the distinctive resources of Canadian political culture that are often found in such short supply by its friendly neighbor and vaunted superpower to its south.

Okotoks's famous "big rock."
"Okotak" is the Blackfoot word for "big rock," and the town is named after these jutting rocks on the Canadian prairie.
Photo courtesy Alberta WebRide.

The origins of Sustainable Okotoks can be traced to the appearance and shaping hand of Okotoks municipal manager Will Pearce, who joined the town in the mid-1980s , exerting increasing influence over its contours and direction. Working within the confines and possibilities opened by the town's need to update its General Development Plan and accompanying Land-use Bylaws, Pearce took the pressures flowing from significant population growth over the preceding five years, combined with the opportunity presented by the town's regularized planning schedule, to fashion a visioning and planning process that would balance town initiative and citizen participation into a program that became the model for other small towns across Canada.

One of the most critical decisions affirmed by the wider community was the decision to establish a "growth envelope" around Okotoks, limiting town population growth to 25,000-30,000 inhabitants. The population cap on this growth boundary was based on calculating the maximum carrying capacity of its water supply from the Sheep River. The limit was chosen after reviewing various other means of imposing population and growth caps—including Rees and Wackernagel’s “ecological footprint" analysis. With carrying capacity integrated into the MDP and Land-use Bylaws, planning mechanisms were put in place that permitted the town council and administration to achieve control over the overall direction of future development, as well as shape the location of industrial, commercial, and residential sites by imposing limits on the size of infrastructure allowed in those new development zones.

The Municipal Development Plan, titled The Legacy Plan, outlines in great detail the many dimensions constituting the town sustainability design, including:

  • Downtown development
  • Transportation
  • Parks and pathways
  • Urban forests
  • Shoreline and escarpment areas
  • Commercial and industrial development
  • Community facilities
  • Schools
  • Financial/utility programs
  • Urban/rural interface
Yellow and red multifamily homes.
Color is used liberally on the multifamily homes in Okotoks.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

It proved to be the starting point for any appreciation of the ambitions of this sustainability plan. For a small town of 11,000 inhabitants, the MDP exhibits great sophistication and promise as a framework for community sustainability. It also sets targets to evaluate the success of the plan and to assay whether it is being properly implemented. Among the list of targets specified, two stand out:

1. Increasing the town's industrial/commercial assessment base to 22 percent of the total tax assessment at build-out to ensure, among other things, that the town's sustainability program can be adequately financed over the long term.

2. A goal of 30 percent non-traditional dwelling units to foster diversification of housing options that would allow single-parent families, unmarried individuals, senior citizens, and lower-income families and wage earners to find a place in the sustainable community of 2020 and beyond.

In partnership with the Municipal Development Plan, the Town of Okotoks’s Land-use Bylaws serve not only to fill out the details and implications of the municipal development blueprint, but also function as a set of land-use regulations and building restrictions. The Bylaws strengthen the hands of town planners and administrators in their effort to ensure that the "growth envelope" established by the cap on population would not be compromised by mounting population growth and commercial pressures.

Sign: Welcome to Okotoks, Inc., 1904, Pop. 11,664.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Day One

I drove into Okotoks on Tuesday morning, August 9th, greeted by the signpost at the town entry way on Highway 2A. As I entered the town, I was surprised by the significant residential housing development apparent on the outskirts of Okotoks and the surrounding commercial sprawl of this small Alberta community of 15,000. Much of the housing stock was new or built within the last five years. Architecturally, it struck me as beautiful, energy-efficient, and largely free of the row upon row of ticky-tacky designs that folksinger Malvina Reynolds castigated in song and lyric. Even apartment complexes, rich in primary colors, were aesthetically pleasing.

The surrounding commercial landscape, on the other hand, was something else.

What seemed lacking was a noticeable land-use plan that would match the community's commitment to a no-growth policy once it builds out to the 25,000-30,000 population estimated to be the maximum carrying capacity of its water supply.

Then I tried to find downtown Okotoks. Driving into the town, I was urged by road signs along Highway 2A to "experience downtown." That proved no mean feat. As Highway 2A morphed into Northridge and then Southridge Drive, I had real problems finding the historic downtown. It took two local citizens—one a Tim Horton's employee, the other literally a soccer mom—to offer directions that accurately took me to the town "center."

