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Szetey, K., E. A. Moallemi, E. Ashton, M. Butcher, B. Sprunt, and B. A. Bryan. 2021. Participatory planning for local sustainability guided by the Sustainable Development Goals. Ecology and Society 26(3):16.

Participatory planning for local sustainability guided by the Sustainable Development Goals

1Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, 2Forrest Gateway Project, Forrest, Victoria, Australia, 3Forest, Fire and Regions, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Geelong, Victoria, Australia, 4Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia


To achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), actions are required at all global, national, and local scales. To ensure coordination between scales, local actions need to be carefully planned to be aligned with global and national priorities. Local planning for sustainability must be adaptive and heterogeneous but also consistent and driven by the community. We describe an approach to co-create a local sustainability plan using the SDGs for a rural community in southeastern Australia using participatory techniques for co-creation, data collection, and review. The community placed a high priority on infrastructure for achieving sustainable growth and social equity while preserving their unique environment. By articulating their priorities in this community-led plan, the community is empowered to advocate for the sustainable development of their town with decision makers and funding bodies. If local communities create sustainability plans using the SDGs, then such planning will be consistent between and across geographic scales, and aligned with the global goals. This will also aid in achievement of the SDGs at national and global scales, as advocated by the United Nations in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Key words: community; local; participatory; planning; sustainability; Sustainable Development Goals


As the world adapts to the climate and COVID-19 crises, long-term, adaptive, and inclusive planning to achieve ambitious goals for humanity’s future is vital (Walker et al. 2020). Sustainable development and plans for how to achieve it is needed worldwide and across all types of settlements in order to meet the challenges of climate change and other uncertain futures (United Nations 2015). Sustainability planning entails not only the principles of sustainable development, that is, ensuring that humanity’s present use of resources does not compromise the requirements of future generations (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987), but must also take into account local contexts and their intersection with the pillars of sustainability, i.e., society, economy, and environment (Hallström et al. 2017). Sustainability planning in local contexts requires an integrated approach that connects place making, community building, and downscaled sustainability priorities (Frank and Reiss 2014). The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an ambitious global agenda for sustainability that has been adopted by all UN member states, and the UN have advocated for both government-led and community-led, i.e., local, implementation (United Nations 2015). The SDGs offer a foundation upon which sustainability plans can be built.

Sustainability planning at the local scale requires participation from the community, driven by the community (what is known as a bottom-up approach) to increase the chances of a successful outcome (Brody et al. 2003, Burby 2003, Bagheri and Hjorth 2007, Mistry et al. 2016, Hallström et al. 2019, Moallemi et al. 2021). There are two main reasons for this requirement: first, only local actors possess the intimate connection to place and local knowledge needed to develop place-based solutions (Manzo and Perkins 2006); and second, local areas have been subjected to repeated transitions in governance and economies, over many years and often imposed from above, and this has engendered a skepticism in populations of top-down planning and change (Frank and Reiss 2014). This second issue is part of the backlash against top-down planning that occurred as a result of the sidelining of local knowledge and actors, and because of the greater impact of local planning (Morrison et al. 2015).

Another multifaceted issue is a lack of consistency in planning approaches for local sustainability. Morrison (2006) expressed that this may be due to a haphazard integration of sustainability into local planning during its early phases. In their search for a theory of rural planning (a subset of local planning), Hibbard and Frank (2019) suggested that the purpose of rural planning is guided by the relationship between the rural and the rest of society, a relationship that has become ambiguous over the last 70 years. This ambiguity has led to an inconsistency in planning approaches in rural areas, however it is not limited to the rural. McLean and Borén (2015) discussed how the concept of policy transfer, where policies and knowledge are shared across scales (i.e., from state to local) in both rural and urban areas, becomes policy immobility at the local scale as sharing no longer occurs between different local areas. If knowledge transfer does not occur between jurisdictions at the local scale, then consistency cannot be achieved. Power imbalances between levels of government can also inhibit progress. Within an Australian context, local government (already much less powerful than its international equivalents) can be perceived as a political threat at higher levels of government so there is less incentive to be consistent (Henderson 2019).

