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2020 Vision and beyond: seeing the future more clearly

Elizabeth Bragg, Peter Cuming

Sustainable Futures Australia


Coffs Harbour City Council (Mid-north coast NSW) has embarked upon a Sustainability Strategy Project which is comprehensive, innovative and promises a high level of efficacy. The project began as a small initiative within Council’s Department of Planning, Development and Environment, but is now showing the possibility of being woven through the whole structure and operation of the Council. This paper outlines the Sustainability Strategy Project, as developed by Sustainable Futures in conjunction with Council’s Sustainability Initiation Team, and reports on its progress to date.

Key aspects of the project include:

  • empowerment and feedback
  • innovative group process and partnership formation
  • creative visioning into practical action (using ‘The Planning Web’).

The four phases of the project are:

1. review and preparation

2. workshop series

3. preparation of sustainability strategy

4. implementation.

Phase 1 of the project is currently underway and Council is considering adoption of Phases 2 to 4.

This paper also shows the broader application of the ‘Planning Web’, developed by Sustainable Futures, that has been used successfully in other sustainability projects ranging from local to regional in significance. These include a regional water efficiency plan, an eco-village development control plan, a local Council rural strategy and other plans.

Sustainable Futures Australia is a group of multi-skilled consultants providing expertise in environmental planning, design and education. We specialise in sustainability. The firm was established in 1987 by Peter Cuming on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia. Since that time, multi-disciplinary teams have provided clients with professional quality services, up-to-date advice and a high degree of environmental, social and economic awareness.


Coffs Harbour is located on the North Coast of New South Wales, about half way between Sydney and Brisbane (550 km north of Sydney, 430 km south of Brisbane). The Coffs Harbour City local government area covers approximately 954 square kilometres and is characterised by coastal urban development, large areas of State forest (mostly west of the coastal range), and sparsely populated rural areas.

It is an area of great scenic beauty, with diverse topography, microclimates and ecosystems, sandy beaches, coastal creeks, and a coastal range sometimes less than a kilometre away from the coast. Tourism has been the area‚s major industry since the 1950‚s. Forests cover about half of the area, with the river valleys to the west of the range used for grazing beef and dairy cattle, and the coastal range used for intensive banana cultivation. The population is approximately 65,000, with the majority living on the coastal strip, 43% in the township of Coffs Harbour itself. Based on medium level population projections, NSW Planning predict population levels of approximately 94,000 by 2021.

Vision 2020

In early 1993, Coffs Harbour City Council embarked upon a comprehensive and ambitious process of community consultation to develop a shared vision and strategic plan to guide Council‚s direction towards the year 2020.

The process included 13 community workshops; special consultations with government departments and particular community groups; five on-going strategic planning groups representing community and Council; a conference; and a rigorous community survey.

The essence of the shared vision statement was: ‘Coffs Harbour will be a clean, healthy, vibrant city, which is the regional centre, provides a high quality of life, and is a place for people and nature.’

A draft document was created, which contained a one-page description of the vision (organised into rural, suburban and city centre areas), and a complex strategic plan. It seems that this document did not reach the stage of public exhibition, but the vision itself has been integrated into recent strategic planning documents.

Need for a sustainability strategy

On World Environment Day 2000, Coffs Harbour City Council was awarded the inaugural Prime Ministers Award for Sustainable Communities. This award acknowledged a wide variety of programs and policies developed and implemented throughout the organisation.

Ten Strategic Directions adopted by the Council in 2000 formed the basis for the 2001/2002 Management Plan. This approach is innovative as it promotes transformation of the traditional structure of Council (focused on the four separate departments of Council and projects within them) to a structure focusing on program areas and project teams which are comprised of staff from several or all departments. This new approach facilitates the design, delivery and review of holistic programs and the integrated resource, human and financial management which are required to meet sustainability objectives and principles.

The overall vision of the Council is ‘through leadership and action to create a city that enhances the quality of life for all.’