Fastfood restaurants at the edge of town.
Fast food restaurants at the edge of town.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Once there it took 5-10 minutes to track down the Town of Okotoks offices and the community's library. I learned from Alyssa Berry, the new corporate communications officer, that during June 2005 Okotoks had suffered three floods of the Sheep River along the downtown's Elizabeth Street and Riverside Drive and South Railway Street that damaged its underground sewer line below the river. As a result, fairly extensive—and expensive—repairs were underway.

Meanwhile, I was told, a major upgrade of the Okotoks wastewater treatment facilities at the end of the downtown area was taking place. This wastewater enhancement was being performed through a partnership between the local government and EPCOR, a private firm that would take over management of the community's wastewater operations once improvements were completed. Ms. Berry also informed me of Drake Landing, the first completely solar residential development in Canada that was being constructed northeast of town, along 32nd Street. Along with the recycling center, those two sites were on my docket for afternoon stops.

Town of Okotoks historic building.
Town of Okotoks hostoric town offices.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

The afternoon visit to Okotoks’s Recycling Depot was eye-opening and heartening. When I arrived there, I found the facility a beehive of activity. Six cars were in the parking lot and their drivers and in some cases families were busy unloading, separating, and depositing plastics, glass, paper (mostly newspaper), and sometimes cardboard. Simultaneously, town trucks were unloading newspaper and cardboard, which were then put into recycling machines (a glass crusher, a cardboard compactor, and a newspaper bailer) and transformed into shattered glass, four-foot square bales in the case of cardboard, or into large bins of shredded paper. The paper is eventually sent to nearby Calgary or Edmonton, where it is made into insulation or the paper cover on wallboard; the cardboard is shipped to Tacoma, Washington, where it is recycled into various uses; and the glass is trucked to a glass recycling plant in Vancouver, B.C., where it serves a variety of purposes—including as a wood substitute.

Darryl McDonald, the recycling center's manager. appeared in the parking lot while I was busy taking photographs. Obviously curious about my actions, he asked my name and what my interest was. I readily answered his questions. When he determined that my purpose was educational and benign, he offered to give me a tour of the facility.

Okotoks Recycling Depot.
Okotoks Recycling Depot, the hub of Okotoks' sustainability initiatives.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Mr. McDonald became manager of the recycling program two months ago after working in garbage collection. It was obvious that he was proud of the operation, especially so because of the weight local recycling took off the town's landfill. According to McDonald, residents recycled over 1,500 tons—120 tons more than the previous year, of paper products, plastics, and glass that would otherwise have been buried in the landfill in 2004. Since the town does not pick up recyclables at the household or commercial curb, the Recycling Depot depends upon the 3-r ("reduce, reuse, recycle") ethic of local citizens to individually separate out recyclables and personally transport them to the facility. In the case of plastic receptacles, the recycling center requires residents to remove labels and clean them before depositing them in appropriate canisters onsite.

My observation was that Okotoks citizens were very conscientious about recycling—at least those who I witnessed dropping off recyclable products. By doing so, these collective efforts save them $25,000 to $30,000 that it would otherwise cost for the depot to hire another worker to do this labor.

Recycling mural.
This Okotoks Recycles mural is located in the town's Recycling Depot.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Okotoks is serious about recycling. City garbage collection workers are bound by local regulations to pick up no more than three bags of garbage per week from each residence. The public information message justifying this ordinance underlines the point that if residents are having a hard time living within this limit, they should look to recycling to solve this situation.

Although the wastewater treatment facility adjoined the recycling operations on 32nd Street, I decided to forego the plant until the following day due to the heavy truck traffic in and out of the area. Instead, encouraged by the my conversation with Mr. McDonald, I decided to drive a couple miles up 32nd Street to investigate Drake Landing, the neighborhood touted as the Canada's first all-encompassing solar energy housing development.