Čiegis and Gineitiené (2008) described their experiences of participatory strategic sustainable development planning in the newly independent nation of Lithuania using the principles of Local Agenda 21 (Coenen 2009). They found that a bottom-up planning approach was more successful because development strategies prior to this had been prepared by non-local experts and were impossible to implement because they had lacked understanding of the local context. Their method was applied to eight diverse local communities, urban and rural, and they listed the importance of the direct involvement of the community among their conclusions. They also noted the need for a flexible but consistent planning process. An opportunity exists to build on the work of Čiegis and Gineitiené (2008) and advance local sustainability planning using the SDGs. We propose an approach for co-developing local sustainability plans using the SDGs, which will ensure consistency between local communities and across different spatial scales, e.g., local, national, global. A full implementation of the SDGs is likely not appropriate at the local scale, so the SDGs should be localized to maintain local diversity and sense of place (Moallemi et al. 2019, 2020). ElMassah and Mohieldin (2020) found that when SDGs are localized, governance is more robust and provides a more realistic way to achieve the SDGs, because localization incorporates the advantages of centralization, i.e., national strategies, and decentralization, i.e., local strategies. They also conclude that localization distributes ownership of the SDGs across all levels of society, providing a more inclusive outcome. One study developed a rural revitalization strategy guided by the SDGs, and also identified the research gap in using participatory methods for SDG planning at the local scale (Diaz-Sarachaga 2020). Localization of the SDGs involves identifying locally relevant sustainability ambitions through the use of participatory methods (Szetey et al. 2021) and aligns the needs of local actors with national and global priorities (Moallemi et al. 2020). Using the SDGs to guide sustainability planning at the local scale will facilitate the consistency that we identified as lacking, and using participatory processes to localize them ensures the bottom-up, community-driven approach that is necessary for success.

Here we present an approach for co-creating a local community sustainability plan framed by localized SDGs using participatory methods applied to a case study of the township of Forrest in southwestern Victoria, Australia. We collected data on the sustainability ambitions of a local community using a range of participatory techniques. We used this information along with a synthesis of several previous community engagements to develop tailored community goals mapped to SDG targets. We engaged with the community for review and validation of the plan, and co-developed local priorities based upon their ability to achieve the community goals. Local planning guided by the SDGs affords a foundation that is consistent across scales, allowing for the alignment of sustainability policy and outcomes at different levels.



Study area and context

Our case study community of Forrest is located in Victoria, Australia (Fig. 1). It lies within a region of temperate rain forest that has been part of a National Park since 2005, and prior to that was heavily logged for timber. Logging was prohibited in 2008 and concurrently there was a decline of agricultural industries. Since around 2010, tourism and tourism-supporting activities have become dominant in its economy, giving it a designation of a community-in-transition (Morzillo et al. 2015). The local environment is at risk of wildfire impact and vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Community members in Forrest are concerned about their future in the face of climate change and are highly engaged with their town’s development. The Eastern Maar are the Traditional Owners of south-western Victoria and custodians of the land.

The population of Forrest and the local surrounding district is approximately 470 people. Forrest is a desirable location to live and there has been significant increase in housing prices caused in part by pressure on the housing supply: the infrastructure to support housing development does not exist (e.g., adequate wastewater facilities), while at the same time a repurposing of residential housing for use as tourism accommodation is taking place. Thus, housing supply is constraining the growth of the local population.

Although we have described the study area as the township of Forrest, the plan is called The Forrest and District Plan (Szetey et al. 2020), and was written to include the neighboring district townships of Gerangamete, Barwon Downs, and Barramunga. This is because Forrest is a central hub of the district, where most of the local services exist, e.g., the post office, local general store, hospitality venues, and various social and community groups. The future of Forrest’s services will have a significant impact on the district townships.