The Environmental Strategic Direction reads:

To ensure balanced and harmonious economic, social and environmental development, having regard to the need for quality environmental management. To encourage input from the broader community, given the expectation for ecologically sustainable development. To create an integrated approach, through the gathering of data, environmental reporting, and through implementation of various strategies through the Environmental Levy.

The first objective of the Environmental Strategic Direction is to develop a sustainability strategy for the city by June 30, 2002. The Management Plan states that the Environmental Management Branch of Council, in consultation with other branches, is responsible for the development of this strategy.

The Sustainability Strategy Project

Early in 2001, Sustainable Futures Australia was invited to meet with Council’s Sustainability Initiation Team (comprised of individuals from the Environmental Management Branch). We began to develop a process through which a sustainability strategy could be initiated, whilst building on work that had already been conducted by the Council and community towards this general goal.

The phases of this project are as follows:

1. review and synthesis — of Council’s sustainability record to date (including Vision 2020, current strategic directions, State of Environment reporting, input from community forums, brief audit of current sustainability projects)

2. workshop series — visioning to 2050 with the community, council, corporations and government agencies, and preparation of draft sustainability strategy using ‘The Planning Web’

3. preparation of sustainability strategy — working draft strategy presented to community and Council forum, communicated with the wider community, and feedback gained to produce final strategy

4. implementation — including development of implementation plan, education and awareness program, detailed sustainability audit of all Council projects, development of partnerships and alliances, and monitoring and review.

We are currently amidst Phase One of the project, having developed the overall approach, and conducted the evaluations of Vision 2020 and the current status of Council’s sustainability projects. Discussion has occurred at the senior management level concerning the value of and the need for the recommended approach to Sustainability Strategy. The approach has the support of the General Manager and the Mayor. Because the organisation drives its programs through an adopted Management Plan and has a management structure based on four key departments, however, it is important to clarify the implications of a sustainability strategy on the overall structure and operation of the organisation, and its implications for corporate planning. The sustainability strategy that will emerge from the Sustainability Strategy Project is likely to involve a transition from one paradigm to another. There is, therefore, a need for the Councillors and all senior executive staff to have a good understanding of the Project before proceeding further. The project will also need to be allocated sufficient funds in the budget for 2002.

Our approach

The key aspects of Sustainable Futures’ approach to the Sustainability Strategy Project are:

  • empowerment and feedback (building on what has already been achieved)
  • innovative group process, partnerships and alliances (an effective whole-of-community, business and government approach)
  • creative vision into practical action (strategic planning using an award-winning tool called ‘The Planning Web’)

Empowerment and feedback

Evaluation of Vision 2020

Sustainable Futures has conducted a rigorous evaluation of three aspects of the Vision 2020 project: its process, format and content. The Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Program developed seven guiding principles for strategic planning processes for sustainable development. We used these principles as our evaluation criteria.

  • partnerships — alliances among all stakeholders/partners are established for collective responsibility, decision-making and planning.
  • participation and transparency all major sectors of society are directly involved in sustainable development planning, and all information that relates to the LA 21 planning process is easily available.
  • systemic approach solutions address underlying causes and whole systems
  • concern for the future sustainable development plans and actions address short and long-term trends and needs.
  • Accountability all stakeholders/partners are accountable for their actions.
  • equity and justice economic development must be equitable, environmentally sound and socially just.
  • ecological limits all communities must learn to live within the earth’s carrying capacity.

As described in our Evaluation Report (Sustainable Futures, 2001b), we found:

Process: Vision 2020 is to be commended for the innovative, comprehensive and ambitious nature of the project. It involved a high level of energy and commitment by Councillors, Council staff, members of the community and other government agencies. It produced a detailed community vision and strategic plan.

Although Vision 2020 was not specifically designed as a Local Agenda 21 or ‘sustainability planning process‚’ it exhibited many elements recommended by the LA21 Model Communities Program. It fostered productive partnerships during the period of its development. There were high levels of participation from the community and sincere attempts to involve a diverse range of people in the planning process. There was an effective focus on 27 years into the future (one generation), and the development of a strategic plan to achieve this vision.