Drake Landing sign.
So far, the only development at Drake Landing is the sign, though even that is quite promising.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

While the sign heralding the development site of the new neighborhood was impressive, the site itself was only in the incipient stages of layout and construction. The few houses that were almost completely built seemed undistinguished architecturally and the density and layout of the row housing suggested little in the way of land-use innovation or novelty. The project, however, stands out in two respects: 1) in the primary and secondary solar energy technologies that are designed into each home; and 2) in the coordinated way in which thermal energy is used to tie renewable energy production of the individual houses into a whole.

The most disturbing thing about the development is that it is located amidst a number of other conventional housing developments (e.g., Crystalridge and Crystal Green) several miles northeast of the downtown center of Okotoks. Given the extensive land surrounding Okotoks historically given over to farming, Okotoks is both blessed and cursed with plenty of flat land in which to expand. As a result, there seems to be little incentive to build housing or mixed-use buildings contiguous with the downtown area. Large housing tracts are increasingly taking their entropic course and becoming clustered satellites (suburbs?) of the old town center. It has been an American (and Canadian) truism that where residential growth goes, commercial development and large churches are sure to follow. It will take powerful community unity and stringent, legally unchallengeable zoning and other local regulations to prevent this land-use pattern from recurring.

Okotoks Community Library.
The Okotoks Community Library.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

The spread of commercial development of Okotoks to the south, and residential development to west, north, and northeast of the historical downtown, points to the absence of a transportation component in the town's sustainable development strategy. Small as it is—or rather has been—Okotoks has not seen the need for any kind of public transit to curb or at least complement the private automobile. Yet as Okotoks’s population spreads out, some kind of public bus service tying the town together will become necessary. However, there are no guarantees that public transportation will be popular or even patronized because the residential areas that it would likely tie the downtown to are, for the most part, predominantly populated with new, young, and upwardly mobile individuals and families—which is to say precisely the constituency least likely to be lured to bus riding.

Examining the policy lay of the land during this first day, I concluded that I would be much happier if there were more links in Okotoks’s sustainable development program to agencies in its civil society. No independent group or organization seems to have been the catalyst to its community sustainability venture, as has been the case in other North American towns and cities. The closest is a set of references to the Healthy Okotoks Coalition, which may or may not still be active. Sustainable Okotoks thus lacks any strong and enduring community-based check or monitor on local government activities. As interest group and other political pressures mount for thin or cosmetic sustainability passing itself off as realistic adjustments to the apparent juggernaut of continuing explosive residential and commercial growth, Okotoks will lack a powerful and vigilant community agency to thwart these assaults.

A key player in the ultimate outcome of this energetic and earnest local sustainability project will be youthful demographic group of the population being lured to Okotoks and the mature and aging adult demographic group that was there at the inception of Sustainable Okotoks.

Sorting recyclables in Okotoks.
Sorting recyclables is a manual process at the Depot.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

If the younger constituency is drawn to temptations to make Okotoks over into a modern city with urban attractions and amusements, it is likely to prove a negative force in maintaining the project's overriding commitment to a "no-growth" policy once the carrying capacity of its water supply is reached at around 25,000-30,000 residents. If the commitment of the aging adult population flags or is overwhelmed by the influx of young professionals seeking an urban scene and entertainment hub that approximates a mini-Calgary, all bets are off on the realization of Okotoks’s local sustainability vision.

By the end of the first day, I remained convinced that these negative tendencies are only possibilities, though imaginable ones. My hope was that the goodwill and dedication manifested in the enthusiasm of solid waste services foreman Darryl McDonald and the practicality and persistence vis-à-vis the Okotoks sustainability vision demonstrated by local citizens bagging their three units of garbage per week and driving their separated recyclables to the facility, will prove enough.

Day Two

Certainly one of the bright spots of the Okotoks sustainability initiatives is the progress in advancing a routinely underdeveloped component of overall sustainability—i.e., cultural sustainability. On my second day, I developed a real appreciation for the small, but palpable, strides in this realm. One manifestation of cultural sustainability is the Cultural Station, located in the former Okotoks railway station. Even though the train does not stop there anymore, local artists and crafts people do—showing their artwork in viewings publicized through various outlets to the entire community. During early August, the Cultural Station was promoting the Art Walk, an unguided tour of downtown businesses. In addition to acquainting tourists and residents with the talent of local artisans, the tour draws them to businesses in the downtown core. Unfortunately, some months there are not enough artists or local interest. These activities, though, are critical to the establishment of a culture of sustainability (local arts and crafts, public education, community celebratory practices) for robust and long-lasting public policy innovations.