The local Council of the region in which Forrest is located, Colac-Otway Shire, traditionally engages consultants to write strategic plans for townships. The Forrest and District Community Group consulted with Colac-Otway Shire and were granted permission to develop a community plan independently, which would then be endorsed by Council. The Forrest and District Community Group is a volunteer group of six local residents (three women, three men) who promote the community and administer community-driven initiatives. The group comprises local business owners, health workers, and other professionals. The Forrest and District Community Group intended to use extensive community engagement data collected between 2015 and 2020 to develop the content of the plan, and co-wrote the plan with university researchers already performing research in Forrest.

Planning approach

Emerging wisdom in sustainability planning suggests a process approach is preferable to a fixed-goal approach, that is, using a vision to guide outcomes rather than optimizing to achieve a set of fixed goals (Bagheri and Hjorth 2007, Hallström et al. 2019). The goal-based approach seeks to predict the future to prepare for potential change, whereas the process-based approach can learn and adapt, and thus manage uncertainty more effectively (Bagheri and Hjorth 2007). Here we followed a four-step process with two-way information flow (learning) between the community and researchers at each step, and significant iterative revision (adaptation) occurring at step 4 (Fig. 2):

  1. Localizing SDGs
  2. Data synthesis
  3. Analyzing possible futures
  4. Community engagement, objectives, and validation

These steps will be described in detail in the next section of the manuscript.

We used the principles of community-based participatory research, in which the community is actively involved in research intended to facilitate change (Israel et al. 2001, Shalowitz et al. 2009), being that it (1) is participatory; (2) is cooperative, with a collaborative and equitable partnership between researchers and community; (3) is a co-learning process with a shared exchange of knowledge; (4) builds on the strengths of the community; (5) empowers all participants with equal knowledge dissemination; (6) intends that there will be action based on research outcomes; (7) identifies the community as an entity rather than a location; and (8) is a long-term commitment by all participants. Community-based participatory research is appropriate for sustainability applications at the local level (Cutts et al. 2020), and is suitable for the shift to online participatory methods necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Valdez and Gubrium 2020). Alongside these principles, we also characterized the community participation at the levels of consultation, discussion, and co-design on the modified ladder of participation developed by Basco-Carrera et al. (2017), based on Arnstein’s (1969) original work. We designed our participatory activities with all of this in mind; additionally, the plan was co-written with two members of the community as authors and other members who were consulted heavily.

Once the first draft of the plan was complete, the fourth stage was to subject it to two rounds of community and one round of non-community stakeholder review (Fig. 2). At the end of each of these rounds, we revised the plan based on reviewer comments. The community review served to validate the contents of the plan and ensured that it was an accurate representation of the community’s aspirations. The first draft took two months to complete, the revision was completed six weeks after the first review period closed, and each round of community comment was open for two weeks. The final published version incorporating non-community stakeholder review was released six months after the commencement of the project.

Plan development

Localizing SDGs

We undertook community engagement activities to localize the SDGs, i.e., identify the locally relevant SDGs, in Forrest using multiple techniques. The community members were, in general, not familiar with the SDGs before our engagement activities. They were, however, concerned about the development of Forrest viewed with environmental, economic, and social lenses, especially in the light of climate change. From this we concluded they would be receptive to the concepts of sustainable development.

The first engagement activity was a Listening Post (Szetey et al. 2021), where we set up a table outside the township general store at times of high traffic, and polled local residents on which SDGs they believed were most important for the future of Forrest. This activity was open to any person who wished to participate, and there were 55 responses to the poll. The second activity was a facilitated Kitchen Table Discussion (van Hees et al. 2020, Szetey et al. 2021) with representative members of the community, covering topics such as what the participants liked about Forrest and why they remained there, and what challenges and threats Forrest faced. At the conclusion of the discussion, the attendees jointly ranked the SDGs. The facilitator motivated the ranking by asking participants, primed from the earlier discussion, to prioritize what was most important for Forrest. The eight participants were selected by a community-based collaborator to represent different stakeholder groups within the community, and included a school administrator, a local tourism business owner, a government employee, and a farmer, among others.

