Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Programme

In recognition of the critical role that local governments play in building sustainable societies, and as a follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) “Earth Summit” of 1992, ICLEI launched an international action research programme on sustainable development planning in 1994. This programme, called the Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Programme, was a four-year partnership with fourteen municipalities in twelve countries around the world and was supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Programme (LA 21 MCP) was a project designed to aid local governments in implementing Chapter 28 of Agenda 21, the global action plan for sustainable development. The goal of this programme was to jointly design, document and evaluate local strategic planning processes for sustainable development. The results of the programme, which was undertaken from October 1993 through April 1997, are analyzed in Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Report, Volume One. It is expected that the results of the project will support local governments to follow through on Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 and, thereby, increase local institutional commitment to sustainable development planning.

Municipalities in the MCP were:


The primary research objective of the MCP was to work with the participating cities to develop and test a general framework for local sustainable development planning that is applicable to a variety of municipal and developmental contexts.
The MCP sought to:

  • Develop and test the various instruments and procedures required for sustainable development planning.
  • Draw conclusions about the means, methods and requirements for local sustainable development.
  • Generate informed recommendations to local government worldwide about the design of local sustainable development planning processes (backed by models).

The research approach taken in the MCP was action research, a form of applied research where actors and researchers work together to achieve agreed objectives and participate in an agreed process of documentation, reporting, self-reflection and evaluation to derive lessons and reach conclusions.

By drawing from the strategic planning experiences of local governments and communities around the world, ICLEI developed a general planning framework to guide local governments and local communities in the development of their sustainable development action plans. The elements of this sustainable development planning framework are presented in Figure A. For a detailed discussion of the planning elements, please see the Local Agenda 21 Planning Guide: An Introduction to Sustainable Development Planning (ICLEI, 1996).

In addition to conducting supportive background research, a major component of the ICLEI research effort addressed the implementation of an evaluation process at the local level to permit comparative analysis of the data and experiences from each participating municipality. The sustainable development planning framework had been created by ICLEI for review and refinement by the MCP participants. The framework was ultimately adapted by participating municipalities to meet their local circumstances and to establish a unique local planning process. During the process of refining the sustainable development planning framework, ICLEI staff and MCP researchers, municipal staff and community members in the participating municipalities further articulated seven guiding principles for sustainable development that they believe underlie the elements of the planning framework. These principles are listed below.

  • 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.

Desirable planning actions accompanied each principle in order to translate the principle into concrete achievements. These principles and desirable planning actions formed the framework for evaluation of the implementation of LA 21 at the local level.

Likewise, these seven guiding principles have been used in the Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Report, Volume One, as the framework to organize, review and evaluate the experience of the MCP municipalities.

Model Communities Experience
Full case studies of each of the MCP participants’ experience in instituting a LA 21 planning process are presented in Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Programme Case Studies, Volume Two.

Case summaries in the Local Agenda 21 Model Communities Report, Volume One (incorporated later in this document), show that despite the disparate circumstances and geographic locations of the participating local governments, there are many similarities in their experiences. Much can be learned from their efforts about building a global society capable of sustaining its peoples and its environment. In fact, the most important lesson from all of the experiences is what we already know-that people and their environment are intrinsically linked.

Participants within the municipalities concluded that the LA 21 process should engage all sectors of society in decision making about their future. To accomplish this, the process needs to increase community awareness and knowledge of the issues so that all stakeholders can effectively contribute to the process and be accountable for it.

Conclusions and Recommendations
Conclusions drawn from the experience of the MCP participants as they sought to incorporate the seven guiding principles for sustainable development planning follow. Due to the integrated nature of the LA 21 planning process, a number of the conclusions may apply to several of the principles. It is hoped that the associated recommendations will assist local government worldwide to institute effective local sustainable development planning processes.

Partnerships established for collective responsibility, decision making and planning result in numerous benefits. A community stakeholder group can be especially helpful in guiding, facilitating, promoting and building support for the process within the community. Partnership groups that are established to participate in the entire planning process, as well as those established to address very specific and limited issues, can both be effective. Overall stakeholder groups in which subcommittees and working groups address particular issues can be especially productive. Partnerships can be brought into the process at different stages, though strong partnership groups established at the outset may be most effective. In all circumstances however, the effectiveness of the group depends upon a clear understanding of their role and the objectives of the process, as well as adequate financial resources and decision-making authority.


  • Engage a wide variety of partners/stakeholders including women, youth, poor, etc. in partnership groups.
  • Provide a secured budget and staff for partnership groups.
  • Obtain explicit support from the mayor and councillors, and their engagement in the partnership group.
  • Ensure clear terms of reference for the group’s mandate.
  • Establish an explicit structure for the partnership, as well as clear procedures for decision-making and conflict resolution.
  • Create a communication and information sharing strategy.
  • Garner clear commitments from partnership group members.
  • Create partnership groups that are resilient to political change.

