Environmental Planning Model for Sustainable Rural Development

Nazar M. Zaki, Dr. Mohamed Daud, Prof. Mohd Zohdie, Dr. Amin Mohd Soom

Faculty of Information Science & Technology, University Multimedia

Ayer Keroh Lama, 75450 Melaka Malaysia

E-mail: nmustafa.zaki@mmu.edu.my


Abstract: Building a more environmentally stable future clearly requires some vision and as a basic component of any nationally strategy it should be sustainable and sound. Environmental problems are not recent developments, and in attempting to remedy them in the past, we have created solutions utilizing the existing scientific and economic framework that has been available. However, in recent decades it has become apparent that these problems encompass more than just science and economics, and a new innovative model is needed to supplant the traditional decision-making methods. This new model is called Collaborative Environmental Planning (CEP), and it is being used increasingly as an approach to solving resource issues and problems.  In this paper we will discuss the theory behind CEP and how it has been utilized to date and compare it to how it was theoretically anticipated to work, especially in the revitalization of faltering resource-based economies.

Keywords: environment, environmental planning, collaboration planning, sustainable development.


Traditionally, environmental planning has been based predominantly on the interdisciplinary study of environmental systems, based mainly in the sciences and economics. The underlying value system has essentially been an economic market model. Some researchers believe that this approach does not capture the wide range of societal values and concerns about the environment and are suggesting a more multi-disciplinary approach that emphasizes long-term resource management and sustainability.1

New approaches are emerging that combine interdisciplinary science, ecological economics, and social sciences.  Most importantly though are the collaborative processes which aim to integrate a wide range of values and perspectives in environmental management.

The ecosystem approach, focuses on a new scientific framework from which to examine environmental problems, it focuses on an expanded definition of ecosystem.

Similarly, “Bioregionalism” is the political, social, and managerial approach, which incorporates humans and their environment into the same planning model, rather than belonging to separate ecosystems models.

Collaborative Environmental Planning (CEP) is the broader knowledge and value framework from which to examine environmental problems. Not only are issues studied from this new scientific perspective, but non-scientific considerations are included as well.

Collaborative Environmental Planning (CEP)

Simply defined "Collaboration is a process through which 'parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible.2 It is evident that collaborative decision-making is no small task, however it is being applied to environmental planning and management.3 

It is complex process, consuming of time and resources, and often involves intense conflict. However, as Collins and Dukes (1998) emphasize: "Conflict is a natural part of community life. It can give rise to productive dialogue, increased understanding among community members, problem resolution, and improvements in community life." This revelation about conflict illustrates the power of collaboration as a problem-solving tool. It can take that inherent conflict and create a dialogue, which in turn produces new perspectives for examining and solving problems.

There are many definitions for sustainability, but the most succinct has put forth by the Bruntland Commission (also known as the World Commission on Environment and Development, WCED) in 1988: "[meeting] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

CEP differs from traditional problem solving methods in several critical ways. It goes beyond economics and science, incorporating values and norms. Collaborative planning views problems not as belonging to a single discipline, but rather in a holistic, multi-disciplinary manner. In addition, collaborative approaches focus on the process of problem solving, which means involving all stakeholders--in an effort to produce better solutions.

This necessitates incorporating various competing interests from the beginning, thus framing problems in a different manner. Allowing stakeholders to participate and contribute their perspectives means that problems are defined differently and likely more completely than if one or two "experts" were to look at the same situation. It means that the problems and the solutions are not necessarily defined by the "experts" or agencies but rather from the community. Currently, we see this practice manifest in many community initiatives and it seems to be spreading. State and federal agencies are participating in collaborative partnerships as well, and the idea of collaborative planning is infusing into the mainstream of policy and planning.

One area of particular interest with regards to CEP is rural resource-based economies. Many of these locales have many inherent features, such as strong ties to the land that can create a successful platform from which to launch collaborative efforts. Many such communities suffer from resource depletion, loss of economic base, environmental degradation, and a host of other resource issues, thus facing a rather unique situation. These communities depend on the environment in a way that urban areas do not. For rural resource-based economies, the environment provides their livelihood and they must change the way that they interact with that environment. These areas must view environmental protection and economic development as one in the same, rather than as two irreconcilable goals. CEP is using resources, which exist within rural communities to create a new problem-solving framework in an effort to create self-sufficiency and positive change. There are however, some elements that seem to be relevant to collaborative efforts. These elements are not mutually exclusive, but instead each encompassing the others.


