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Embedding Sustainability into the Culture of Municipal Government: A much-needed resource being developed

A growing number of municipal governments have created long-term sustainability plans and have made public commitments to move their communities in a sustainable direction. The trickle-down effect of these strategic decisions is changing the way municipal staff plan and make decisions. So how do we create a culture of sustainability in municipal governments?

In 2010, the Network for Business Sustainability published a cutting edge report on Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture. Prepared by Dr. Stephanie Bertels and her research team at Simon Fraser University, the report presents a portfolio of practices gleaned from a systematic review of the entire body of research on sustainability and organizational culture. Quickly gaining traction in the business community, the framework that they developed provides guidance to those leading the shift toward a culture of sustainability.

In order to tailor this work for the municipal sector, The Natural Step Canada, in collaboration with Dr. Bertels, is currently updating this work for the municipal context, teasing out municipal examples of the various practices. Our aim is to provide practical guidance for municipal practitioners and organizations, based on leading research, to support a culture of sustainability in municipalities across the country.

Key questions that have guided the research include:

  • What practices are municipal organizations undertaking to embed sustainability into the organizational culture?
  • What’s working well?
  • What are the main challenges?
  • What practices can be scaled up and shared?

Some preliminary findings have emerged from the interviews with municipal sustainability practitioners in Canada and they include:

  • Municipalities all across the country are creating sustainability-focused roles and integrating a sustainability group into their organizational structure.
  • In turn, these internal change agents are championing sustainability across departments and throughout the organization. This is leading to the creation of cross-departmental working groups to advance sustainability projects, tackle systemic issues, and collaborate and innovate in a range of ways.
  • Municipal governments are supporting community-based sustainability initiatives, and intentionally nurturing community involvement in their sustainability programs. Partnerships with community stakeholders are common, and there is a strong recognition that the culture of the municipality is strongly linked to the culture of the surrounding community.
  • Interviews found practices that reflect the full spectrum of the portfolio approach to nurturing a culture of sustainability. They integrate a combination of diverse practices with aligned goals, including: formal and informal; strategic and tactical; and top-down and bottom-up.

Recently, at the Ecocity World Summit in Montreal, I had the pleasure of providing an overview of the portfolio approach alongside Dick Ebersohn from the City of Calgary, Larua MacPherson from the City of Charlottetown, and Michael Baldwin from the City of Fredericton. Each panellist shared examples of sustainable practices their community has undertaken and the challenges they face on the road to embedding sustainability into their organization culture. It was a fantastic sample of the great progress municipalities have made and showed we still have a long journey ahead of us.

The full report Embedding Sustainability into the Culture of Municipal Government will be launched this fall. For now, you can download a Summary of Key Findings to date, which provides an introduction to our work and some initial key findings.

Join us on November 3 for a free webinar to introduce you to this exciting new resource, including the background, research process, a summary of key findings, case studies, and how you can utilize this new tool to advance sustainability within your municipal organization.

We are also offering a series of 1-day workshops across Canada for those who wish to add this resource to their sustainability tool belt. Learn more and register today!

If you would like to learn more about this project, the final report, and/or the workshops, please contact me at jpurkis(at) or 613.748.3001 x227.

We’d like to extend our gratitude to our generous funders, HB Lanarc (A Member of the Golder Group of Companies), ISL Engineering and Land Services and Enerkem, and to all of the participating municipalities for their contributions to this project. Thank you, as well, to the Network for Business Sustainability for their support of practical research to advance the sustainability field. 


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