To support these participatory activities, we performed a contextual analysis of locally relevant documents (including many of the consultation processes that form the basis of the plan). This contextual analysis was a comprehensive desktop review of 19 locally relevant documents identified through a snowball process with guidance from local stakeholders, from which we ascertained the priorities of the community, and developed a shortlist of locally important SDGs (Szetey et al. 2021). From these three activities, we had three independently sourced shortlists of SDGs that we combined into one final list of locally relevant SDGs for Forrest. These local SDGs were the following: 3 - Good Health and Well-being; 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation; 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth; 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities; 13 - Climate Action; and 15 - Life on Land. These community engagement activities and the contextual analysis are described in detail in Szetey et al. (2021) as they formed the basis of an earlier phase of our research. A decision was made to consolidate the local SDGs and rename them to be more specific to Forrest for the purposes of the plan; however the community goals as defined in the plan can be considered to be synonymous with these local SDGs. We mapped these community goals to specific SDG targets.

Data synthesis

In the period from 2015 to 2020, the community engaged in at least seven different consultation processes for various community projects. These included new wastewater infrastructure; mountain bike trail redevelopment; redevelopment of a parcel of land known as the Forrest Common; a process for the community to take ownership of unused government land; and the SDG localization project from which this research emerged (see Szetey et al. 2021). A considerable amount of qualitative data were generated from these engagement activities about the goals and aspirations of the community for their future. We identified major themes from this data from qualitative analysis; the method for identifying these themes was a simple categorization based on close reading and familiarization with the data.

Additional data beyond the community engagement results were collated to understand the local context: historical, demographic, topographic, and ecological. This data was found, for example, by searching the Australian Bureau of Statistics census data for the community (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017).

Analyzing possible futures

In synthesizing the community engagement data, we identified a list of driving forces that were likely to have significant influence on the future development of the community. We analyzed the current status of these driving forces in Forrest based on information collected through the community engagement activities described here and additional activities as described in Szetey et al. (2021), and through the contextual analysis. We analyzed this by noting the trend of that driving force, i.e., the expected behavior into the future based on its current trajectory, and potential opportunities and challenges for Forrest in respect of that trend (Table A1.1). We then synthesized that information into a paragraph for each driving force. The complete list of driving forces is described in the results, however we present here one example of a driving force and the influences which we had to consider: housing availability and affordability was one driving force which limits population and economic growth, but new housing cannot be built without wastewater infrastructure improvements, and current land-use zoning limits new housing development on land zoned as agricultural within the township. We identified the local SDGs and SDG targets each driving force was associated with (Table A1.3).

Community engagement, objectives, and validation

When the first draft of the plan was complete, we released it to the community to provide feedback and comment. The plan was uploaded to the community’s website and publicized through social media and posters in the Forrest general store. Printed copies were also available in the general store for those without access to the internet. At the conclusion of the comment period, we conducted two separate facilitated community videoconference sessions for people to ask questions and participate in a discussion about community infrastructure with a representative from Colac Otway Shire. These sessions were conducted via videoconference because they occurred during the local lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Efforts were made to engage those without internet access or sufficient technical understanding by using a “buddy” system to pair up technologically confident people with those who were less confident. During the sessions, we presented a short video describing the five community goals (Online Resource 1), and then a list of collated community improvement ideas for people to discuss. We made use of the “breakout room” function in the videoconference platform to have meeting attendees discuss the information we presented in randomly allocated groups of three or four people, much as they would be able to in an in-person meeting, and then they could ask questions when they returned to the full meeting. Each breakout session lasted for five minutes, and there were two breakouts over the course of the one-hour meeting (see Appendix 2 for meeting agenda). Attendance at the videoconference meetings was open to all in the community. The meetings were facilitated by a non-community member who had been involved in multiple prior community engagements in Forrest, and was trusted by the community.