Elements Relevant to Collaborative Planning

The collaborative process is an iterative one; there is no formula or linear progression of events. In addition, there may be other unique local factors that affect collaborative planning. The following discussion does not attempt to provide a complete, theoretical conceptualization of collaboration, but rather to discuss elements of the approach which manifest themselves in our case of study. These elements have been divided into three relatively broad categories: engagement issues, process issues, and outcome issues. Engagement includes those elements -- stakeholder participation, learning through collaboration, and capacity building -- which involve developing relationships. These elements seemed to be most critical to the success of the collaborative efforts examined in the case of study.  The next category, process issues, includes goals and vision, effective leadership and organization, and building partnerships. These are elements, which involve the institutions and arrangements necessary to engage in collaborative planning. Finally, there are the outcome issues. This group includes elements such as innovative solutions and how to measure success, which focuses on the outcomes of the collaborative planning effort.


The Study Area

The case study was chosen according to several criteria:

  1. The area had to be rural in nature.

  2. The area had to have historically been dependent on natural resources --primarily timber, mining and other extractive industries -- as an economic base.

  3. The collaborative planning effort had to have some success according to the literature.

The Keweenaw region is located in the western portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The county itself has 65 miles of shoreline along Lake Superior, which makes it the home to a number of recreational and scenic areas (MultiMag Michigan, 1997). The region is described as having a "strong sense of community" (Sustainable Communities Network (SCN), 1996), which stems from a diverse citizenry who are united by a respect and appreciation for their land. Property values in the region remain relatively low, which means that residents come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, and there are many who have retired to the area for this reason. The Keweenaw region has been plagued by environmental problems for decades. In the 1880's the world's largest deposit of copper was found in the region. This deposit was mined extensively, depleting the resource base in the area. There is however, no current mining activity in the region.

It is apparent to some residents of the region that this over-harvesting practice still occurs today. While these issues have been an ongoing concern to the residents of the Keweenaw region, they never seemed to unite the community into action. Then something happened that did unite the community. As sustainability became more of a global focus, the Great Lakes region began to think about its future as well. The region is home to over 40 million people, as well as the second largest reservoir of fresh surface water in the world (Waddell, 1995). Needless to say, this combination puts a great deal of stress on the environment.

In spite of the perceived economic benefits, citizens of the region were concerned about the continuation or perhaps worsening of clear-cutting forest resources, chemical contaminants such as dioxin, and disposal and landfill issues (according to the 1990 census data there is no landfill in Keweenaw County, University of Michigan, 1993).

These concerns generated community action and in 1989 the citizens created a group called FOLK, Friends of the Land of Keweenaw.  FOLK was envisioned as a forum for discussions about the community's environmental concerns -- the primary one at that point being the location of a paper mill. As a result of this dialogue, a petition opposing the location of the pulp and paper plant was presented, and over 2,000 residents signed on. The proposal was eventually withdrawn, but through FOLK many citizens had become aware of a larger problem in the Keweenaw region.


Stakeholder Participation and Collaborative Learning

FOLK was formed by, and consists entirely of, a diverse group of concerned residents and those with interests in the Keweenaw region. The governor of Michigan has openly supported FOLK and has been an advocate of joining together collaboratively to solve regional problems. An extended stakeholder group has formed around a FOLK proposal to establish the Regional Center for Sustainable Development. Those involved from the beginning wanted even more stakeholders to join in developing and promoting the regional sustainability model.


Vision and Goals

This specific concern over the threat to water quality and the mill development served as a community catalyst for this collaborative effort, which united citizens around a more sustainable development plan in their region. FOLK specifically outlined a three-step process to achieve sustainable development in their area:

  1. Stop the unnecessary outflow of money and talent from the area.

  2. Support existing businesses and the local control of business.

  3. Encourage responsible business efforts and recruit appropriate new businesses.

They then identified a list of criteria that needed to be met for regional sustainability.


Criteria for Sustainability in the Keweenaw Region 

  1. Respect and protect biodiversity.

  2. Consider the effects of continued, exponential human population growth on the environment, and accept responsibility for controlling the growth.

