Community involvement in the environment is a people, planet and place-enriching strategy that has gained currency in planning and environmentalism circles in recent years, but how does one translate popular theory into lasting change?
The mounting interest in community involvement in the environment from think tanks, universities and government is matched by enthusiasm from communities themselves.
There is a rapid rise in demand for land from communities, be it for food growing, renewable energy generation, woodland management, greater control over a local area, or space for cultural and wellbeing events. A diverse and expanding landscape of communities and enterprises are trying out what ‘local participation in place-making’ means on the ground.
Getting on With It
There are many organisations that are ‘just getting on with’ this work, without legislative backing or strong political support. The community food enterprise sector, for example, though bolstered by funding schemes and political interest in recent years, was formed by an assortment of grassroots citizens’ initiatives. From food- co-ops to distribution hubs to community farms, sustainable squats or urban guerrilla gardening, it was small, practical organising and action amongst local communities that brought ‘popular environmentalism’ to life in this instance. Even in the face of obstructive policies ordinary people are not just calling for change, they are creating it.
This kind of direct action is shifting practice amongst landowners, too. For many public landowners, the pressure of austerity is cause for a re-think about the best methods available to manage the spaces they own. Despite legislative support for these difficulties, change often takes place outside of the suggested framework, through new partnerships or ways of working. So it was when Wycombe District Council leased its woodlands to the Chiltern Rangers, a social enterprise that now manages the woods and runs educational, training and rehabilitation programmes onsite. Shifts in approach, culture and practice can be highly effective tools for igniting local environmental participation. Indeed, as previously argued on this blog, the one-size-fits-all approach of national legislation may fail to take into account, and could even inhibit, the diversity and creativity that makes local environmental participation innovative, effective and enjoyable.
Making It Last
This patchwork of shifting practice is becoming integrated into broader frameworks for change. Movements for ‘social enterprise’ and a ‘social economy’ have gained traction in recent years. Proponents are working to construct political, financial and legislative conditions that can help create ‘a UK economy that is better for society’. Greater community access to, involvement in, and gains from land are often discussed as a part of this agenda, which recognises the importance of the UK’s natural assets to its people. As with the Chiltern Rangers, social enterprises such as Hill Holt Wood- making an annual turnover of £1.2m and running educational programmes, sustainable design practice and hospitality services on their woodland site- integrate conservation with fundamental societal needs: food, fuel, jobs, knowledge and shelter. This kind of deep integration of the social with the environmental moves beyond traditional environmental volunteerism and conservation based on enclosure, even highlighting a pathway for the short-term creative interventions of ‘place-making’ to be cemented into long term change that builds with current local populations, rather than drawing in newcomers that transform areas in excluding ways. Forging connections between communities and place through fundamental needs can chain popular environmentalism to everyday life. The challenge is for the social economy and place-making agendas to work beyond the surface here, installing frameworks that create robust, lasting changes for our society.
There are a host of barriers, however, to realising this dream. Most land- based projects remain informal. Structures and processes to move forward are all too rare. For many ‘popular environmentalists, the lack of established protocols amongst landowners- be they public, charitable or private- leads to broken promises. With staff changes, budget cuts, or in instances when land management is fragmented across departments, even the best ideas for community involvement in the environment can fall apart as individuals’ commitments fail to materialise. Consolidating frameworks is key.
A connected issue is that of ownership. Much interest in community environmental involvement, the Localism Agenda included, is focussed on communities owning the spaces they are to care for. These models may be useful in some cases. Yet land and environmental assets are often not suitable for sale or transfer of ownership, and the added value that sharing management between an owner and the community can provide are rarely specified in green space management contracts.
Local authorities and the planning system, as well, play a pivotal role in shaping the UK’s land situation. In local planning, land is regarded simply as ancillary to buildings, protected for leisure or biodiversity, designated as agricultural, or seen as ‘green infrastructure’, often meaning a route for cycling or walking. This prevents the flexibility and mixture of activities that many environment-focused community projects rely on, restricting the diversity, and potential viability, of projects. Lastly, as our research into the management of local authority owned woodlands demonstrates, there is rarely good quality information on the land local authorities own and its management is often fragmented across departments. This results in a planning system that gives little consideration to community use of land or productive shared management arrangements.
It’s great to see excitement building around community involvement in the environment, but we’ve a long way to go before the vision of popular environmentalism is realised. Let’s get to work.