Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Alternative paradigms leading towards sustainability

Skye Addison

Manly Council


Since the 1992 Earth Summit, there has been a shift in perceptions of Local Agenda 21 (LA21). Agenda 21 principles appear under different guises in publications and often ignore some of the fundamental principles in the original document. Most often these concern the social and economic environments, probably because these fields are difficult for Australian local government authorities to address within their traditional roles.

After reviewing the implementation of LA21 in Australia and discussing it with practitioners, it became apparent that two dominant paradigms are operating. The first is held by those who believe that LA21 is a process which can be integrated into a milestone framework, a manual, or a guide. This view is commonly held by those associated with the Cities for Climate Protection milestone program. The second view is held by those who believe that LA21 is a process where each council needs to determine its own path and its own definition of sustainability. These decisions can lead to a unique course of development for that local community.

Each paradigm reflects a different perception of LA21. Either approach can be successful, but they do involve different LA21 pathways. This paper reviews these approaches, assesses their relative strengths and weaknesses, and outlines the options for new communities wanting to move on LA21.

This paper is based on the author’s Masters research thesis (Addison 2001) which reviewed the establishment of Local Agenda 21 in NSW and NZ with a key objective being to improve understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the programs. Review of case studies and a practitioners survey identified key approaches and common elements for future sustainable LA21 programs.


The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Earth Summit was convened to address urgent problems of environmental protection and socio-economic development. It resulted in Agenda 21 (A21), a 300 page plan for achieving sustainable development in the 21st century. This was considered a new global partnership for sustainable development, founded on a global consensus with political commitment at the highest level.

Agenda 21 identified 27 principles, each is based on a theme including inter- and intra- generational rights; eradication of poverty; equity for all countries; community participation, ecosystem health; research; integration of economic growth and sustainable development; precautionary principle; State cooperation; womens’, youth and indigenous equity; political equality; peace and partnerships.

Of specific relevance to local community actions is Chapter 28 that acknowledges that many of the problems and solutions addressed by A21 have their roots in local activities. It encourages local authorities to work with their communities to adopt individual versions of Agenda 21, referred to as a Local Agenda 21 (LA21):’By 1996, most local authorities in each country should have undertaken a consultative process with their populations and achieved a consensus on ‘a local Agenda 21’ for the community’(United Nations, 1992, p233).

Differing perceptions of A21

Many governments and organisations have attempted to simplify the set of A21 principles, including the Commonwealth’s 1990 ESD Discussion paper which was continued into the National ESD Strategy and which defined five key principles (Environment Australia, 1996); the Commonwealth Government’s LA21 guide (Cotter and Hannan, 1999) simplified the list to six most applicable to local authorities; and Brown (1997) who presented a list of 10 principles in which most of the original 27 Agenda 21 principles can be identified.

The myriad A21 interpretations, which generally focus on the environmental principles of A21, fails to meet an increasing expectation from the public and higher levels of government that the duties of local government should include integration of the social and economic fields. To do this effectively there is a need to revisit Agenda 21 and all of its 27 principles. LA21 will not achieve its goals unless all aspects are addressed.


The definition of sustainability is also an area of confusion. Surprisingly, given the debate ‘sustainability’ definitions have generated, A21 has no definition of sustainable development in the entire document.

A survey undertaken by the author revealed that many practitioners generally prefer the ‘Brundtland definition’ given in Our Common Future (WCED 1987), while other respondents referred to the Australian National ESD Strategy’s definition. The majority of respondents, however, favoured a community based definition. Salan (pers. com.) noted that while sustainability is the ability to maintain a desired condition over time, the community must determine what that condition is for both the present and future generations. Brown (pers. com.) supported the community generated vision, and argued that sustainability is not a ‘thing’, but a ‘direction, a goal and a vision’, so it can be explained but not defined. Price (pers. com.) noted that sustainability should be defined through goals, actions and plans at the community level. If it is not relevant to the person in the street, people will not be interested in participating nor will local governments take a role in LA21 because the definitions do not relate to them.

LA21 in Australia

Effective integration and implementation of sustainable development is one of the principal tasks confronting Local Governments in the 21st Century, especially with recent legislative changes devolving responsibility from State Government (Griffiths 2000).

Following the Earth Summit, adoption of LA21 programs nationally was much slower in Australia than in other countries. In 1997 there were 61 local councils in Australia (8%) with LA21 programs in place (Cotter and Hannan, 1999), relative to the 1996 target date for universal LA21 adoption set by Agenda 21.

In 1997 Local Governments worldwide committed to the Newcastle Declaration (June, 1997). The Commonwealth of Australia has since identified a growth of LA21 initiatives in Australia, yet the author’s survey results indicate that rates of uptake remain slow and few local communities have undertaken a holistic, comprehensive approach to LA21.

