In Search of the Holy Grail of Implementation

Posted by Pat Gordon

Calgary joined the PLUS Network as a founding member in 2004.  In those days (how can five years already be ‘those days’) it was all about planning; how to do a long range urban sustainability plan, how to engage stakeholders, how to take a systems-based approach to an entire city.  My team and I were given the momentous task of developing such a plan for Calgary, a city of 1 million people.  imagineCALGARY was an exciting, daunting, challenging, frustrating and rewarding experience.  The learning curve was steep but when we stumbled we were caught by other members of our team, other city practitioners or by the wonderful people at the Sustainable Cities secretariat.

Five years later and things have moved on, way on, with projects like Imagine Durban in South Africa and Stand Chattanooga in the US.  In Canada, the federal government has linked a gas tax funding program to a requirement for a community sustainability plan creating a rush by municipalities to complete these types of plans.  Undoubtedly some communities are taking this opportunity and making the best of it but I can visualize the hasty addition of the word sustainability to the title of many unaltered and unsustainable plans!  On the bright side, it has served to push the bar higher and many practitioners are now focusing on implementation. 

How do we make sure we do what our plans said we were going to do?  How do we bridge the ‘say-do gap’ as a colleague in Calgary called the mismatch between where our policy said we should go and where we are actually headed?  This is the subject of this blog and future ones. 

I think our first task should be to define a shared language around what we mean by implementation.  It sounds a bit mundane but in order to have a productive conversation we would benefit from speaking the same language.  As the term ‘plan’ can mean many different things to many people, so does the term implementation.  We need to create a shared language around implementation for urban sustainability.   I read recently that ‘he (she) who controls the discourse also controls the power’.  Of course I mean power in its most benign, enabling form!  Just as the Sustainable Cities : PLUS Network created a discourse that delivered a new vocabulary, expressions and style to communicate around planning for long range urban sustainability we are now in a position to do the same for implementation.  So here is my first effort.


  • Sustainability Plan – long range, comprehensive sustainability plan and process, defines a holistic sustainable future for the place achieved through a multi stakeholder approach
  • Implementation – all other planning (e.g.  land use and transportation), projects ( e.g. district energy or community supported agriculture), that flows from the sustainability plan or aligned with the direction of sustainability as defined by that community

I welcome any and all comments on this definition.  My next blog will move the debate further forward.


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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6 Responses to In Search of the Holy Grail of Implementation

  1. Gary Buxton says:

    I’ve seen enough “green-washed” plans that become “sustainable” through an addition to the title, that it’s becoming meaningless in many cases. I would agree that true sustainability starts at the top with a comprehensive, strategic document that provides direction to all of the subsequent action plans. I’ve lost track of the number of “sustainable” transportation plans that become meaningless with traditional land use plans that perpetuate the status quo. You can’t move in a sustainable direction in any one area or field of interest, without complementary actions in all other fields, which requires the comprehensive approach. I think you suggested a useful start to framing the discussion.

  2. Alex Aylett says:

    Great looking blog and well chosen opening post Pat. A well defined common laguage is both a guide and a litmus test for municipal sustainability initiatives.

    I’d agree with Gary that the comprehensive and integrated planning and implementation are key elements here. I’d even build it into the terms themselves:

    Instead of talking about moving from “sustainability planning to implementation” maybe we should be talking about “integrated implementation.” That would put the need for a holistic approach up front and center where it needs to be.

    • pgordon1 says:

      Thanks Alex. Can you elaborate on what you mean by integrated implementation? All of us who work in municipalities know that integration is a huge challenge on the planning end of things – let alone the implementation end!

  3. Gareth Lynch says:

    As a long suffering resident of Durban, I am sceptical that any aspect of the Imagine Durban plan will be implemented. It just seems to be a complete waste of money. Don’t get me wrong – I am fully behind any initiative to improve the city but I can’t see any change in mindset in those running Durban. We don’t even have a basic bus system! (And this at a time when we’re meant to be preparing to host a World Cup!) Roads are being made bigger and bigger to compensate for our pathetic public transport. A new airport has been built and not linked to existing public transport – the highway has simply been widened. Forget whether the thing is required in the first place.

    This brings me to my question: What hope is there of any of these admirable plans being implemented if there is no buy in from the politicians and bureaucrats running the city? Is there really any buy in in Durban.

    I’m sure Durban is a very different place from Calgary!

  4. Gary Buxton says:


    Quite frankly, if there is no “buy-in” at the political level, then the likelihood of concrete action is small. Ignore the bureaucrats, if they’re half decent, they’ll follow the politician’s direction(s) once developed.

    How has this worked in our community? (Not that we’re sustainable – but we’re moving in the right direction!) We developed a grass-roots driven community vision that laid out some sustainability principles, goals and direction. You can view the “Mining the Future” vision on our web site ( With grass-roots support and direction, it’s far easier for politicians to make the “right” decisions. Your community just needs to tell them (through the vision document) the directions to take. We’ve found our vision document to be very powerful as a “public voice” around which Council can rally and align its decisions. It’s not the answer, but we’ve found it’s a great place to start. Sure, we’re a small town (15,000), but Durban can do this too, starting with small steps and leading to the bigger ones.

  5. Maybe it´s too late for this post, but I´ll like to share some ideas.

    Sustainability Plan – in my oppinion, sustainability can be “implemented” on specific plans (educational, transport, health, building, economic etc..) but it can´t be a general name, unless we´re considering a plan that will cover all aspects of urban planning and everyday life (what does holistic really covers??). I´m afraid we may get lost trying to cover such huge topic.

    Implementation – I see implementation as a materialistic action, as the execution phase, not as a new plan (even if it is a specific plan, a plan is a plan, implementation can´t be another plan…I know you love plans, but I´m a lawyer hehehe). I would call these specific plans that derive from the master plan (sustainability plan) the “transportation projetc” or “energy projetc”. That is how we try to do in Brazil, when we say “municipal development plan”, we have a federal law that defined what it has to cover and deal with, at least the minimum coverage.

    Gareth – I live in Brazil, and we have similar struggles. These kind of plans really sound like “good advice” considering our everyday problems and most urgent needs. But they are “long term plans”, objectives to reach through small steps , our goal is to press our politicians to aim these small steps towards these long term goals. That is everybody´s job, including the planners.

    And there goes my oppinion

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