  3. Recognize the importance of prevention, not just the “management” of pollution.

  4. Recognize the importance of switching, where possible, from non-renewable to renewable resources.  

  5. Respect the environmental imperative to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

  6. Understand the relationship between socioeconomic justice and environmental quality.

  7. Recognize that our environmental problems are partly cultural and not simply technological; hence, solutions must include cultural changes and not just simply technological intervention.

  8. Become more aware of and question some of our basic assumptions (such assumptions are often encapsulated in "ultimate terms") such as progress, efficiency, and growth.

  9. To the extent that technological fixes contribute to reducing environmental problems, we must not let the allure of high-tech solutions blind us to potential contributions of appropriate, traditional, or innovative low-tech solutions.

  10. Consider environmental impacts not only at the point of production, but also resource extraction, transportation, and use and disposal; that is consideration must be given to the entire life cycle of a product or service.


Visioning Process

These goals for sustainability were finalized after much dialogue and debate. The visioning process began with a discussion of sustainability and an effort to define it. Some thought the recently published Bruntland Commission definition (meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs) was not clear enough to serve as a starting point. Others felt that the group might become stuck trying to define the concept and be unable to move ahead. The group compromised, agreeing to use the existing definition as a working definition and to define sustainability more appropriately for their context as the dialogue continued. The group agreed to begin the visioning process there, with the view that they could find a common ground between economic and environmental interests, improving upon that view through a collaborative discussion.


Innovative Solutions

FOLK has come up with a number of innovative solutions to accomplish their goals of keeping people in the area, strengthening their economic base, and protecting their environment.  While not all of these solutions have been implemented as of yet, they reflect time and energy spent in attempting to creatively solve the region's problems.

One idea is the "Keweenaw Reunion", a business development program designed to help attract residents who previously left the region for better employment opportunities. In addition, local businesses that are hiring outside the community could be surveyed to find out what skills local workers lack and then training programs set up to address those deficiencies. A whole set of courses ranging from entrepreneurial skills to environmental ethics is also envisioned.

Secondly, "buy local" programs which encourage the various level of governments to give preference to local businesses when bidding for projects. These ideas would cut production costs and create more local jobs, thus strengthening the local economy. The most interesting and innovative solution to come from this collaborative effort is the planned Regional Center for Sustainable Development (Center), with its goal of designing and promoting a regional model for creating a sustainable relationship between man and his environment. The Center would serve as the locus for sustainable planning activities, serving as a central point for outreach efforts and information. The Center will be involved in several critical areas: wilderness protection, sustainable forestry, environmentally responsible recreation and tourism, and recycling and waste reduction -- including groundwater protection.


Measuring Success

To this point, FOLK has achieved more qualitative success than quantitative. FOLK and other concerned citizens have successfully raised sustainability as a viable option for the region, and the people have become aware of the need for such development patterns. FOLK and others have defined the concept of sustainability and created a working definition for their area. They have brought sustainability from a vague concept to a mainstream way of thinking and planning for the region. Beginning to change the way people view their environment and economic system is the first step on the road toward sustainability.

Right now the future of the collaborative efforts within the Keweenaw region is in question for one overarching reason: funding. To implement the solutions that stakeholders have envisioned, it will take more than grant money. FOLK is in the process of soliciting funding for the Center and other projects.

However, there is one more obstacle in the way of the sustainability efforts of the Keweenaw citizens. The disdain that some who are currently benefiting from unsustainable development practices in the region have shown for such efforts. In fact, some sustainability advocates have received threats trying to coerce them into dropping land development issues.

The big success is that the stakeholders in the region have created a new agenda to guide their planning efforts from now on. That is no small achievement. As Craig Waddell emphasizes, "The players may change but hopefully the story will continue" (SCN, 1996).



A key lesson from this assessment is that collaboration does work on many levels. It provides a forum for open communication, and as illustrated in this case study, can bring adversarial groups together and create positive relationships where gridlock has historically prevailed. As these case studies illustrate, there are several important things, which seem to result from collaborative planning, the first of which is a change in attitudes. This change in attitudes is considered one of the main successes.

