Systems, Not Silos: Community Planning and Sustainability

Picture1Brendle Group does a significant amount of work at the intersection of sustainability and community and regional planning, whether it’s through a local government or regional climate action plan, energy plan, sustainability plan, or a comprehensive/master plan for managing growth and change.  As a practitioner at this intersection, I often get to apply some of the concepts from my training in the world of sustainability to the world of planning.

One such concept is systems thinking. We have thought leaders like Donnella Meadows, Peter Senge, and Stephen Sterling to thank for their contributions in helping us take a more systems view in practice, from the learning organization to preparing students for the future. I had the good fortune of co-authoring a book with Dr. Sterling in 2004 called Engaging People in Sustainability in which one of the five key principles we covered was fostering systems thinking.

In Brendle Group’s recent community planning work, I’ve seen tremendous opportunity to apply systems thinking.  For example, several communities have prepared stand-alone sustainability or climate action plans without taking a hard look at how these plans connect to the web of everything else in the community – from its economic development strategy to its capital improvement plans and employee training.  But there are encouraging trends too, such as Fort Collins, Colorado’s Plan Fort Collins, the City’s comprehensive plan for its future that places the theme of “systems, not silos” as one of its cornerstones.  And what specifically is this opportunity? It’s the chance to make sure a community’s plans, codes, capital projects, permitting, budgeting, strategic planning, employee training, and everything else are all aligned and working toward common desired outcomes.

Of course, systems thinking isn’t just about sustainability in terms of the “what” – energy, climate, waste, community livability, and so on – it’s also about the “how” – how local governments can be more efficient and effective at helping their communities achieve their desired vision for the future.