Okotoks Recycling Depot.
The Crystalridge subdivision is typical of new, front-loaded residential development that is becoming more common in Okotoks.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Having missed the opportunity the day before to visit the Okotoks Heritage House next door to the Cultural Station, I made it my first stop today. One unexpected dividend was the chance to study an impressive exhibit of photos and text reviewing the impact of the three floods that took place along the Sheep River valley, hitting Okotoks and other communities along its path. As one panel revealed, the breaching of the Sheep River's banks had occurred five times previously in the twentieth century (1902, 1915, 1932, 1963, and 1995). The latest floods engulfed the downtown corridor and for a time even closed off traffic to the Southridge Drive commercial domain. Despite the long legacy of flooding and the recent calamity, which resulted in $5 million in infrastructure damage alone, no long-term solution has surfaced.

Instead, most public work has focused on clearing and restoring the river's channel, replacing the sewage line that was ruptured by the flood, and cleaning up the mud and other detritus swept onto public and commercial property in the downtown district. The visual and informational exhibit underlined the fact that the waterway that sustains the lives of those who inhabit its valley also periodically threatens its economic well-being and public health and safety.

Three-story condo building near downtown.
Condo development near downtown Okotoks.
Photo by Wayne and Denise Chaulk.

The second display was "Okotoks: Gateway to the Oilfield, 1913-1952." Through old photographs, memorabilia, records, and other textual material, the exhibit highlighted the central place of Okotoks in the discovery and exploitation of oil reserves in the Turner Valley, to the town's west. The Turner Valley oil reservoir turned Okotoks into a crucial trade and transportation hub—one that brought considerable economic progress, producing a stratum of local business people who became wealthy and influential scions of the town and region. When these nearby fields began to peter out, more extensive and profitable oil stores discovered in Leduc and Redwater overtook Turner Valley , quickly erasing virtually all traces of its positive impact upon Okotoks's economy.

The high point of an already rewarding visit to the Heritage House was a lively and highly informative conversation I had with “Molly Green,” a local resident and environmentalist who was visiting the museum. (The young woman called “Molly Green” preferred anonymity. Her actual name has been changed to respect her wishes.) Intrigued by my purpose in coming to Okotoks, she expressed her latent, but rising anxieties about the likely fate of Okotoks’s sustainability program.

The Okotoks Heritage House.
The Okotoks Heritage House is the original Welch House, the town's most famous of residences.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Interestingly, Ms. Green's doubts and apprehensions squared with many of my tentative findings. In response to my worries over the depth and staying power of the public's commitment to Okotoks’s sustainability vision, she indicated that she sensed increasing disenchantment among residents over the long-term future of Sustainable Okotoks. Her ambivalence toward the course of the sustainability initiative and the prospects for realizing its objectives was influenced and chastened by recent developments in High River, Okotoks’s historic rival in the region.

According to her, High River had been the area's dominant economic force in the area, benefiting from a larger and more durable public infrastructure than Okotoks. Its more mature political and civic base, Ms. Green noted, was evidenced in its quicker and more sophisticated response to the June 2005 area floods. High River's problem, according to her, is that in recent years its political direction has come under the sway of pro-development interests that have managed to strike deals with city officials that now threaten to turn High River into what sociologist Harvey Molotch has termed a "growth machine," by unseating controlled growth incumbents in the town's planning and administrative office. She derived some hope from the emergence of land trust organizations in Okotoks (e.g., the Sheep River Land Trust) that may blunt efforts at converting increasingly high agricultural land values into land speculator dreams of expanding residential tracts and commercial developments. Her major fear, though, is that land trust groups are not enough alone to stem the tide of housing and business development rampant northeast and south of the downtown corridor.

