Dr. Sarah Burch
MC3 Research Associate, Centre for Interactive Research for Sustainability, University of British Columbia

Published January 11th, 2013

Case Summary

Revelstoke is a small community with a land area of around 31.9 sq. km and a population estimated at 7,329. The forestry sector employs approximately 21% of the community, but transportation, tourism, and government services are also significant employers. Revelstoke’s physical geography is steep, rugged terrain with snow-covered mountainsides of old-growth spruce and subalpine fir forests accompanied by temperate rainforest microclimates dominated by cedar.

Though modest in size, Revelstoke has a long history of community planning that is carried out with significant public input. The city’s Community Development Plan was last revised in 2007, during which the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability were incorporated. Following this was the drafting, community consultation, and ultimate approval of the Community Energy and Emissions Plan, and the District Energy Expansion Pre-Feasibility Plan. Revelstoke is currently in the process of developing an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan, which will serve to update portions of the Official Community Plan and set out a comprehensive vision for community sustainability.

The City of Revelstoke has signed the British Columbia Climate Action Charter and has developed both a Corporate GHG Emissions Inventory and Reduction Strategy as well as a Community Energy and Emissions Plan in 2011. A part time Environmental Coordinator was contracted by the City of Revelstoke beginning in 2010 to assist the city in meeting its obligations under the Climate Action Charter and to implement strategies that are consistent with the city’s strategic plan. Partnerships between the environmental and social coordinators, as well as a variety of community groups, have proved integral to early successes on sustainability in Revelstoke.

Key climate change and sustainability innovations have occurred in Revelstoke that are both driven by, but also largely independent from, provincial action on climate change. These include,

  1. the formation of the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation to support a district energy system in the community;
  2. the design of a Unified Development Bylaw that will further a vision of Revelstoke as a compact, complete, and socially and environmentally sustainable community,
  3. and the initiation of a Integrated Community Sustainability Plan process.

Though not without regulatory, financial, and other challenges, these innovations are deeply rooted in ongoing public participation, fruitful collaboration with community groups, and consideration of the future of Revelstoke in a changing climate.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation and District Energy System

Explorations into the potential creation of a District Energy (DE) system in Revelstoke began in 1997, in part because of concerns about air quality and health impacts from the beehive burner at the local Downie mill (Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce, 2010). This coincided with the Provincial decision in 1995 requiring all beehive burners to be closed down by December 31st 1997 (although a number of beehive burners have been granted extensions).1 Air quality was dramatically improved following the closure of the Downie burner.

In 2005, the city created the Revelstoke Community Energy Project, which is a unique public/private partnership to recycle wood residue from the Downie sawmill using a biomass boiler to produce thermal energy. The boiler provides low-pressure steam to operate/energize the sawmill’s dry kilns and provides hot water through an in-ground piping system to the central business district and several institutional/municipal buildings. The system provides energy rate stability to customers, improves air quality, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It will displace approximately 45,000 GJ of non-renewable fossil fuel (propane) and reduce GHG emissions by 4,000 tonnes annually from propane offsets. The District Energy plant was the first in BC to run off of wood residue, and has a secure 20-year biomass fuel supply agreement with Downie Timber and an agreement to supply steam for the sawmill dry kilns.

The district energy plant is currently at capacity, and the community is evaluating the possibility of building satellite plants. The feasibility of these plans is investigated in the District Energy Expansion Plan, which has been read and adopted by Council. Capital (to initially build, as well as future customers), however, is a major barrier to DE expansion.

Unified Development Bylaw and form-based code

Like many smaller communities throughout the province, Revelstoke is largely comprised of single-family detached housing, wide streets, and commercial areas distinct from residential zones. This creates significant challenges for environmental sustainability (deepening the need for personal vehicle use and housing with high energy demand) and may also stand in the way of enhancing community character and aesthetic value. Revelstoke is initiating a transition from traditional Euclidean zoning (in which land uses are distinct from one another, leading to a separation of commercial from residential land uses) to form-based (in which uses are blended, paying attention to the form and function of the space). Form-based zoning has been found to foster compact mixed-use communities thereby enhancing long term integrated sustainability planning and community character.