Using the recommendations of the LA21 Model Communities Program as a basis for evaluation, Vision 2020 falls down on the levels of accountability and follow-through: the setting of specific targets and performance indicators, implementation, monitoring and review. Neither was there a specific focus on ecological trends and limits.

Format: The draft document of Vision 2020 falls far short of being an ‘ideal’ communication medium for the strategic plan. It does provide, however, with some investigative effort, the information that is required to evaluate its content and to form the basis for further work on a sustainability strategy for Coffs Harbour.

Content: When analysed as a whole, Vision 2020’s community vision and strategic plan satisfy many of the sustainability criteria recommended by LA21. Studied in more detail, however, it becomes apparent that the sustainability principles are applied in a rather piecemeal fashion to the different elements of the vision, and to the different goals, objectives and strategies contained in the strategic plan.

There is not a consistent application of sustainability principles throughout the document. This is hardly surprising, considering that Vision 2020 seemed to be produced without a set of guiding principles, let alone ‘sustainability principles’.

Given this situation, the content of Vision 2020 is a remarkable basis on which to build a contemporary sustainability strategy for Coffs Harbour. This is because the values which underpin the document are essentially those of Local Agenda 21, but that they have emerged from the community and council staff of 1993, without substantial direction from a superimposed framework. The ‘homegrown’ nature of Vision 2020 may be its greatest strength (as well as the reason for its lack of structure!).

In summary, we found Vision 2020 to be a sound basis for the development of a contemporary sustainability strategy, if its content is integrated into an overall planning framework and communicated in a more user-friendly format.

Current status of sustainability projects

Sustainable Futures conducted a brief investigation of sustainability projects through a series of 15-minute interviews with staff at Coffs Harbour City Council during one day (6 December 2001). These interviews briefly outlined the Sustainability Strategy Project and the ‘triple bottom line’ definition of sustainability projects. We asked staff to list and describe sustainability projects in their branch of Council, the motivation and/or strategic drivers behind these projects, the current status of the project (in terms of planning, implementation and review/monitoring), and the different people involved in these projects. While this investigation was by no means exhaustive, it was sufficient to demonstrate the range of projects underway in different departments in Council (Sustainable Futures, 2001c).

The projects listed here are a selection of the 67 projects outlined on that day.

Several sustainability initiatives are being conducted at the level of Council management and organisation.

  • ‘Coffs Best Value’ is a corporate level initiative that focuses on continuous improvement, efficiency based on bottom line accounting, and practicing working in inter-departmental teams for traditionally intra-departmental projects.
  • an Integrated Management System is being developed which incorporates environmental, occupational health and safety, quality and purchasing policy.
  • the Environmental Levy is a special rate introduced in 1997 that enables over $1 million of environmental works to be undertaken annually.
  • State of the Environment Reporting is of a high quality and includes a Strategic Environmental Management Plan.
  • a full-time Sustainability Officer has been appointed and the Sustainability Strategy Project is underway.

There are many individual projects based on sustainability principles, which have been listed under preliminary headings/groupings. These projects are in various stages of planning, implementation and review:

  • information systems — including improving the quality and diversity of GIS information;
  • environmental management — including Biodiversity Strategy; bushland regeneration program, environmental weeds program;
  • integrated water cycle management — including Environmental Management System for Integrated Water Cycle (including EIS for Sewerage Strategy); On-site Sewage Management Strategy; Stormwater Management Plan;
  • energy efficiency — including Energy Efficiency Policy and Development Control Plan for residential development; energy efficiency audit and work program for Council operations;
  • solid waste management — including Waste Management Strategy; Environmental management System for land-fill; Council Policy on Supply and Services; Council Records Management including the ‘paperless office’ concept;
  • land-use planning — including Local Environment Plan 2000 and Development Control Plans; Urban Development Strategy; Rural Lands Strategy; Vegetation Management Plan; City Centre Strategic Plan;
  • development consent — including Integrated Development Liaison and Process Liaison, approvals according to variety of sustainability-based policies (as outlined above).