By contrast, Okotoks corporate communications specialist Alyssa Berry appeared far more sanguine about the prospects of the town's future. The progress of the sustainability vision, which originated with Will Pearce, is on track, she says, and the goals and limits of the master plan to restrict further population growth above 25,000 to 30,000 inhabitants are well understood by local citizens, land developers, and construction company owners. Since the plan's ratification by the town council and mayor in 1998, the Town of Okotoks has surveyed residents about their feelings and attitudes toward means and goals of the program. With each new survey, strong public support for Sustainable Okotoks has either held firm or increased almost without exception. For Ms. Berry, the checks and constraints built into the sustainability plan are sufficiently well entrenched in the local community that the erosion of community sentiment is unthinkable.

Dislpay: Okotoks - Gateway to the Oilfield, 1913 - 1950s.
A display on Okotoks's history in the Heritage House.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Whether these views amount to complacency, hubris, or reasoned self-confidence borne of solid evidence is uncertain. As a political scientist and long-time community activist, I will say that the capacity for the future to surprise us when we least expect it is great—and alarming—in personal life and in politics. Such foreknowledge should prompt public officials to work hard now to build up reserves of public goodwill and support for Sustainable Okotoks, and to find ways to root its animating purposes in autonomous community organizations, lest misfortune happen. Many a well-intentioned public program has been overturned by outrageous fortune and a tenacious, well-financed, and single-minded coalition of private interests identifying its shortsighted vistas as the common good.

The self-assured public officers of Okotoks would do well to begin running scared and looking over their shoulders for signs of eroding political support and rising oppositional elements generated by changing demographics and conflicting interests and cultural lifestyles. They should, in the process, find more fortified and dependable means to assure that—as the cap on population growth determined by its water supply's carrying capacity approaches—the majority support in the community and on the town council is not replaced by formidable political alliances and an alternative vision that supplants the grand vision of Sustainable Okotoks. For not only is the adage that "misfortune happens" an enduring one; no less long lived is the maxim that "the work of politics is never done."

The Okotoks Sustainability Strategy: Lessons and Caveats

One of the ironies of Okotoks early twentieth century economic history is that for nearly four decades it was the gateway to the nearby Turner Valley oilfields. From 1913 to the early 1950s, Okotoks’s economy was heavily invested in supplying and transporting a range of oil rig equipment and secondary products to the fields. As a result, its economic fortunes were importantly tied to the vicissitudes of the regional—and international—oil industry. Today it is forging a way for its citizens and more recently for Calgary, the metropole to its north, to move beyond diminishing fossil fuels and profligate energy and other natural resource consumption into the Age of Sustainability.

Oil rig display.
A model oil rig like those found around Okotoks in the early 20th century.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

Much of the original enthusiasm that set Okotoks on a path toward sustainability remains embedded in community sentiment and institutional practice. But questions and doubts have begun to surface within the local body politic. In the coming years, more will be called upon its concerned citizenry and its dedicated town leaders and administrators if the powerful forces operating in their midst, and gaps in their sustainability blueprint, are not to divert this bold experiment from achieving its highest aspirations.

As native Okotokans seek to engage and overcome these challenges looming on the horizon, they and we should ponder the following lessons and caveats:


1. Build up political currency and take out more than a little policy insurance at the beginning of the sustainability initiative.

At the very outset, Will Pearce and his planning adhered to the adage: worry at the front-end, not the back-end, of community sustainability programs when seeking to check the long-term growth pressures and demographic conundrums that may later subvert the sustainability goal. Thus, various planning actions were found and implemented to thwart leapfrogging the growth boundary. For example, one major step taken was to downsize the publicly supported infrastructure of development within the boundary so that public infrastructure (utility lines, water and sewer pipes, roads) did not in effect subsidize development outside the growth envelope. Once Sustainable Okotoks was adopted, the size of water and sewer pipes were diminished as they approached the town limits. Developers could no longer tap into oversized pipes formerly laid by the municipality, thus imposing an added financial burden on any land speculator by forcing the developer or contractor to pay for oversized piping as a cost of new development outside of the boundary. Another example is the negotiation of a 20-year intermunicipal development plan with the Town of Foothills. The agreement both fosters clustered rural development around Okotoks and obviates Okotoks’s need to provide water and sewer to rural development projects in Foothills by checking commercial and residential developments that could not meet Foothills' rurally zoned regulations already in place.