Revelstoke is pursuing this agenda by creating a comprehensive regulatory framework that embodies the goals and vision set out in its Official Community Plan. This Unified Development Bylaw will require all new developments to not heat with electricity, but instead use hydronics in anticipation of the District Energy Expansion (R10). The Unified Development Bylaw will be a prescriptive code that integrates zoning, streets, parks and other community elements to deliver the community-designed vision of development in Revelstoke.

On August 23, 2012, Director of Planning notified the Planning Committee that the goal for the Unified Development Bylaw is to have full public adoption by the end of November 2012. Internal review of the bylaw was to occur by the end of September, 2012, leaving two full months for public review.2 As of the end of 2012, the Unified Development bylaw has not yet progressed to third reading and adoption by Council.

Integrated Community Sustainability Plan

Beginning in 2012, the Integrated Community Sustainability Plan process serves to update and integrate a variety of plans that have already shaped the development of Revelstoke. These include the Community Development Action Plans (CDAP) of 2001 and 2006, the recently revised Official Community Plan, the District Energy Expansion Plan and the Community Energy and Emission Plan.

In other words, the ICSP will inform and update the OCP, while at the same time creating a new CDAP. Elements from the Community Energy and Emissions Plan, and District Energy Expansion Plan are being pulled out and used to revise the Official Community Plan (R10).

Since September 2012, the ICSP team has carried out a series of public engagement activities in order to both collect data regarding social and environmental indicators in the community as well as to develop a suite of scenarios for Revelstoke’s future. The intention for the ICSP in Revelstoke is for it to be significantly more detailed than ICSPs done elsewhere in the province. It will focus on integrating all other plans, updating elements of the OCP, and supporting community-wide action rather than simply municipal action.3 The ICSP process just began in July of 2012 and expected completion date is 2013.

Critical Success Factors

Revelstoke has a history of integrated planning. Economic and social planning was integrated beginning in 2001 (R2; R1), and in 2003 a separate environmental plan was created. In 2006 environmental issues were woven into economic, social, and cultural planning (R2). The current Integrated Community Sustainability Plan represents the next step of this integration, and so is built on a strong foundation. Social issues are actually more fully integrated into planning in Revelstoke, with environmental issues only receiving full consideration upon the hiring of an environmental coordinator three years after (2010) a social coordinator had been hired (2008). This integrated planning is paired with deep and ongoing public engagement, a crucial ingredient of Revelstoke’s action on sustainability issues. Although criticisms of this engagement have surfaced – namely that the public feels ‘over-consulted,’ and that a tenuous link exists between plans and action on the ground, meaningful public engagement has also allowed for the expression of the values at the core of sustainability and the identification of synergies and tradeoffs between various community priorities.

Related to the issues of integrated planning and public engagement is the prevalence of strong community partnerships. There are close-knit links between the environmental and social communities in Revelstoke (ie the environmental coordinator, the social coordinator, and the North Columbia Environmental Society), allowing staff to avoid duplication and exploit synergies amongst their work (R1). Strong relationships also exist between civil society and city staff (R1), and the community has a history of volunteerism and public engagement, which has become a crucial element of sustainability actions in Revelstoke (R7). This directly contributes to Revelstoke following a sustainability oriented path, rather than tackling climate change in isolation.

Another critical success factor in Revelstoke has been the development of novel funding and partnership models: in particular, the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation and the Revelstoke Community Forestry Corporation. The Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation (RCEC) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the City of Revelstoke, with a Board of Directors appointed by the City. RCEC entered into an arrangement with the Downie sawmill to create a biomass-based district energy system. Ultimately, RCEC will pay dividends back to the City, while producing renewable energy and addressing long-standing air quality concerns.

The Columbia Basin Trust is a crucial, stable source of funding (R4; R5; R9) that has contributed directly to success in Revelstoke. One interviewee suggested that nothing in the realm of the environment or sustainability would be able to move forward in Revelstoke without the support of the CBT (R5). The funding from the Columbia Basin Trust derives from downstream benefits captured in the Columbia River Treaty. Downstream power producers in the US pay for holding of water in Canada, and these funds are distributed through the CBT. The treaty is open for renegotiation in 2014, however, so there may be some changes to this arrangement in the near future (although no interviewees speculated about the nature of these changes, and none suggested that the treaty would end).

