I collect stories of hope about sustainability.
They are about cities that have taken down freeways and restored rivers like Seoul in Korea or Aarhus in Denmark; about building an eco-village in a central city like Christie Walk in Adelaide or in a degraded farmland area like Ithaca Eco-village; about a mining company like Argyle Diamonds deciding to leave a legacy for Indigenous people that goes well beyond the mine life….
One key characteristic of the stories I collect is that they all involved a community design process. They were all based on community values and were facilitated by a community process.
Is this a coincidence? No. Would they have happened anyway? No.
Community-based initiatives are essential for sustainability.
They are not just helpful, they are essential. Sustainability is about tapping innovation for a future in our settlements which is much more resource-constrained, far lower in ecological footprint and yet at same time much better places in which to live and work and play – all at the same time. So why don’t we just call in the experts and get on with it?
That is the problem.
There are no experts in the simultaneous achievement of these sustainability goals.
Too many experts and professionals are trained to do the opposite: to create settlements that use more resources, have a bigger footprint and, in the days of expensive oil, are not much fun to live in.
Time and time again, communities demonstrate that they understand sustainability; they can see what they want and often they have good ideas about how it can be done in an integrated way.
Sustainability comes from community values – it doesn’t come from the professions or business or from government strategies which are big on rhetoric but small on implementation. It only comes when the glue of community values makes it clear that this is what they want.
Then the community, professions, government and business have a chance to come up with solutions as a team.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development calls this ‘playing jazz’.
They know that business alone or government alone do not work on sustainability issues. Only when community is engaged does the music begin to be played.
Then you can get all kinds of renditions, with many different soloists playing their parts, but the total effect of them playing together is when the magic starts. Jazz is not easy but the synergies and partnerships that are created are providing the creativity we need.
Politicians are responding to communities and are looking for new and creative solutions to deep problems that have no easy solutions.
They want to see how communities can reduce greenhouse gases by 50 percent before 2050, how we can begin to ecologically regenerate cities and their bioregions, how we can rediscover a local sense of place in a globalized economy.
The solutions to these issues will only begin to be found if community design processes are at their heart – starting from the kitchen table and moving out into the neighbourhood, the city, the planet…
Wendy Sarkissian, Steph Vajda, Nancy Hofer, Yollana Shore and Cathy Wilkinson have provided the tools for doing this.
They are not a set of techniques that can be applied slavishly like an air traffic controller or engineer would do as they assess problems.
They are a set of tools that communities can begin to apply if they seem to fit the kind of issues they face and the kinds of people they are. They are like a book of recipes open on the kitchen table, there to inspire and guide communities hungry for greater sustainability.
Wendy has been doing this for a long time.
She was a pioneer in Australia, applying the rich insights of social science to the technical issues of development and planning.
Thirty years ago, this was not often seen as being needed; the professions had all the answers in their manuals. If each set of manuals was applied then the result was surely going to be better.
Why bother with the soft messy stuff when you could apply the numbers in the manuals?
For a while, Wendy and others in community planning were tempted to compete with the manuals by producing a set of social manuals with all the numbers to compete with the engineers.
Then something happened….
The ecological crisis appeared from over the horizon and showed that if we kept on doing what the manuals said then we would destroy the planet.
Our cities and regions were eating into the natural capital upon which they depended, even causing the atmosphere to overheat.
Wendy had a bit of a crisis like many in the professions.
But like most of Wendy’s life, she chose to resolve this in a way that few others have.
She went bush.
She moved into an eco-village community and built herself a house.
She communed with nature and with her fellow villagers and soon found that the only solutions out there were to engage more deeply, to find solutions that communities could begin to apply that the professions could not even begin to see.
She came back to the city, wrote it all down in a PhD and took off to see if it would work. It did. She and her colleagues now have many stories of communities doing it for themselves, of different solutions found in ways that no one would have predicted, of real jazz being created.
Kitchen Table Sustainability is a book to be savoured.
It should be used for experimentation and then taken as the basis for communities to achieve real outcomes.
The process will generate hope and, like a good meal or a good piece of jazz, will help communities to face whatever else life will throw at them. I hope to hear some of the great stories that no doubt will be generated from Kitchen Table Sustainability.
Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University
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