Participation and Transparency
Ensuring that the LA 21 process is transparent and accessible to all sectors requires the use of several interactive, semi-interactive and non-interactive methods of communication. In general, interactive methods, such as focus groups, result in greater transparency and participation than semi-interactive methods such as a questionnaire. Worldwide, efforts to engage all of the groups in a community has proven challenging. Creativity and flexibility are needed to reach out to those who are under represented. Community education is essential to effective participation in the process, and education programmes should also be directed to municipal councillors and staff.


  • Institute public education programs at the outset of a LA 21 planning process.
  • Provide training programs for municipal staff and councillors as well.
  • Be creative and employ diverse methods to reach out to and secure participation from different sectors within the community.

Hamilton, New Zealand

The fast-growing City of Hamilton is the fifth largest urban center in New Zealand. The quality of Hamilton’s environment is relatively high. Air pollution is thought to be minimal, efforts are being made to reduce, reuse and recycle waste, and issues such as contaminated sites and liquid-waste disposal into river and groundwater systems are being addressed.

The city’s LA 21 planning process should be seen in the context of a nation caught up in the trauma of major central reform begun in 1984, and local government reform starting in 1989. These reforms resulted in the massive downsizing of central government and the launching of a market-driven economy. The social impact, compounded by significant reductions to welfare benefits in the early 1990s, was substantial. The radical Resource Management Act (1991) moved the country from a control regime to an impact approach, a further challenge to most sectors already trying to cope in the reformist climate.

The concepts of responsiveness to the community and the responsibility to meet community needs were first formally adopted by Hamilton City Council as part of a major administrative review in 1987. Further, the 1989 Local Government Reform Act requires recognition by local government of the existence of different communities and their identities, values and rights, plus the provision of effective participation in local government.

Two Hamilton members of the New Zealand delegation to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, brought back information about ICLEI’s LA 21 programme. Key council staff and a core of councillors picked up the concept.

A new council was elected in October 1992 and it formally adopted the principles and objectives of Agenda 21 in March 1993. The following month a new chief executive created a Strategic Unit that had as one of its prime tasks the responsibility for coordinating the strategic-planning exercise. In December 1993, council resolved to develop a strategic plan and planning process. The objective was to produce a twenty-year plan for the city using the principles and philosophies of Agenda 21. The major debate at the city was whether the strategic plan should be a corporate or a community document. The latter model was eventually chosen.

It was Hamilton’s selection for the MCP and the attendance of a Hamilton team at ICLEI’s 1994 workshop in Hat Yai, Thailand, that set the style and process for the initiative. The team’s recommendations on return from the conference were to integrate ICLEI’s Sustainable Development Planning Framework into the planning process and “to develop appropriate external partnerships in accordance with Agenda 21 principles and to assist in the development of a people-centered city.” Council adopted this approach, and the strategic-planning process and the strategic plan itself became Hamilton’s Model Communities Programme.

The team also recommended that a distinct project team be set up to assist in the further design and implementation of the planning framework. However, this project team was never established. The team ultimately responsible for developing the strategic plan consisted of the strategic unit manager, three full-time staff and four temporary staff. The council’s Strategic Planning and Policy Coordination Committee, comprising the mayor and all thirteen city councillors, was responsible for overseeing the process.

Differing levels of awareness of Agenda 21 among staff and councillors were addressed through presentations, memorandums and newsletters. These techniques were successful but were not continued with enough regularity throughout the process. In spite of communication through the media and at workshops, it was difficult to create a knowledge base among the general public given the complexity of the LA 21 document.

Although no one group was set up to oversee the strategic planning process, five task forces were created in May 1995 to look at specific aspects of the city’s past, current and future developments during the issue identification and priority-setting phase. In total, eighty people were involved, representing a wide range of organizations and personal views and values. The fact that the task forces comprised people outside of council gave the process public credibility.

The council-staff facilitators established the ground rules for their respective task forces, ensuring an understanding that each member’s opinions were valuable. In most cases, all members wanted similar outcomes and there were few disagreements. Task forces did not have financial decision-making powers. The main resource used was members’ time. At the end of the task-force phase the members had learned a great deal and forged worthwhile partnerships.

Community-Based Issue Analysis
In November 1994, workshops to identify issues and long-term visions were held with three groups of community partners-the city’s political planning partners; representatives from government departments and agencies from Hamilton and the Waikato region; and more than 230 key community organizations.