Taken together, integrated planning, community engagement and partnerships, and novel funding mechanisms have led directly to early sustainability successes in Revelstoke. While significant barriers exist, these factors nevertheless hold the potential to be replicated in other communities, and to contribute to a long-term sustainability transition in Revelstoke.

What Didn’t work?

Many barriers in Revelstoke are heavily characterized by path dependency (or inertia). One interviewee, for instance, identified the reliance on industrial agriculture (resulting in part from the flooding of agricultural land as part of the Keenleyside dam process) and reliance on fossil fuels, as major barriers to effective climate change mitigation and sustainability more broadly. Intractable attitudes and preference for a particular lifestyle was also identified as being particularly challenging to change (R5). A number of interviewees described the public mentality as ‘frontierish’ (R2), self-sufficient, or rugged (R10). This may be helpful in some ways, as residents may feel responsible for providing for themselves and solving problems, but may also create a resistance to new ideas or approaches that are seen as coming from ‘the city.’ Other path dependent ‘conventions’ were identified, including the need for streets to be a particular width to accommodate fire trucks and snow removal, but new planning principles that create a walkable, human-scale community suggesting the need for narrower streets (R10).

Despite significant and ongoing public engagement, one interviewee noted that there had been no outreach on the District Energy system, and the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation, prior to the Community Energy and Emissions Planning Process (R12). This interviewee felt that there had been more focus on finding funding for the District Energy system, rather than community engagement, leading to significant controversy with potential customers on the DE network (R12) and questions about RCEC governance.4 

Similarly, while public engagement repeatedly arose as a crucial ingredient of success in Revelstoke, some interviewees indicated distrust in these procedures (R2). This appears to arise out of a) unclear path from the consultation process to action, leading participants to feel ‘over-consulted’ without receiving the pay off of seeing action on the group; b) challenging personality dynamics within the consultation procedure.

Climate change has figured largely in public planning conversations in Revelstoke, especially as a result of the provincial Climate Action Charter and the Community Energy and Emissions Planning process. One interviewee, however, suggested that these mitigation-centric plans failed to communicate the potential co-benefits of climate change action (R2). A broader sustainability framing, present in the ICSP process, may remedy this.

Capital is a major barrier to the expansion plans for the District Energy System (R6), and also to city-wide retrofits required to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets (R6). The cost of DE expansion is especially challenging in less dense areas of the community (R8), revealing the importance of parallel efforts to densify the city core through the Unified Development Bylaw and form-based code.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources

The District Energy plant and initial distribution pipes cost $7 million to design and build. This was financed through a diversity of sources, including: 31% through grants, 33% by loans (19% in a low interest loan and 14% by a loan at prime plus) and 35% from the City of Revelstoke, in part from the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporate (Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce, 2010). Analyses suggest that these investments have a return of 5.3% over a payback period of 13 years. (Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, with the Green Municipal Fund, was a funder of the District Energy Plant (R3), and this grant was channeled through the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation (R6). The Provincial government is also a major funder, and a driver of action through the Climate Action Charter and related legislation.

The District Energy Expansion Plan (DEEP) explores proposals for creating satellite District Energy Plants, for instance for the new Revelstoke Mountain Resort or near the main highway entrance into town. Funding for this expansion is uncertain, but parties are exploring federal funding or Public Private Partnerships (R3). In 2012, however, the City of Revelstoke was investigating other potential ownership models in order to raise funds for expansion. According to news reports5, these models were explored in private. These models include:

  • “The City of Revelstoke maintains 100 per cent ownership, and RCEC remains as is, or to expand, it raises funding through loans and/or grants.
  • A defined partnership, which could include either a proportional share ownership based on the investment of the City and external partners, or a split asset arrangement, where in part of the operation, for instance the distribution, be maintained by RCEC and another portion, such as the plant, be purchased by a partner.
  • A co-operative ownership model could be considered, wherein the users share the ownership, and the risks.
  • The outright sale of all the assets and operations to an outside party would be the opposite end of the spectrum of models from the City retaining full ownership. In this case all existing contracts would have to be fully respected.” (Orlando, 2012).