The main hurdles contributing to the weak uptake of LA21 as identified by practitioners are:

  • confusion over what exactly qualifies as a LA21 project; and
  • the poor image of LA21, where it is seen as a predominately ‘greenie’ initiative. This is most probably the reason why most local governments attempting to initiate LA21 place the responsibility with their Environmental Officers (etc.).

If LA21 is to be a change agent within local government as intended at the Earth Summit, the focus must shift to the integration of social, economic and environmental considerations.

Two dominant paradigms

After reviewing the implementation of LA21 in Australia and discussing anonymously with practitioners, it was apparent that there are two ideals or dominant paradigms operating among those undertaking a LA21 process:

  • STRUCTURED STEPPERS: Those that believe LA21 is a step-by-step process which can be moulded into a milestone framework, manual or guide to encourage up-take nationally.
  • INDEPENDENTS: Those that believe that LA21 is a process in which each council needs to determine its own path to sustainability that then evolves into a unique course of development particular to that local community.

Structured steppers

The structured, stepwise approach is favoured by those associated with the Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) milestone framework in Australia. The CCP program has seen significant success, gaining commitment from over half of Australia’s Local Governments by 2001. The idea of a similar milestone framework for LA21 was generated at the National LA21 Stakeholders Forum in 1999, which had significant representation from those involved with CCP. Environment Australia has recently commissioned the tender for this Framework.

Councils who choose to follow this path often commence an LA21 program by joining the CCP program and initiating a community sustainability indicators program. Visioning and action plan development often takes a lower priority so that information gained from the CCP and indicators programs can be integrated into the Action Plan.

A framework is seen as helpful in guiding local communities or their councils by demonstrating that positive outcomes and the hurdles experience by others already some way along the LA21 pathway. Yet while identifying the hurdles as well as positive outcomes, the new LA21 framework will need to be prepared with resource-poor councils in mind.


Practitioners who do not support the structured steppers approach argue that LA21 should be an agent for change in local government. This is difficult to guide through a milestone framework which would restrict Councils to meeting similar objectives, rather than setting their own. Salan (pers. com.) noted that the vital ingredients for a successful LA21 program are omitted: the need for an agent of change or someone to champion the cause, political support, and support from persons with significant power bases — factors that vary from one Council to another. Many survey respondents supported this view and emphasised that there is no set path to follow. Each community will experience its own hurdles and successes.

Independent development is supported by those who consider that a key feature of LA21, which distinguishes it from many other planning processes, is that it is intended to be driven by community participation to determine a pathway towards sustainable futures, usually through the establishment of a vision. Through consultation each community establishes its own consensus on social, environmental and economic objectives and action plans. Note that these are key processes, and not established steps.

However, this model similarly has a weakness — reliance on the capacity of the local community to adequately identify sustainability needs in a global context. This is where communication is a vital tool.

An interesting note to come from those preparing the Environment Australia Milestone Framework Tender is that research is heeding caution regarding a milestone approach. Is the milestone framework moving towards something that adopts that more in tune with the ‘Independents’ approach? Or maybe a merging of the two approaches?

Moving forward

Regardless of the pathway a local community chooses to take, review of several case studies in Australia and New Zealand, showed that similar key approaches and elements appear to be critical to both initiating and maintaining a LA21 program. Perhaps a Milestone program should change focus to an ‘Common Element’ type format?

Initiating a LA21 program — common elements

1. Good timing: Take advantage of a new international movement or philosophy — e.g. a major United Nations Conference, a State or Federal Government initiative or a local conference. Whatever the influence, timing is crucial to lifting the LA21 program’s profile within the community and council.

2. Inspirational leader(s): These persons may be staff, councillors or even community members whose role is to establish the idea and promote its development. The Inspirer needs to drive Council staff to passionately adopt the initiative for maximum gain, and lobby hard to gain a support base. Ideally, the Inspirer needs to be with the program throughout its initiation to implementation.

3. Effective communication: The benefits of initiating a LA21 program need to be effectively communicated (marketed) to staff, Council and the community. Without support from both sides the initiative will not progress.

4. Effective community consultation and participation: By successfully engaging the community and creating a strong partnership early in the program, the LA21 program will have ownership in the community that ensures the program’s own sustainability.

Maintaining a LA21 program — common elements

There is obviously a degree of overlap between maintenance elements and those deemed to be important in initiating the program (above) and quite often the same people adopt the same roles.

1. Effective communication: Reporting the positive outcomes of the LA21 program is often achieved through quarterly reports to Council noting the achievements, communication to the community is less direct but newsletters, SoE reports and summaries, and effective use of the media are all important routes.