Gateway to the Oilfields banner at Okotoks Heritage House.
Okotoks is the Gateway to the Oilfields.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

2. Gain citizen and other stakeholder buy-in to sustainability policy and programs at the beginning of the enterprise.

Starting with the Okotoks’s vision document inherited from the previous Municipal Council, the municipal manager and his planning group engaged in a regular dialogue with Council members to ensure that as the vision of Sustainable Okotoks unfolded, Council members would be well-versed in what the vision meant and what policy implications would flow from it. In these informal sessions, options were laid out, the pluses and minuses of each proposed program were spelled out, and eventually a consensus was reached among the progressive Council and mayor.

Two other key facets of this early planning effort were:

  • A public education campaign mounted in the weekly newspaper, Western Wheel, to inform citizens of the Council's understandings of the planning vision
  • The instituting of periodic polling of local citizens regarding attitudes toward the town and its future.

Newspaper articles were supplemented by inserts in utility bills and other venues to "test the waters" of community sentiment toward the Sustainable Okotoks vision. Beginning in 1997-98, the community surveys evidenced widespread public concern for the potential loss of Okotoks’s small-town character. They also revealed strong support for taking a new course in municipal policies that embraced controlled growth. Along with public hearings and ongoing town council meetings, the community surveys became an integral and regularized element of Sustainable Okotoks—serving as a tool for gauging public sentiment on planned programs and policies convergent with its vision and general goals. Despite the fact that the initial process was formulated and guided by a four-member staff within the town planning office, this small, in-house team eschewed the idea of instituting a municipal task force in favor of launching an intensive and open citizen participation process in order to avoid tendencies toward top-down technocratic decision making.

3. Find a sustainability yardstick for sufficiency early and build the entire program around it.

The decision by its policy advocates and planners to organize the multi-faceted sustainability program around the carrying capacity of the Sheep River proved to be a simple, compelling, and ingenious move. By anchoring Sustainable Okotoks to the limits of its local water resource, Pearce and his planning cohorts were able to fashion a sustainability metric that was readily understandable to the wider public. It also proved compelling in the rising global battle for control over what Fortune magazine called “blue gold” and claimed might be the twenty-first century equivalent to oil in the last century. Further, the metric allowed Okotoks to tie virtually all of the other components of their planned strategy (e.g., downtown development, parks and pathways, urban forests, shoreline and escarpment protection) to the population cap that flowed from the river’s maximum yield. In the eyes of Okotoks inhabitants, the Sheep River could be easily recognized in all its expressions: as a source of recreation, an environmental resource, an historical touchstone, a cultural and aesthetic symbol, a public trust—and as a sustainability yardstick.

Okotoks Cultural Station.
Okotoks's Cultural Station is located in the town's former railway station.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

4. Act locally, but plan globally.

Early on in the unfolding of Sustainable Okotoks, plans were set in motion to take full advantage of the promises and possibilities of solar energy and architecture. A number of noteworthy solar and energy conservation projects were undertaken, including the solar water heating system at the Swindells’ pool, the solar ice resurfacing system at the Murray and Piper community arenas, the solar heating system at the Recycling Center’s cardboard bailing building, and the solar wall heating system at the Operations Center. These and additional energy conservation projects were no mere alternative energy showcases. They were directly linked to a long-term interest by town designers in building a sustainable town whose energy use and efficiency would contribute to its ability to trade carbon credits accumulated from these reforms and renovations in an anticipated emissions trading market regime instituted by the Kyoto Protocol. While acting locally to reduce its energy usage and environmental load, its farseeing planners took account of the productive role that its town sustainability activities might have upon the larger international scene in alleviating a daunting environmental problem.

5. Recognize that politics “ye shall always have.”

For a group of planners who by training and tradition should have been oriented toward top-down, technocratic planning, Will Pearce and his team proved to be extraordinarily politically savvy. I have already pointed to their decision not to urge town leaders to convene a task force, but rather to launch a broad public education and citizen participation campaign as the vehicle for initiating Sustainable Okotoks. In addition, these uncommon town planners showed their adeptness at politicking in two other respects.