Research Analysis

Complex socio-cultural dynamics bear further analysis in the case of Revelstoke, and reveal interesting lessons for other communities pursuing a sustainability (or, more narrowly, climate change) agenda. These issues are highlighted below, but will be dealt with in greater detail elsewhere.

As described above, public perceptions in Revelstoke were identified as a barrier to action (R5). In the words of one interviewee, there is a clear class distinction: the working class ‘thumb their noses’ at the planning process, but the professionals in the city are willing to take risks (R5). This interviewee points to the need to build trust with the working class, by developing programs that make their lives easier and focus on families. For instance, ‘ride share’ programs reduce money spent and also time spent in the car, and might be appealing to this segment of the population.

Tradeoffs between climate change actions and other (economic and social) priorities present significant barriers to public acceptance and implementation. The early integration of economic and social planning, combined ultimately with environmental planning, helps to identify and avoid some of these tradeoffs (R8).

Sparking innovation is a matter of ‘being ready’ with bylaws that support best practices in planning, while cultivating a municipal staff and community culture that supports leadership (R10). Similarly, training of engineers and building inspectors should equip them to deal with narrower streets and other design components that will results from the implementation of the Unified Development bylaw, if the path dependencies described above are to be overcome (R10).

The role of the government has been gradually expanding in the case of Revelstoke. With the addition of social and environmental issues to the traditional economic planning, the municipality’s role has expanded into these new domains, increasingly integrating municipal actions with the community (R8). Deep and ongoing communication with the community, including collaboration with community groups and the private sector, facilitates a closer relationship between the municipal government and Revelstoke residents.

Although public participation and engagement have been crucial parts of Revelstoke’s sustainability and climate change path, it is important to maintain momentum behind this. One way to maintain momentum and signal the importance of public engagement is to enshrine it in the Official Community plan, as Revelstoke has done (R10). In other words, these ‘drivers of success’ must be institutionalized in order to become embedded in the development path.

Social development is deeply integrated with environmental and economic planning in Revelstoke. Interviewees (R1) indicated that, in Revelstoke, social sustainability consists of: inclusion, diversity, strong social networks, organizational capacity, strong relationships between organizations, access to lifelong learning, and support for youth. Direct links were made between this and environmental sustainability. An example is the case of public transit, which is important socially (affordable, providing access to all parts of the community) but also economically (linked to productivity at work and spending less on transportation) and environmentally (lower emissions) (R1). It is clear that Revelstoke supports processes and individuals who are thinking through these co-benefits and multiple implications of climate change action.

Detailed Background Case Description

A small community in the interior of British Columbia, the City of Revelstoke is pursuing climate change and sustainability actions on a variety of fronts. As described above, these include the creation (and potential expansion) of a biomass-based district energy system, innovative regulatory and planning practices designed to enhance community character and pursue sustainability, and climate change mitigation measures such as community greenhouse gas inventories and action plans. The section that follows summarizes the state of implementation of these strategies, and steps taken to monitor and evaluate their success.

The District Energy system is up and running, and serving a number of city buildings and a few commercial buildings. Proposals are currently in place to expand this, and feasibility studies are being undertaken (see timeline in section 1.2).

On August 23, 2012, Director of Planning notified the Planning Committee that the goal for the Unified Development Bylaw is to have full public adoption by the end of November 2012. Internal review of the bylaw was to occur by the end of September, 2012, leaving two full months for public review.6 As of the end of 2012, the Unified Development bylaw has not yet progressed to third reading and adoption by Council.

As a signatory to the provincial Climate Action Charter, Revelstoke has committed to integrating greenhouse gas reduction targets into its Official Community Plan, and making progress towards carbon neutrality (in the municipality’s own operations) by 2012. These actions have been completed, and the Revelstoke environmental coordinator recommended (July 26, 2012) to council that Revelstoke purchase carbon offsets in order to achieve carbon neutrality. One interviewee indicated, however, that Revelstoke would be taking the ‘making progress towards’ option offered by the province (R6) – in other words, Revelstoke may not reach carbon neutrality but will demonstrate that it is on the path towards doing so.

