What does it mean to be a sustainable community?

Submitted by Derek Alton on April 3, 2013 - 7:30pm

I was fortunate this past week to take part in a conversation about community with a group of eager University students as part of Sustainability Week 2013.  The group took to the conversation with great vigor.  What follows is a brief summary of some of the key highlights from the conversation for me.

We started by splitting into groups of three and exploring our most memorable experience of community.  Below are some of the stories that bubbled to the surface for people:

-open source software development, (in particular at a developer conference in Germany exploring this concept)

-Powershift, where a thousand like-minded individuals came together in Ottawa for a weekend to explore how to create common good in Canada

-Support from the community at her grandma’s funeral, many people from her baseball team came and supported her

-environmental advocacy community – anywhere you go, you can find a person to talk comfortably with about environmental and political issues

When we came back to the larger group, one group member Richard made a very important point.  It is easy for us to focus in on one particular moment or weekend experience when thinking of our most memorable experience of community.  However, the danger with this is that it is only one piece of a larger picture.  Community is ongoing, full of little sacrifices and trials along with the triumphs.  It is important that we learn to appreciate the whole experience of community, not just the flashes and victories here and there.

After this we tied the conversation back to the theme of the week and looked at what sustainable community means to people.  Key terms that came forth were:

-flexibility

-diversity

-adaptability

It was generally agreed that a sustainable community not only focuses on the present, but also the future, both short and long term.  Often time sustainable community was seen as more of a community of communities, all playing off of each other and supporting each other.  It was this community of communities that created sustainability.

At this point the conversation took an interesting turn as we started to notice a major dichotomy.  It was noted that life naturally has ebbs and flows to it and that everything has a lifecycle to it.  In contradiction, sustainability is all about sustaining and lasting.  Something ends when it is no longer sustainable.

The conclusion of the group was that sustainable communities are about being flexible and in tune to the ebbs and flows.  This could mean that over time, a community changes, and eventually disappears.  The group contrasted this to non-sustainable communities that were seen as rigid and unchanging.

This lead to another dichotomy: that of the individual vs. the greater community.  We talked about how though we have this desire for community we also have biological wiring that causes us to focus on our individuality.  One person talked about how if you put your hand against a wall, your eyes naturally focus on your hand as separate from the wall behind it.  In developmental psychology they talk about this recognition of the individual as an important stage of a baby’s development.  Tied to this is a psychological need for us to see ourselves as having individual value and purpose.  It is for this reason that we see ourselves as special.

The discussion then flowed into the dichotomy of same vs difference.  Similar to the previous debate we recognize the value of diversity in helping us grow and become more resilient.  Difference is necessary for the sustainability of our species.  At the same time we know we are drawn to those who are similar to us.  After all, one of the common things that bring a community together is a common theme.  The more common themes and experiences within a community, the stronger its bond.  There for a community to be sustainable it needs to have diversity yet for it to be strong it needs also to have many common bonds.

We finished the conversation by delving into the role of technology in reshaping the community landscape.  It was recognized that technology is here to stay, we all use it on an hourly basis to keep connected with each other and to learn from each other.  It has opened doors for us to maintain connections despite the amount we migrate and travel.  At the same time people did note there are dangers with this technology.  In particular a person pointed out the concept of friend islands.  The idea behind this is that we are so wired into technology that we are disconnected from our surroundings until we connect with a friend, when we unplug and reconnect with reality.  The results are people traveling in a bubble between these friendship islands.

It was concluded that ultimately technology is a tool, neither positive nor negative.  It has the potential both to help us connect and at the same time to cause us to disconnect.  Ultimately though community is experienced face to face.