To illustrate, starting in 1997 with the Okotoks’s vision document inherited from the previous Municipal Council, the municipal manager and his planning group engaged in a regular dialogue with Council members after its meetings in order to ensure that as the vision of Sustainable Okotoks unfolded, the Council members would be well-versed in what the vision meant and what policy implications would flow from it. In these informal sessions, options were laid out, the pluses and minuses of each proposed program were spelled out, and eventually a consensus was reached among the progressive Council and mayor.

Sustainable Okotoks conceptual plan.
A conceptual, illustrative plan for a sustainable Okotoks.
Graphic courtesy Sustainable Okotoks.

A second example has to do with their skillful use of the community surveys used to gauge community sentiment about growth and development issues. These periodic surveys were generally performed a year before municipal elections and the results—always supportive of the vision—were released and publicized by the planning office a couple months before voting, to help influence of the outcome of elections. Because Council candidates were made aware of community sentiments supporting the program, the lure of rampant development campaigns was minimized and as a result pro-growth candidates almost invariably fared poorly in local contests.

6. Culture is culture and politics is politics, but often in social life, culture is politics.

An important bulwark against flagging community enthusiasm and general backsliding in political support for Sustainable Okotoks’s long-term aspirations is a robust and vibrant culture of sustainability. The pioneers of the local sustainability program intuitively sensed its importance by supporting the conversion of the old train station into an arts and crafts center, and the translation of historic preservation sensibilities into the government-supported heritage and archives facility. These fledgling operations show great potential to grow their agendas to dovetail with aspects of the town's sustainability initiatives, as the recent arts and crafts invitation to community artists by the Cultural Station and the 2005 flood exhibit at the Heritage House foreshadow. Recognizing that a local culture of sustainability is a vital resource in community politics, Okotoks might consider some of the public education programs that were instituted by the Hamilton-Wentworth Vision 2020 program, such as its annual Sustainable City Day celebration, its Citizen Summits to maintain a continued dialogue between citizens and public servants on the course of local sustainability, its public education activities directed to children and young people, and its other programs to periodically revitalize and rejuvenate interest, enthusiasm, and community understanding of the animating purposes of the original program.


1. Everything is connected to everything else.

A genuinely sustainable town is a community where everything hangs together in a whole cloth. A visitor to Okotoks cannot help but be impressed by the many policy initiatives deployed by town government since the formulation of Okotoks’s sustainability strategic vision. In spite of its central thrust (building up only to its water supply's maximum carrying capacity) and its many components, Sustainable Okotoks strikes one as a community program whose individual threads have not yet been woven into a single tapestry. A recycling ethic generated by local regulations has seemed to become rooted into its local culture. Solar energy has been showcased in a number of individual projects using advanced technology and best practices. Wastewater treatment has been upgraded and informed by a conservation/energy efficiency sensibility.

Educational materials in the Okotoks Recycling Depot.
Okotoks Recycling Depot contains not only facilities to recycle, but also educational information.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

What seems to be lacking, however, is a sense of wholeness and coherence of the parts. Moreover, one missing piece of the sustainability picture-puzzle noted above is the roads and transportation component. Part of the task of bringing coherence to the town's sustainability vision is to think each of these elements in relationship to the other. How, for example, do solar energy and conservation projects contribute to sustainable water policy? How can instances of cultural sustainability contribute to strengthening an ethic of resource conservation and recycling? These are issues both for the most searching policy inquiry and for the widest possible community dialogue. The future of Sustainable Okotoks depends upon answers to these queries.

2. Sustainability must be a democratic policy “revolution in permanence.”

Between the economy and formal government lies the welter of civic organizations shaping and enriching the everyday lives of inhabitants as members of a community. A survey of Okotoks’s social landscape would show a dense and overlapping network of social and civic groups inhabiting its civil society. Conspicuously absent, at least until recently, has been the formation of such independent groups and organizations organized around or contributing to the evolution and evaluation of the town's sustainability programs. It may be tempting in a country like Canada—where the tradition of civil service and local management is strong and where its administrators and planners are, as a rule, better educated, more cultured, and more politically savvy than their American counterparts—to depend upon these instruments of good government and efficient administration.

