The City of Ottawa is slowly moving towards a sustainability mindset. According to its Director for Community Sustainability, the City is considering wider application of so-called “Triple Bottom Line” decision-making.
Classical decision-making in the previous century viewed the economy in isolation of the rest of society and in a context that ignored the environment. As illustrated below, interrelationships between these 3 dimensions were rarely considered. Limited consideration was given to overlaps between 2 of these dimensions and even more rare was a sustainability mindset in which all 3 were included.
Sustainability thinking is based on traditional North American Indian philosophy that situates the person within the environment and views the ecosystem around the person as a great circle encompassing both animal life as well as the different communities of man. This philosophy is traditionally symbolized by a Medicine Wheel as illustrated below.
<<Note that this article uses tabs, click on each tab above to see all of it.>>
The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is a term coined by John Elkington in his 1998 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. TBL is a concept that similarly situates economic decision making within a societal context, which in turn is situated within an environmental context.
A sustainable mindset acknowledges that our society exists within the environment and not independent from it. Similarly, our business decisions exist within the society that defines the economics for them.
Consequently we need to consider intangible value as well as tangible value in making sustainable decisions. This is illustrated below:
Considering the intangible helps avoid the trap of McNamara’s Fallacy, however, it is still possible for businesses and governments to fall into the fallacy by relying only on measurable indicators when performing a TBL analysis.
An example of falling into the trap can be seen in the Australian Government’s TBL analysis of 135 sectors of the Australian economy. Notice the reliance of only measurable indicators when assessing intangible factors — a classic symptom of falling prey to McNamara’s Fallacy.
With the caveat to be wary of McNamara’s Fallacy, TBL is certainly a step in the right direction towards sustainable decision-making.
Curiously the use of TBL in a municipal setting involves consideration of 4 (not 3) dimensions (4BL):
The addition of a cultural dimension extends the influence of social factors. The rationale for this is tenuous and appears to have originated in New Zealand. In Canada, the concept seems to be gaining favour among various municipalities, including Ottawa.
According to the authors of the 4BL model, it was attractive to incorporate the 4 directions of the traditional medicine wheel as an aspect of their sustainability framework. Evidently, there is much to be learned about sustainability from First Nations – even when it comes to creating a model for thinking about it in a holistic way.
Unfortunately, in the 4BL case this has been done in a way that hi-jacks traditional values and re-casts them in a way that inserts “money” at the expense of wildlife. This recurring type of hi-jacking and revision of native symbols and philosophy is one of the causes of cultural genocide – and in this case is being done in the name of promoting culture!
Rather than re-invent a tried-and-true concept that has served First Nations well for thousands of years, perhaps it would have been better to centre the concept entirely on traditional concepts of stewardship and respect for Mother Earth.
As an example, a direct application of traditional values by the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation results in a rather sensible Principles of Development.
Unfortunately the City is not even close to applying TBL or 4BL criteria to the South March Highlands:
- Neither Council or Staff took the opportunity to explore the economic benefits of green infrastructure and the Stewardship plan that was prepared as an alternative – even though it would have generated $25 M /annum in economic benefits to the city;
- Continued development in the SMH is an environmental disaster that no one denies – yet no one at city hall does anything to prevent. Compounded by the continued wilful blindness to environmental problems caused by SWM piecemealing, water diversion, fragmentation of habitat, and extirpation of 20 species-at-risk.
- At a social level, every community association in Ottawa endorsed protection for the SMH – yet the infrastructure staff plows forward in the face of opposition from 15,000 people.
- The complete disrespect for the cultural heritage of first nations in the SMH is shameful. The refusal to accommodate even a reasonable request for an unbiased archaeological study is indefensible and a violation of the Canadian constitution.
Clearly there is no bottom line thinking (NBL) in the City at all when it comes to the South March Highlands.
Although Ottawa is starting to move in the right direction with sustainability thinking, it will take much more than the creation of a quad-focal “lens” and the self-congratulation that will no doubt accompany the City’s self-assessment process to implement a sustainability mindset in Ottawa.
Completely missing from the City’s implementation approach is ensuring that there is an opportunity for public participation in ALL key decisions affecting Environment, Social, and Economic dimensions.
Instead of closing this gap, the lack of acceptance of public review as an integral part of sustainable decision-making appears to be growing. Some recent examples of a growing gap include:
- Refusal by the City to make public review a part of any future lifting of holding conditions for lands formerly zoned as environmentally significant in the SMH;
- Failure by City staff to bring final EAs and EA Addendum to City committees for public review and Council approval prior to issuing of Notices of Completion. This has occurred recently for Kanata West and for the Glen Cairn Flood Investigation.
- Issuing key technical documents less than 3 days prior to a City committee vote on the subject so as to curtail any opportunity for public review. This occurred recently on the decision to allow a municipal drain to be constructed in the provincially significant Poole Creek Wetlands in Stittsville.
Talk and intentions are cheap and meaningless without changing how the City operates. Not only is the current non-sustainable mindset entrenched, it appears to be incorrigible.
As a case in point, the infrastructure approvals staff actually declared that they considered it necessary to raze Beaver Pond Forest in Kanata, just so that they could understand where the watershed boundary was! Evidently it was not possible for them to see the watershed for the trees.
Changing how the City operates will require deep changes to management within the infrastructure approvals division. Otherwise using the words sustainability and development in the same sentence in Ottawa will continue to be an oxymoron.
Time to walk the talk by doing the right thing!
So far Mayor Watson has done nothing to improve the situation and in fact has made matters worse by not promoting public participation as a fundamental pre-condition for sustainable development in Ottawa.