The CEEP and DEEP plans passed through first and second readings through Council and were adopted. On August 9, 2012, the Director of Planning announced that Official Community Plan Amendment Bylaw No. 2020 would be brought to Council. This bylaw is based on goals in the adopted CEEP and DEEP, and would serve to integrate them into the Official Community Plan’s Sustainability Framework.7

Some environmental and social monitoring is occurring by groups outside of the City of Revelstoke, such as the Columbia Basin Trust. This is typical of smaller communities, which may not have the resources to carry out such monitoring themselves. For instance, the Columbia Basin Trust’s ‘State of the Basin’ report delivers robust data on a suite of environment, social, and economic indicators (Columbia Basin Trust, 2008). Monitoring of the District Energy system (in its current form) is being undertaken, but the expansion of the DE system is only in the proposal phases. Greenhouse gas emissions are being monitored through the provincial Community Energy and Emissions Inventory process (R6). Little other monitoring was mentioned by interviewees, such as quantification of climate change impacts or co-benefits associated with climate change/sustainability actions.

Despite the modest presence of monitoring systems, some interviewees were not aware that these existed (i.e., R5). While emissions are being monitored (see above), the quality and effect of public engagement, a crucial component of the City’s sustainability strategies, is not being monitored (R6). Generally speaking, interviewees suggested that monitoring and evaluation has not been a priority, although this may change through the ICSP process (R8).

Strategic Questions

  • How can a balance be struck between deep public engagement and efficient use of time/resources in order to avoid a sense of ‘over-consultation’?
  • How effective are regulatory tools such as the Unified Development Bylaw at altering the path of development in a community like Revelstoke, enhancing long-term sustainability and addressing climate change?
  • In the absence of strong champions, such as those present in Revelstoke, how can leadership and collaboration be fostered?
  • What is the most effective ‘relationship’ between an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan, the community’s Official Community Plan, and other master plans?

Resources and References

City of Revelstoke. (2009). City of Revelstoke Official Community Plan Adopted Verision July 6 2009. Revelstoke, BC: City of Revelstoke.

City of Revelstoke. (2011). Public Participation Master Plan Pre-Final Draft. Revelstoke: City of Revelstoke.

Columbia Basin Trust. (2008). State of the Basin Report. Castlegar, BC: Columbia Basin Trust.

Compass Resource Management. (2011). City of Revelstoke District Energy Expansion Pre-Feasibility Study Final Report. Revelstoke: City of Revelstoke.

Lohman, M., Wilson, M., Pearce, C., & Zeeg, T. (2011). City of Revelstoke Community Energy and Emissions Plan. Revelstoke: Think Bright Climate Solutions.

Mountain Labyrinths Inc. (2007). Revelstoke and Area Community Development Action Plan. Revelstoke: Prepared for the City of Revelstoke.

Orlando, A. (2012). Why is the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation exploring privatization?, Revelstoke Times Review. Retrieved from

Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce. (2010). Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation: A Community Partnership in Energy Innovation. Revelstoke: Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce.

Columbia Basin Trust. (2008). State of the Basin Report. Castlegar, BC: Columbia Basin Trust.

Compass Resource Management. (2011). City of Revelstoke District Energy Expansion Pre-Feasibility Study Final Report. Revelstoke: City of Revelstoke.

Lohman, M., Wilson, M., Pearce, C., & Zeeg, T. (2011). City of Revelstoke Community Energy and Emissions Plan. Revelstoke: Think Bright Climate Solutions.

Mountain Labyrinths Inc. (2007). Revelstoke and Area Community Development Action Plan. Revelstoke: Prepared for the City of Revelstoke.

Orlando, A. (2012). Why is the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation exploring privatization?, Revelstoke Times Review. Retrieved from

Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce. (2010). Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation: A Community Partnership in Energy Innovation. Revelstoke: Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce.

*References labeled with "R#" refer to information retrieved from personal communications.*


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2 Source: Revelstoke Planning Committee Minutes. Meeting August 23rd 2012, return to text

3 These conclusions were taken from the meeting of the ICSP Steering Committee that SB attended on July 16 2012. return to text

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6 Source: Revelstoke Planning Committee Minutes. Meeting August 23rd 2012. return to text

7 Source: Revelstoke Planning Committee Minutes. Meeting August 9th 2012. return to text