2. Community ownership: LA21 programs require broad commitment to sustainable development. It is not possible for one group, for example the local council, to work towards sustainable development without support from the wider community. It also assists to develop a sense of identity and place . Without the representation and commitment of the wider community, the LA21 process may be seen as shallow and tokenistic.

3. Staff ownership: LA21 programs need the support and commitment of Council staff to ensure application and continuity. Staff involved in the process are more likely to be supportive of its ongoing implementation, creating a sense of ownership as well as generating enthusiasm for the process.

4. Senior management commitment: While gaining senior management commitment is often difficult in the initial stages, once committed they can ensure a program’s continuity in times of political change or adverse funding.

5. Embedded in Council business: It is important that LA21 is not seen as a separate project, but an umbrella program under which all other Council activities fall with sustainability being a key component of Council philosophy.

6. Political support: A change of council can lead to a change in politics, with the potential to wipe a LA21 program from Council’s agenda. Given that LA21 programs are necessarily long term commitments, short term changes driven by politics often conflict with the sustainability goals. By locking the LA21 program in (Point 5) they can be run almost automatically and be buffered from political change. Program change is still possible through review processes but major changes will require full Council debate and vote. Political leadership change has had a devastating effect in several national and international Council LA21 programs.

7. Champion: Officers need to continually refer to, report and market the LA21 to keep it on the Council agenda. Similar to the ‘inspirer’ identified in the ‘Initiation Process’, the champion may be a Councillor, staff member (both preferred) or a community member. Yet this element must be supported by point 5, as should this person leave the organisation, there is a real chance the program will suffer.

8. Formal monitoring, reporting and review: The LA21 process must be seen to be taken seriously by council. Monitoring and reporting are mechanisms for accountability and for evaluating the success of the planned actions. Review ensures that the program remains relevant to a community as conditions change.

9. Ongoing community management committee: The marketing role of such a committee encourages Council to provide political support; and assures the community that Council is not driving the process by itself, but is allowing direct community input into all aspects of the program.

10. Publicising the successes: Regular reporting of successful actions such as effective cost savings to staff, Councillors and the community, can assist to ensure the program’s ongoing implementation.

11. Re-commitment: Following the lead of Waitakere City Council (NZ), and shortly Manly Council (early 2002), Council should resolve to ‘re-affirm’ commitment to LA21. This maintains focus and renews enthusiasm.


This paper has shown that there are two general routes being taken in the development of LA21 programs. Which is the better route? Or is that the wrong question?

Maganov has summed up the situation perfectly:

… everybody wants to know what the answer is, or what is the easy path to follow, yet there seems to be no such thing. Once anyone starts, they realise the hurdles, flounder around depending upon the resources and the level of organisational commitment, do some fantastic things, but finally realise it’s all about continuing to engage, create and complete …


Special thanks are extended to Assoc. Prof. Peter Mitchell (Groundtruth Consulting) and Dr Judy Lambert (Community Solutions) for reviewing this paper.


Addison, S.C. 2001. Policy and Practice of implementing LA21 at the Local Government Level in New South Wales and New Zealand. MSc thesis. Division of Environmental and Life Sciences, Macquarie University. 205p.

Brown, V.A. 1997. Keeping Community: combining our skills, shaping our future. Re-inventing Communities strand of the Pathways to Sustainability Conference Newcastle 3 July 1997 p16. Abstract, Conference Proceedings 206p.

Cotter, B. and Hannan, K. 1999. Our Community Our Future: A Guide to Local Agenda 21. Environs Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. 188p.

Environment Australia 1996. Australia’s 1996 National Report to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development

Griffiths, E. 2000. Integrating Management Planning and SoE Reporting — possible or impossible? SoE 2000: Working Towards Sustainable Communities — proceedings of the inaugural national SoE 2000 Conference. Coffs Harbour City Council. NSW p116–120.

United Nations 1992. Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development. United Nations Department of Public Information, New York. 294p

World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Survey respondents quoted are: Ransce Salan (Kogarah Council, NSW); Prof. Valerie Brown (University of Western Sydney); Peter Maganov (NSW EPA); David Price (Christchurch City Council)

About the author

Skye Addison has nearly ten years of experience in the environmental management field and is currently the ESD Planner at Manly Council with prior positions at the NSW Office of Environs Australia and Pittwater Council. Manly’s LA21 program has recently been recognised with a 2001 National Innovation Awards for Local Government commendation and as the Joint winner of the 2001 NSW Excellence in the Environment Awards Local Sustainability Category.

Skye recently completed a Masters research thesis based on Local Agenda 21 in NSW and New Zealand, with other experience including State of Environment reporting, environmental management plans, and is moving into the area of Environmental Management Systems.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page