If the public officials and planning advocates of Sustainable Okotoks are to be balanced by strong community-based civic organizations that can root its objectives and promises in community life, such citizen agencies of democratic voice and constructive political change must be encouraged, cultivated, and even tolerated by local governance and administration of the program. Sustainable development is a transgenerational process that must involve new generations of citizens in the enduring processes of nurturing an active and living sustainability culture and embracing the political commitments and ecological values that will infuse their everyday lives. In this sense, community sustainability cannot be a one-time, one-generation decision; it must be a living practice and a permanent revolution in character and habit, outlook and practice.

Big-box grocery stores and other strip mall retailers encroach on the edges of Okotoks.
Photo by Ernest J. Yanarella.

3. The center must hold.

Gertrude Stein immortalized Oakland, California, in the popular imagination many years ago through her comment that "there is no there there." A nagging shortcoming of unfolding plans to revitalize the Okotoks downtown is the absence of a town center or public square from which the rest of town radiates. The initial impression a visitor gets when touring the town by automobile is that the historic tendency under the present growth regime has been an entropic plan to scatter community centers and commercial and residential development further and further away from the downtown anchor. On the other hand, the old town area bounded by the new library, the Town Hall, the Heritage House and Cultural Station suggest incipient possibilities for redevelopment that could produce a recentralized focus to the town. I would argue that the sustainable future Okotoks’s motto proclaims wants and needs a public square to realize its plan and ambitions by stitching together the residential development in the northeast along Highway 32, and the commercial and residential growth along Southridge Drive.

4. Balance the dream of walking pathways with the imperative of publicly-supported transit lines,

In creating a center that can hold the vision of Sustainable Okotoks together, a carefully planned and town-subsidized public transit system whose central route takes passengers through the historic town center could play a critical role in boosting the downtown's business community and enhancing the town's civic life. As Pearce acknowledged, the Municipal Development Plan was based on the general guideline that the sustainable community be designed so most inhabitants can walk to meet their daily needs and have easy access to a pathway system that facilitates that goal. While not populated by empty street-level shops, it is my impression that the survival of the downtown corridor as a magnet for local citizens remains precarious.

The ambitious pathway system being put in place by the community is certainly a valuable resource for advancing its sustainability plans. Still, future road construction and public transit planning are two areas where citizens, elected officials and representatives, and town administrators need to open up a community conversation, lest the crush of increased automobiles and the lifestyle preferences of a changing demographic force transportation policy decisions that are contrary to a larger and more coherent sustainability design.

Welch House with a crowd.
Residents and visitors gather outside Okotoks's historic Welcsh House for a community event.
Photo courtesy Town of Okotoks Museum & Archives.


A retrospective glance at Okotoks’s sustainability plans suggests the wisdom of John Todd's adage that "elegance of solution will be predicated on uniqueness of place." Having embarked on a journey to local sustainability beginning in 1998, the Town of Okotoks has come to a juncture where it now needs to seriously evaluate its overall vision of a sustainable future and the various elements it has put into place for realizing it.

Its local resources of farseeing public servants, effective administration, and commitment to the long term are readily apparent. These abundant resources have emerged from its distinctive history, traditions, and attachments to place. The Sheep River has been something of a unifying symbol to its underlying vision of a sustainable future and the carrying capacity of its waters as a cap of future population growth.

As Okotokans turn their eyes and thoughts to the evolving landscape of the local community, it seems clear that they will need to draw upon native resources again to reshape and refine that vision—to take account of the strengths and shortcomings of the policies and decisions apparent in the first phase of implementation of the strategic vision.

Though the elegance of their solutions to the cultural, transportation, and other challenges ahead will no doubt be predicated upon their unique appreciation of their sense of place, I believe they have many valuable insights to share with other small towns and communities in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere.


Ernest J. Yanarella is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. He currently serves as Senate Council chair, Environmental Studies co-director, and Center for Sustainable Cities co-director. A contributor to Terrain.org in past issues, he continues work on sustainable urban design with UK architecture professor Richard S. Levine and studies of the costs of prison recruitment as an economic development strategy of small rural communities with Susan Blankenship.
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Funding for field work in Okotoks, Alberta, was provided through a follow-up Program Enhancement grant by the Canadian Embassy’s Canadian Studies Program, 2004-2005. The generosity of this funding agency is gratefully acknowledged.



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