All participants were invited back to a Consensus Forum in December 1994, where information from the initial workshops was presented. The output from this forum was summarized in 16 Visions for Hamilton, subsequently known as “The Cloud” because of its graphic presentation. These visions were underpinned by the widely-known local value: “What’s the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.”

The five task forces met weekly to develop various options or scenarios that looked at Hamilton’s possible future development. Presentation of ideas between task forces, at mid-point and end-point forums, ensured that all members were comfortable with the results. At the March 1995 mid-point forum, information developed by the task forces was presented to various community service agencies to gauge public perceptions about the issues. Feedback was incorporated into the task forces’ final reports. As the process continued it was difficult to keep the 16 visions in the forefront, and it was decided to focus on five major areas: environment, city growth, community development, economic development and the central business district.

The output from the task forces was made available for public comment throughout June and July 1995, through a traveling road show, a mail-return questionnaire in a special edition of the council’s newspaper delivered to all households, telephone surveys of 500 households, presentations to groups and organizations, news bulletins and interviews with the media, youth meetings and a telephone hotline.

To reforge the partnership with the Maori (indigenous) community, a meeting with the council’s Joint Maori Committee in November 1994 (coinciding with the partnership planning workshops) endorsed the development of a parallel Maori Strategic Plan process.

Between December 1994 and June 1995, a separate consultation process ensured that Maori people were fully involved in a way that was comfortable for them. The key results of the parallel consultation process were merged into the draft Strategic Plan. Maori were also involved in the general process.

Issue Assessment
Issue assessment took many forms and was carried out at various stages of the planning process as needs arose. For example, the economic task force commissioned an outside firm to collect demographic data and projections which were used at workshops and by the other task forces.

The Strategic Unit staff was responsible for accessing most of the information and data. Long-term trends and demographic projections such as future population and dwelling trends were highlighted at all the workshops, through media releases and during the task-force phase. Linkages between issues were identified; for example, the economic task force was keen to see how the projected population increase would affect the economic trends of the city. No measures were taken to examine the legal framework and institutional mechanisms involved in addressing the issues under assessment.

Action Planning
Approximately 200 representatives from various sectors developed a range of strategies for the city’s future development at three day-long workshops held late in August 1995. Results from the workshops and previous consultation formed the basis of the Strategic Plan. However, since it was council that produced the Strategic Plan, a degree of input and interpretation over the formulation of the end product was inevitable.

The Strategic Plan is intended to be a long-term framework for coordinated action based on partnerships thereby avoiding ad hoc and sometimes contradictory decision-making. The first part contains facts and issues about the city’s current situation as well as goals and desired outcomes. However, there is little in it which identifies real targets. Targets are likely to be used in the next steps of the process as part of specific council plans such as a transportation strategy, a recreation and leisure plan and a waste management strategy.

Following the public launch of the draft Strategic Plan in November 1996, the principle planning partners signed a formal agreement confirming their commitment to work with council to further the principles and objectives of LA 21 and the visions set out in the Strategic Plan. The partnership group intends to meet at least once a year to develop projects of mutual interest.

Outcomes of the MCP
The process influenced the council in a variety of ways-possibly most importantly by changing thought processes, particularly with regard to urban development, roads and subdivision plans. Results from the Strategic Plan consultation process supported a balanced form of city growth, taking into account social and environmental costs.

Lessons Learned from the LA 21 Planning Process

  •  Capacity-building within the community is essential before asking for participation. Differing levels of awareness about LA 21 among Hamilton staff and councillors were addressed through presentations, memorandums and newsletters. In spite of communication through the media and at workshops, it was difficult to create a knowledge base among the general public given the complexity of the LA 21 document. More media involvement and consistency of campaign material should occur in future public consultations.
  • Taskforces can provide credibility and focus. Hamilton found that the multi-stakeholder nature of the sectoral task forces gave the process public credibility and allowed for focussed discussions.
  • Taskforces should meet occasionally to strengthen overall process. Presentation of ideas between taskforces, at mid- and end-point forums, ensured that all members were comfortable with the results.
  • Indigenous communities must be involved in the the process. To reforge the partnership with the Maori community, Hamilton undertook the development of a parallel Maori Strategic Plan process. Maori were also involved in the general process.
  • Multi-stakeholder groups should be employed. The creation of an overall multi-disciplinary stakeholder to guide the process in Hamilton might have minimized the feeling in the community that the plan belonged to the council. It would have also added more varied ideas and input, and a greater “buy-in” from the organizations represented in that group.
  • Lengthy time frames for completion can lead to a lack of momentum. Hamilton recommends that other municipalities wanting to undertake a LA 21 should set aside plenty of time to complete the planning exercise. It is not a small task, and to do it well could mean a commitment of up to two years. Maintaining momentum and contact with the community is essential.