The Uses and Abuses of Community for Sustainable Development

Communities are complex, contested and conflict-ridden objects. And in order to involve them in sustainable development, we need to take a more realistic and critical approach to governing and understanding them.

SPRG researchers Fraser Stewart and Lucie Middlemiss organised a workshop that brought together 30 scholars from around the UK to the University of Leeds (21-23 March) to discuss and critically analyse recent governance strategies in the UK that position ‘community' in contrasting ways. Despite the proliferation in recent years of community action and governance strategies aimed at achieving sustainable development there has been little critical attention directed to this issue. Framing the workshop were three key themes:

1.    Developing a practice-oriented approach to community and sustainable development
2.    Critically theorising the connections between community and sustainable development
3.    Understanding the role of public scholarship in sustainable communities work

Together the papers questioned how, why and to whose ends community emerges as a vehicle for achieving sustainable development. They argue for a nuanced and context-specific interpretation of community in sustainable development work that is able to capture the diversity of those involved.

The workshop consisted of eleven oral papers and six poster presentations from within and beyond the SPRG and its sister project  the SLRG. Papers were circulated to those attending beforehand to ensure insightful discussion amongst participants.

Key Issues & Reflections

A number of crosscutting issues and questions emerged from the papers and the resulting discussions:

•    What is the imaginary of community in sustainable action and policy?
•    How is community practiced for sustainable development?
•    What does community mean at different scales?
•    Is there is a tension between community as neo-liberalism or radicalism?
•    What is the role of social difference?
•    How do different definitions of community shape what is possible to achieve?
•    Who legitimately speaks for or acts on behalf of the community?
•    What is the role of social science in doing research ‘on’ or ‘with’ communities?
•    How and in what ways should researchers/communities be attempting to influence policy?

A key theme that emerged from the workshop was the divide between understandings of community as a social process involving, among many other things, shared learning; and technical or instrumental applications in which people are passive recipients of policy directives devised and delivered by others.

Whilst theories of practice was not the organising theme of the workshop papers reflected practice theoretical traditions in their contributions There were a number of useful contributions from SPRG members that reflects the diversity of SPRG’s programme of research. Isabelle Darmon and  Alan Ward from the Changing Eating Habits project discussed the provision of sustainable food in poor communities. Gordon Walker from the Zero Carbon Homes project discussed communities, codification and zero carbon homes. Alex Franklin (SPRG Fellowship  on ‘Sustainable Communities, Social Enterprise and Local Food’) offered a critical review of the Welsh Government Pathfinder Programme. And SPRG Fellow Lucie Middlemiss discussed the implications of individualization for sustainable development and her co-authored paper on doing sustainability in low-income communities.

To take just two examples from a very stimulating set of posters and papers: 
Paul Chatterton described his involvement in LILAC, a radical new community, in Leeds  attempting to change the social and environmental nature of living space was fascinating from a public scholarship and sustainability point of view. And Richard Hauxwell-Baldwin provided a fascinating and critical insight into how policy is modified to fit national government’s goals, through looking at the transformation in the Low Carbon Community Challenge from Labour to Coalition governments.

Community and public policy

When it comes to achieving sustainable development, public policy tends to privilege rational choice or individualized approaches. However, does this mean that we, as enlightened social scientists, should offer an alternative? Some participants in the workshop thought that we should perhaps be making (normative) recommendations to policy. However, given the undercurrent of disaffection with all things neo-liberal, what sort of policy recommendations could be made other than changing the paradigm? Perhaps a critical approach to studying the uses and abuses of community can remain just that, presenting a challenge to policy without having to directly engage in trying to change it.

The range and depth of work being done at the community level offer significant ‘windows of opportunity’ for achieving more sustainable ways of living, however with that opportunity also comes risks. The state funding of communities can be a mixed blessing that opens up a whole plethora of tensions relating to community, including issues of power. Indeed, there were plenty of examples provided at the workshop of communities being worse off after funding or interventions being implemented at the community scale. This begs the question about whose vision of sustainable development is being privileged? This is important because ‘sustainable development’ is just as contested a term as ‘community’.



Event Information

Date: 21 Mar 2013 - 22 Mar 2013Location: University of LeedsTime: time TBA

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