Second, is the building of shared capital.  Again, in this case study, there was an obvious building of shared capital in the form of trust, norms, networks, agreed upon facts, shared definitions, and mutual understanding.  Finally, collaborative planning brings people together to address common issues and problems.  Rural areas, which often face unique challenges with regard to the economy and the environment, inherently possess some of the elements that are relevant to collaborative planning.  Collaboration, as illustrated by this case study is a good tool to use to initiate changes in attitudes and perceptions about the future.

In conclusion, rural areas are dealing with some complex problems regarding their economy and the environment. The nature of theses problems, combined with many inherent characteristics of rural areas make collaborative environmental planning (CEP) a good model to use in such cases. There are, however, a number of considerations which must be mentioned regarding CEP, and some questions which can only be answered as part of the evolution of this process.

First, it may be hard for collaboration to become a mainstream approach because there are no guidelines or formulae for implementation. It is a unique process that must be tailored to each situation. In addition, many of the factors described in this paper are intangible. It is hard to know if a community possesses them, and if not how they can be "created."  There is also much emphasis today on performance measures, criteria for success, and other ways to justify the use of a certain methodology. It is hard at this point to quantify the successes associated with CEP and therefore may be hard to justify expending the resources.

In addition, there are some situations in which collaborative environmental planning simply will not work. If there are legal or regulatory issues at stake, collaboration is not an appropriate alternative. In addition, if there are a large number of stakeholders or large number of competing interests, it may be very difficult to reach some common ground.



Implementation is often complicated and in some cases never happens. Recent literature on this subject (Margerum, 1999) suggests that while many communities are highly successful at the collaborative process, they are not using their shared capital effectively to implement the appropriate strategies. Margerum lists several factors which he titles "common implementation weaknesses," including: "poor communication, problems with resolving conflicts, personality differences, extremely difficult problems, long histories of antagonism, and inadequate funding to support implementation" (Margerum, 1999, p. 184).

These weaknesses can be overcome, but it takes more work. Implementation must be guided by a "common information set", a "cooperative plan or policy", and "joint decision making" (Margerum, 1999, p. 188).

Collaboration is proving that it is worth the effort and that it a successful problem-solving tool. The applicability of the approach depends upon the amount of time and resources a community is willing to invest, and what the community is willing to accept as success. If it is an immediate solution, collaboration may not be the best method. However, in long-term planning for rural economic development--which often involves changing attitudes and perceptions, and building shared capital--collaboration seems to be a beneficial problem-solving technique.



  1. Slocombe, 1993; Cortner and Moote, 1994.

  2. Gray, as cited in Margerum, 1999, p. 181.

  3. Innes, Gruber, Neuman, & Thompson, 1994; Selin & Chavez, 1995, as cited in Margerum, 1999.


Additional Bibliography:

Holmberg, J. (Ed.) (1992). Making Development Sustainable: Redefining Institutions, Policy, and Economics. Washington, DC: Island Press. London, S. (1995). Building collaborative communities. A paper prepared for Pew

Miller, S.E., Shinn, C.W. & Bentley, W.R. (1994). Rural Resource Management: Problem Solving for the Long Term. Ames, IA: University of Iowa Press.

Murray, M. & Dunn, L. (1996). Revitalizing Rural America: A Perspective on Collaboration and Community. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons. MultiMag Michigan. (1997). Keweenaw County, Michigan. Retreived from the world wide.

Randolph, J. & Bauer, M. (1999) Improving Environmental Decision-making through Collaborative Methods. Manuscript submitted for publication in Policy Sciences

Sargent, F.O, Lusk, P, Rivera, J.A, & Varela, M. (1991). Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Slocombe, D.S. (1993). Environmental Planning, Ecosystem Science, and Ecosystem

Approaches for Integrating Environment and Development. Environmental Management, 17 (3), 289-303.

Randolph, J. & Bauer, M. (1999) Improving Environmental Decision-making through Rural Policy Research Institute. (1998). Rural Policy Context: Diversity in Rural America.

Sargent, F.O, Lusk, P, Rivera, J.A, & Varela, M. (1991). Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Slocombe, D.S. (1993). Environmental Planning, Ecosystem Science, and Ecosystem Approaches for Integrating Environment and Development. Environmental Management, 17 (3), 289-303.


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