From these community meetings, and from feedback received on the draft plan, we compiled a list of community objectives suggested by residents for improvements in Forrest. These ranged from public art and signage upgrades through to an integrated water management plan. We included every suggestion received in the plan because they were all valuable ideas. Each objective was aligned with up to five community goals by categorizing the objective with the goal(s) it would help with achieving. We did not consult with the wider community about this alignment (although they had opportunities to comment during the second review) but rather discussed within the author and consultant group, which consisted principally of community members. Of this list, nine priorities were selected that would permit the community to develop sustainably. These priorities were selected based on the relative urgency of the driving forces identified above and the number of community goals each would help achieve, with consideration given to projects already in progress and potential for synergistic effects with other objectives.

Once we had received all the community feedback on the first draft of the plan, we revised the plan. This completed draft then went through a second round of community comment, with the same revision process. At the conclusion of community review, the document was sent to government and agency stakeholders (for example, local and state government, the local water authority, and the philanthropic organization which funded the research project). Minor revisions were made at this point and the final plan was launched in October 2020.


Localizing SDGs

The local SDGs identified from community engagement activities form the foundation of the plan. To enhance the relevance of the local SDGs and facilitate community understanding, we consolidated the six local SDGs into five community goals that are more representative of local circumstances (Fig. 3), and then mapped these community goals to SDG targets. For example, “A bushfire safe community” is mapped to SDG 3 Good Health and Well-being to meet target 3.9 regarding air and water pollution; to SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities to meet targets 11.4 regarding protecting natural heritage, and 11.5 regarding reducing deaths, people affected, and loss from disasters; to SDG 13 Climate Action to meet target 13.1 regarding resilience against climate-related disasters; and to SDG 15 Life on Land to meet targets 15.1 regarding conservation of inland freshwater ecosystems, and 15.5 regarding action to reduce degradation of natural habitats and prevent extinction of threatened species. The complete mapping of SDG targets to community goals is in the appendices (Table A1.2).

Data synthesis

We identified six major themes within the community engagement data, which encompass the SDGs that had previously been selected (Appendix 3:36-37). These were the six themes:

We also identified the community strengths, such as being a community hub for the surrounding townships; access to a pristine local environment; proximity to the coast and a national park; and the local learning and childcare center.

Analyzing possible futures

The driving forces that we identified were population and demographics; residential land development; affordability of property and suitability of housing; inequality; local economy; environment; major infrastructure projects; transport and connectivity; local school; and climate change (Appendix 3:50-54). Each of these driving forces was associated with the local SDGs (Fig. 3) and mapped to the SDG targets (Table A1.3). Here is an example of the potential futures which we described, with respect to climate change:

Encroaching sea level rise is already affecting communities along the Great Ocean Road, with landslips creating dangerous road conditions and impacting coastal properties. This could have positive or negative effects on visitor numbers to Forrest: dangerous and unsightly conditions may drive people away from the region, or encourage them to visit areas further inland. Decreasing amenity along the Great Ocean Road could also push residents to move further inland, potentially into Forrest and District. This, coupled with the increasing cost of farmland as agriculture shifts south, away from drying and drought-affected northern Victoria, could make living in Forrest and District even less affordable than it currently is.

Community engagement, objectives, and validation

We promoted the plan and request for community review in the local newspaper, The Forrest Post, and we engaged a local graphic designer to develop an infographic to communicate the main points to the community (Fig. 4).

There were 16 responses to the first version of the draft plan. One criticism received was the absence of information on the local Indigenous people of the region from before European colonization, so we invited the regional Indigenous corporation to provide those voices. The second version of the draft plan received 13 responses, including from an Indigenous representative. In the videoconference meetings, we had 10 attendees at the first session, and eight attendees at the second session.

The feedback received fell into three main categories: suggestions for community improvements, which we added to the list of community objectives; omissions or corrections, for example, missing community groups or incorrect dates; and recommendations for content reframing, such as emphasizing the healthy environment away from a tourism context. In general, the feedback suggested a greater emphasis on the sustainability dimensions of society and environment over economy, more discussion of diversifying the economy beyond tourism, and a desire for a stronger community voice. These suggestions reflected the community goals and the driving forces as the economy was only one of many aspects of the community’s ambitions, with its diversification being specifically identified (Fig. 3). Alongside this, only one of the nine priorities has a tourism, i.e., economy, focus: the Mountain Bike Trails Design Project. The remaining seven priorities share both social and environmental focuses. The complete list of feedback received is contained in the appendices (Table A4.1). The complete list of community objectives (Appendix 3:48-49, Table A5.1) and the nine community priorities (Appendix 3:7, Appendix 5) are contained in the appendices.

