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Not-for-profit tackles local sustainability challenges with community engagement

by Stan Mathewson
in Sustainability

Most municipalities were incorporated during times when “energy conservation” was not a standard in building stock. Building on concerns about climate change and biodiversity loss, the City of Orillia, Ontario is tackling its local sustainability challenges by engaging local citizens.

Sustainable Orillia, a grassroots organization, began in January 2019 as a Mayor’s Task Force. It launched with a community conference in May 2019, and by October 2019 it had become a not-for-profit corporation. The city has provided an annual operating grant each year since. Mayor Steve Clarke is recognized in the by-laws as honourary chair. City Councillor David Campbell sits as an ex-officio Board member, and the Manager, Property and Environmental Sustainability Renee Recoskie has sat on Sustainable Orillia as city staff liaison since its beginning.

Sustainable Orillia is committed to supporting actions toward sustainability for the community and its people. The goal is to turn these actions into daily, weekly, or monthly practices to improve community health and well-being and to protect and enhance the environment. The organization’s mission is: “The community of Orillia achieves long-term sustainability and net-zero emissions by 2050.” Top-of-mind concerns include:

Welcome to the Hall Banner Ad 2
  • sustainability and climate change issues;
  • renewable energy and energy efficiency;
  • zero carbon transportation;
  • preservation of old trees and planting of new ones to sequester carbon and moderate urban temperatures;
  • improvements in sustainable agriculture;
  • the natural environment;
  • health and wellness issues; as well as
  • housing retrofits, affordability, and efficiency.

The organization is also watching for emerging sustainability issues and related technologies that could affect the future of the city – for example, the role of hydrogen in a future economy, the deployment of innovative technologies (such as heat pumps), reviewing new developments, and promoting energy-efficient and zero-emission vehicles.

Sustainable Orillia has encouraged citizens to move to a more sustainable lifestyle and work to reduce emissions since 2019. It has also advised mayor and council and provided comments on local sustainability issues. It is recognized as the “go to” organization with respect to community sustainability and enjoys solid support from both digital and print media. The board has created six operational sectors designed to cover all aspects of community sustainability:

  • Infrastructure and Energy;
  • Goods and Services;
  • Health and Wellness;
  • Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Environment;
  • Arts and Culture; and
  • Education.

There is also a youth council, with over 35 members in all three of the city’s secondary schools and the president of which sits as an ex-officio member of the board. The board provides financial resources and strategic planning direction, while the sectors provide operational planning and operations. The entire organization is volunteer-driven, with the exception of a part-time intern currently employed.

Sector Goals to Meet GHG Targets

Each operational sector identified by Sustainable Orillia provides research, demonstrations, policy papers, legislative review, white papers, communication and education, webinars, seminars, and projects particular to its area of interest. Given the overlapping nature of many themes, projects are often collaborative between two or more sectors.

An example of this kind of collaborative project could be seen during September 2021 – proclaimed “Sustainable Orillia Month” by the city’s mayor. Sector leaders organized an Electric Vehicle (EV) Demo Show at the local mall. The mall administration provided parking lot space for the event as well as space inside the mall for seminars and displays. Earlier in the year, local artists had submitted art to two contests based on themes determined by the Sustainable Orillia Board. The art was displayed in the mall during the EV weekend and subsequent week, then moved to two other downtown galleries over the next two weeks. The EV Weekend and Demo Show attracted dozens of vehicles and hundreds of visitors. The event concluded on the following weekend with a Repair Café, designed to showcase the need for more sustainable products and the folly of our “throwaway culture.” Cars, art, and “fixers” came together to convey the message of sustainability and what it means for our future.

Opportunities to understand, analyze, and promote energy technologies are also not missed. Currently, the Infrastructure and Energy sector is working with a number of partners, including the city, to develop a strategy to encourage the adoption of hydrogen as part of a renewable energy mix – along with the potential option of developing the city as a hydrogen hub.

The Mayor by George B. Cuff

Orillia is currently developing its Climate Change Action Plan and is engaging the community to help provide a vision for what actions need to be taken for the community to develop and meet its GHG targets. Sustainable Orillia is helping to promote this action and is assisting with the plan’s implementation and meeting GHG reduction targets. The sector goals include the following:

Infrastructure and Energy:

  • electrification of vehicles
  • active transportation technologies and behaviours
  • a Renewable Energy Strategy that includes renewable gases such as Hydrogen
  • energy storage and distribution
  • energy conservation and reduction policies and technologies
  • green affordable housing, including retrofitting old stock and new net zero
  • achieve development sustainability by urging balance between financial capital and associated natural capital (socially responsible investment)
  • promoting densification of new development, building, and operations

Goods and Services:

  • promote the circular economy
  • encourage re-use, recycling, and reduced packaging and single-use plastics
  • promote green business practices
  • encourage eco-tourism, green marinas, and use of carbon offsets

Health and Wellness:

  • understand environmental determinants of health
  • understand the role of natural capital on human society
  • publicize sustainability issues re physical and mental health
  • link emotional health with climate uncertainty
  • urge climate action (mitigation and adaptation) to reduce and prepare for climate change impacts
  • focus on children’s well-being – now and in the future

Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Environment:

  • Ecosystem Services (natural capital) – Bio-capacity, global footprint, GHG emissions reduction
  • Agriculture – Soil restoration, soil, and water conservation
  • Food – Local sourcing, carbon footprint of food supply chain mapping deserts, sharing, waste, community gardens, sustainable diet
  • Habitat – Pollinators, tree planting, preservation, and restoration
  • Water – Storm water management, source water protection, water, and land pollution (plastics, chlorides, nitrates, phosphates, etc.)

Arts and Culture:

  • promote sustainability concepts and necessary behavioural change through arts, graphics, and performance
  • move to emission-saving practices among the arts community
  • participate in Sustainable Orillia community events


  • ensure sustainability is incorporated in professional development
  • encourage development of a Sustainable Orillia Youth Council
  • support the climate strike in a community-focused, non-partisan fashion
  • support for Youth Council projects (e.g., Boomerang Bag)
  • develop and implement a series of community education events

In addition, the Sustainable Orillia Youth Council connects the different schools across Orillia so students are able to share knowledge and experience with others. Youth environmental projects are designed to give information and get students involved. Members are passionate about making a difference in the community by spreading awareness and creating initiatives to improve the sustainability of Orillia and its residents.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Roy Brooke’s article: Building liveable, climate-resilient communities.

Stan Mathewson is the President of Sustainable Orillia.

Related resource materials:

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