Sustainability initiatives have emerged from each department in Council. Most of these projects involve some level of interdepartmental collaboration, some actively involve the broader community and other government departments.

Through the interviews, it became apparent that, despite the number of projects currently underway, individuals initiating or implementing these projects often felt that they were doing so in isolation. The lack of synthesis and integration of projects into an overall strategy was clearly apparent, as was the lack of feeling of support by others in the organisation. People were often not aware of other projects that were occurring within the organisation, or of the other individuals highly motivated by sustainability. The process of this interview series and the resultant report (Sustainable Futures 2001c) also functioned as a means of communicating between individual people and projects.

Innovative group process, alliances and partnerships

The second element of our approach to the Sustainability Strategy Project involves the use of a series of strategies to maximise the interaction and synergy between, and the empowerment of, all parts of the Council and the wider Coffs Harbour community. The goal is to create a context in which people can work together creatively and effectively towards their vision of sustainability.

Structure of working and implementation groups

A series of related ‘working and implementation groups’ are designed for each phase of the project. The structure of Council’s internal ‘Sustainability Working and Implementation Group’ (SWIG) maximises the representation of different levels, departments and branches of Council, whilst involving individuals who are particularly skilled and motivated towards sustainability. In Phase 2 of the project, the internal SWIG works alongside and builds upon work completed by the Community Reference Group, (comprising representatives of community interest groups) whilst liaison occurs with corporate interests and government agencies. In Phase 3, the internal SWIG merges with the CRG, corporate and government agency representatives to form a whole-of-community whole-of-government SWIG to coordinate the implementation, monitoring and review of the sustainability strategy.

Phase 1: Review and Synthesis — Sustainability Initiation Team (within Dept of Environment, Planning and Development)

Phase 2: Workshop Series — Within-Council SWIG comprising

  • Steering Committee — Council Executive (Directors and Chief Executive Officer) (5)
  • Councillors and Mayor (9)
  • Council Staff (36)

• representing each of four existing departments

• representing three levels/types of staff (managers, officers, office/ground staff)

• chosen on the basis of interest and skills (including networking capacity)

  • Community Reference Group and Corporate/Government Agency Liaison

Phase 3 and 4: Strategy Preparation and Implementation — Coffs SWIG (merging of CRG, Council SWIG and Corporate/Government Agency Liaison)

Existing forums

In Coffs Harbour, there already exist three committees of Council that are clearly aligned with the three key elements of sustainability:

  • Environment — Environmental Levy Committee
  • Society — Cultural and Arts Forum
  • Economy — Coffs Harbour Future Inc

In line with our approach of ‘building on what has already been achieved’, it is envisioned that these committees will form a basis for the Community Reference Group, and their key issues and mission statements will be incorporated into the material that is brought to the Workshop Series.

Creative facilitation

One of the essential ingredients required in building a deeply sustainable culture is the facilitation of healthy relationships between people and with nature. Our approach to workshop facilitation, participatory planning, and education all involve:

  • identification of values, hopes and fears
  • using creative process to provide practical outcomes
  • group decision-making, conflict resolution, promoting best outcomes for all participants
  • developing relationships and weaving together the underlying sustainability philosophy amongst different interest groups.

Recent workshops Sustainable Futures has facilitated in Coffs Harbour have focused on the establishment of the Environmental Levy; resolving issues about Caravan Park Residency; a World Environment Day Youth Forum; a Jetty Foreshore Aboriginal Liaison Workshop; planning for new uses for the Old Hospital Site; and forward planning for the Regional Gallery. The principles outlined above have been integrated into each workshop.

Creative process in action: Regional Gallery Workshop

Creative vision into practical action

The third element of our approach to the Sustainability Strategy Project is to use a strategic planning tool developed by Peter Cuming in 1996, which has received NSW and national Royal Australian Planning Institute Awards (1997) and has been used successfully in a wide range of projects.

The Planning Web

The Plan is designed as a linked web of goals, strategies, actions and performance targets, to achieve a specific vision for the future. (This corresponds to a movement towards the centre of the web.)