There was one final review of the plan by non-resident stakeholders, including local government, the local water authority, and the research funding body. The only substantive feedback we received was from the local water authority concerning the representation of the local wastewater project, and a contentious environmental issue caused by groundwater extraction. Their comments and our response can be found in the appendices (Appendix 4). The final published plan document, which was designed with the assistance of a local graphic designer, is available in the appendices (Appendix 3).


Participatory planning for local sustainability

We have presented our work with the community in Forrest and District to co-create a local community plan based upon the SDGs. We identified the local SDGs for the community using participatory techniques, and consolidated them to form five community-specific goals (Fig. 3). These five goals formed the backbone of the final priorities of the plan. Drafts of the plan were sent twice for community evaluation and validation, and the plan was revised to take into account feedback received. We also conducted two facilitated discussions via videoconference so that community members could ask questions and submit further ideas for inclusion in the plan. We found that the community were concerned about their future opportunities for growth of their town while their infrastructure remained insufficient for their current needs, and were glad to have an opportunity to articulate their ambitions for the future independently of the organizations who were key to providing funding for their needed infrastructure. The list of nine priorities (Appendix 3:7, Appendix 5) set forth an agenda and empowered the community to negotiate with decision makers about projects and improvements for their town. Although this plan is not currently legally binding, it is the community’s intention to submit the Forrest and District Plan for endorsement to the local government (Colac Otway Shire) as their formal plan. Beyond this, having a formal document with carefully articulated goals and priorities gives the community a strong foundation to advocate for community building, particularly in respect of funding from bodies separate to local government.

We wrote this plan with the local SDGs at the base of our planning process, and all the community objectives and priorities that emerged from our data synthesis and analysis of the possible futures were aligned with the community goals (and thus the local SDGs). This gave the plan a foundation in sustainability, with continual reference back to the community goals. Our process required genuine engagement, contribution, and repeated evaluation by the community, ensuring the final plan was a collaboratively written and validated document. Additionally, as Hallström et al. (2019) state, sustainability planning by its very nature needs to be adaptive and participatory to be achievable, so we sought to meet both those requirements with our process. We believe that our work, based upon the principles of community-based participatory research, fostered a collaborative exchange of knowledge: the community provided us with information about their desires and ambitions for Forrest, while we used that information and categorized it, aligned it with goals, and shared that back with the community. Further, we prioritized actions that will enable Forrest to achieve those goals and ambitions and become a more sustainable community. Working through this process of planning with the community has, in return, afforded the researchers a deeper understanding of the needs and requirements of the community, which will better inform future research. This final point is a fulfillment of another of the principles of community-based participatory research: the co-learning process with an equal exchange of knowledge in both directions.

Why localization is important

The local scale requires a different approach to planning because local areas are much less homogenized and encompass greater diversity across a smaller population compared to national or global scales (Moallemi et al. 2020). Using localized SDGs provides a way to manifest that diversity while at the same time remaining aligned to a common sustainability agenda. Additionally, planning for local sustainability using the SDGs contributes to global SDG achievement: Sterling et al. (2020) explored how place-based planning to achieve the SDGs aligns with global transformation, and our work also aims to realize this. Empowering local communities to take ownership of their local sustainability priorities has the dual outcomes of facilitating local sustainability achievement, and aiding achievement at larger scales. For example, local community renewable energy projects contribute to reducing state or national carbon emissions. A widespread application of this approach of using the SDGs to guide local sustainability planning would lead to consistent and therefore comparable planning and outcomes at the local scale. Empowering communities to advocate for their own progress is itself an achievement of SDG 16, Target 7: “Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.”


