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?

From think tanks to design studios, planners to politicians, local environmental participation is being discussed and promoted as an important tool to solve challenges around land management, social cohesion, the environment and public space. Whether in terms of ‘placemaking’, ‘popular environmentalism’ or ‘socially productive places’, the transformative potential of putting people in charge of the places they know best is being vigorously discussed. Though each interpretation of the idea brings different insights to the fore, we can identify common strands of thought and sketch out an emerging consensus.

Sketch of Consensus

Firstly, community environmental participation collapses a stale divide between the physical and the social. It is understood that communities and the physical attributes of the areas they share are interdependent. Communities compose place, places compose communities, and the long-term health of each depends on that of the other. The knowledge, interests, experiences and ideas of local people are therefore essential ingredients for creating sustainable and appealing places. This approach hinges on an environmentalism that feels relevant, taking local residents’  ideas about their immediate environments as primary units of analysis, and an appropriate place from which to mobilise for environmental change.

Certainly, local knowledge has recently taken centre stage in debates around urban regeneration. Engaging residents in the redesign of their neighbourhoods is championed as a way to invite local creativity into design and disrupt the monotony of new builds, to create spaces that people feel ownership over and want to spend time in and care for, and even to remedy the social cleansing, environmental injustices and gentrification which frequently accompany regeneration. Involving people in the making of places in which they live is seen as a process that provides a focal point for socialising, aiding community cohesion and social inclusion. Stronger community ties and better-looking neighbourhoods have also been shown to encourage better behaviour in public space, reducing crime and anti-social behaviour.

Greater citizen involvement in public space also speaks to today’s political and fiscal realities. Economic crisis and ensuing austerity has stripped many public landowners of the means to manage the spaces they own. As evidenced by research into UK parks earlier this year, the neglect of public spaces under austerity is often coupled with a responsive increase in community involvement, picking up where councils are withdrawing. This kind of volunteerism, as well as more enterprising community solutions to neglected spaces, may sound financially attractive, but are often unsustainable and politically contentious. They may be dismissed as symptoms of the latest neoliberal disavowal of responsibility, saddling ordinary people with governmental responsibilities, yet not providing the funding or structures to help them deliver. Despite well-founded scepticism about the ideology behind these trends, affording communities greater power over their areas does have its benefits. Involving local people in the ownership, management and governance of their public spaces, especially in a way that offers these people sustainable livelihoods, can create a meaningful localisation of power. Putting people in charge of concrete outcomes that challenge traditional, top-down structures of place-shaping, can boost local economies and increase participation in public life.

Return next week, when we’ll be having a look at how this popular theory is being driven by, and translated into, practical changes on the ground.

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