Council and the wider community collectively establish a vision of sustainability for Coffs Harbour. This is placed in the centre of the web. The goals of the ‘planning web’ are the key aims of the sustainability strategy, and can be linked outwardly to broader regional, national and global sustainability goals.

Each goal has a number of issues to address through strategies, with a range of actions or tasks to meet the goal. Performance targets and timelines are set to help meet the goals and measure our success in achieving our vision.

Woven together these strands establish the integrated Planning Web.

The Web, however, is only as strong as its weakest strand. It reminds us that all goals are important to achieve. We should seek to successfully put into place the actions proposed for each goal, as well as to review them. Over time new tasks and targets will be set, reflecting the nature of change in our awareness and views, new ideas and ways of thinking, and the long term nature of the Sustainability Strategy.

Framework for Coffs Harbour Sustainability Strategy

The diagram below illustrates how the planning web can be used in the context of the Sustainability Strategy Project.

The planning web provides a framework for:

  • Integration of work to date. The outcomes of Vision 2020, Council’s Strategic Directions, and sustainability projects currently underway can be readily placed into this generic framework.
  • Gap analysis. By only filling in the areas of the web (e.g., particular strategic actions, or particular goals) which are actually in operation, the missing pieces of the holistic framework become apparent.
  • Input from existing forums. The forums that correspond to the three rings of sustainability (economic, environmental and social) can be seen to be integral to the forming up of the central vision.
  • Focus for visioning. The concept and graphic representation of the web are particularly effective tools for communicating with a wide variety of people and integrating diverse perspectives, and will be used in the Workshop Series to promote visioning to 2050.

Planning Web for Coffs Sustainability Strategy
Sustainable Futures 2001

Other projects using the Planning Web

Major projects which have successfully employed the Planning Web include the Shellharbour Rural Strategy (for Shellharbour City Council, 1997); Caniaba Village Development Control Plan (for Lismore City Council, 1998); the Water Efficiency Strategic Plan (for North Coast Water, 1999); and the Upper North Coast NSW Water Management Committee Strategic Plan (2001). We are currently using a new version of the planning web, with an added dimension, for a Development and River Health Project (for NSW Healthy Rivers Commission, 2002).


The deeper the roots, the higher the branches. Building a strong foundation, a deep understanding of the philosophy of sustainability throughout a community or organisation, will allow visioning for sustainability that reaches further into the future.

The development of this deeper understanding requires more than a ‘triple bottom line’ approach. The foundation we need is a culture and spirit of sustainability. This requires the support and growth of people, groups, organisations and community. It is the realm of psychology, creativity and the healing of relationships between people and with nature. Such a culture and spirit will result in the integration of the ecological, social and economic aspects of sustainability.


Coffs Harbour City Council (1993–94). Vision 2020 Documentation

Coffs Harbour City Council (2000). Coffs Harbour State of the Environment Report 2000, September 2000.

Coffs Harbour City Council (2001). Coffs Harbour City Council 2001/2002 Management Plan.

Northern Rivers Information Service (1995) Vision 2020 Community Survey

Sustainable Futures (2001a). Draft Briefing Notes for Coffs Sustainability Strategy, 31 October 2001. Report prepared for Coffs Harbour City Council.

Sustainable Futures (2001b). Draft Evaluation of Vision 2020, 30 November 2001. Report prepared for Coffs Harbour City Council.

Sustainable Futures (2001c). Current Status of Sustainability projects at Coffs Harbour City Council: A Working Draft, 6 December 2001. Report prepared for Coffs Harbour City Council.

About the authors

Peter Cuming is founder and managing director of Sustainable Futures. Established in 1987, Sustainable Futures ( is an award winning team of multidisciplinary consultants specialising in sustainability planning, design and education. Peter is acknowledged nationally as a sustainable resource and strategic planner and educator, as well as facilitator of community-government partnerships. He has over 20 years experience, both in Australia and overseas, and has been responsible for some of the most innovative and influential planning and facilitation processes and outcomes in Australasia.

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