There is an alignment of governance and infrastructure outcomes in the SDG literature. Gbadegesin et al. (2020) discussed the need to plan for sustainability with reference to Nigerian communities, finding that infrastructure development driven by the community and supported by government results in a positive outcome for governance, because the communities feel empowered to create lasting change and engage with stakeholders. Because the Forrest community has specific infrastructure goals, this has direct relevance for our case study. Additionally, investment in and development of infrastructure was found to work synergistically with SDG achievement because over 70% of SDG targets can be influenced by infrastructure provision (Adshead et al. 2019, Thacker et al. 2019). These findings support Forrest’s priorities for infrastructure development to fulfill sustainability objectives.

Aligning community planning with the SDGs also allows access to a range of monitoring and evaluation processes tied to the SDGs, such as the composite index designed by Campagnolo et al. (2018), the evaluation framework proposed by Yonehara et al. (2017), or any number of alternatives. It is our intention with future research to design modeling and evaluation for this case study, which is now well grounded in sustainability ambitions. The suite of existing SDG indicators provides an additional benefit to using the SDGs for planning as they can be employed to measure progress at the modeling and implementation stages.


This work makes two main contributions. First, we provide a practical example showing that the use of localized SDGs as a basis for local community planning can provide a consistent and comparative planning approach for local areas, building upon the work of Čiegis and Gineitiené (2008) and Local Agenda 21 (Coenen 2009). The second contribution is the participatory methods used to co-develop the plan. Our methods advance the techniques used in Bodorkós and Pataki (2009) with multiple waves of community engagement activities within the community culminating with the writing of a local development plan, but with a translation of the second stage of plan development to a remote, online process. Our co-design and evaluation process was successful thanks to significant preparatory work undertaken during the localizing SDGs step, more fully described in Szetey et al. (2021). Much of the literature on participatory processes focuses on information gathering methods such as workshops and visioning exercises. We had already engaged with the community using these types of methods but there appears to be less research investigating the results of engagements, for example what happens once the information has been compiled into a plan. Evaluation does take place but it is more often a type of “meta-evaluation,” where the participants are asked to evaluate the process rather than the results (e.g., Kok et al. 2011, Cradock-Henry et al. 2017, Ulibarri 2019). Our method effectively re-purposed the scientific peer review process by casting the community and external stakeholders as the expert reviewers. Additionally, our methods extended the work of Valdez and Gubrium (2020) in using virtual community-based participatory research methods: our online engagement process was particularly relevant in this time of global pandemic but is also applicable to researchers and planners who may be located at some distance from the community they are engaging.


The SDGs are a global sustainability agenda intended to be implemented at global, national, and local scales. Local planners developing sustainability plans should make use of the SDGs to have a consistent and comparable set of goals and targets. We have demonstrated a method using a bottom-up, participatory approach to develop a local sustainability plan guided by the SDGs. This approach aligns bottom-up local needs with top-down global goals. We suggest that a broad adoption of our method would ensure consistency in local planning as well as allowing for comparison at the local scale, as well as with national and global scales. We believe that if the SDGs are implemented at the local level it will greatly aid their achievement at national and global level, and developing local sustainability plans is a positive first step to accomplishing that.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We acknowledge the contributions of our community engagement collaborators: George O’Dwyer and David Rourke from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning of Victoria (Australia); the Forrest General Store; the members of the Forrest Gateway Project Steering Committee; and Dianty Ningrum from Monash University. We would like to thank the Forrest community for reviewing the plan and providing feedback. Ebony Hickey of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative provided an Indigenous perspective for the plan’s contents, and Gillian Brew provided graphic design services for the final publication.
The coordination and writing of the plan was made possible through the Forrest Gateway Project, funded by the Victorian State Government’s Virtual Centre for Climate Change Innovation (Emma Ashton), and the Ian Potter Foundation (Katrina Szetey). Sharon Bradshaw, in her role as secretary of the Forrest and District Community Group, volunteered her time to consult on the writing of the plan.


The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, KS. None of the data are publicly available because it would violate the conditions of our ethics approval. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by Deakin University, reference 2019-249.


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Correspondent author:
Katrina Szetey
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