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Sustainable Community Development

First of all, some definitions... "Sustainable Community Development" is a process and a capacity to make decisions that consider the long-term needs of a meta-community. (A meta-community is a community that is made up of smaller communities, groups and individuals that have one or more things in common.)

The goal of sustainable community development is to develop meta-communities with the ability to remain healthy and prosperous over the long term, by fostering healthy development of their member communities, groups and individuals.

While every community is unique and has it’s own personality, there are significant characteristics that can be used to predict the long-term viability of a community. Following are five traits that characterize sustainable communities:

Sustainable communities...

...Value and respect all people.
Sustainable communities recognize that all people have ideas, energy, skills and talents. They understand that in order for a community to reach it's full potential, individuals must be encouraged and allowed to reach their own full potential. Communities that value and respect all people invest resources in people and strive to be fair in everything they do.

When people feel valued as individuals and united in a common effort, they build up each other’s power and use it to help them achieve their common goals. When they feel undervalued or competitive, they undermine each other’s confidence and power, and the community as a whole suffers.

In healthy communities there are many different reasons for people to become active in community, and there are as many goals for involvement as there are people involved. Sustainable communities find ways to satisfy most of the goals people have for communities with respect and honor for each individual and viewpoint.

...Cultivate trusting relationships among people and groups.
When people work together over an extended period of time, they develop bonds of trust and respect. These bonds open up a network for ideas and resources to flow within a community. Trusting relationships cannot be bought, forced or recruited from the outside: they must develop over time and through experience.

Groups often praise trust as a fundamental virtue, but trust does not come easy to people. Deep trust consists of freedom from artifice, sham and pretense. But there is also a different kind of trust – when you know that the people you are interacting with will behave a certain way, according to their agreed-upon roles. This is not deep trust, but comfortable distance and predictability. It is the knowledge that no barriers will be challenged. In this form of trust the need to maintain cooperative interaction creates a pressure to conform – the desire of participants to preserve outwardly friendly relationships inhibits their expressing points of view that deviate from informally accepted group norms. This often becomes a form of "groupthink"[1] that can stifle healthy, sustainable community.

Sustainable community requires the fostering of deep-trust relationships between members of the community. It also requires that it be emotionally safe for individuals to express dissent, disagreement and differing points of view. Sustainable communities understand that individuals and groups can have strongly differing opinions and goals and can still build strong friendships and can work together on the goals that they do have in common.

Trust and respect also form when new people are welcomed and made to feel they belong and have something to contribute. Developing trusting relationships with people and organizations beyond the immediate community can provide an avenue for new ideas and resources to flow within broader geographic regions.

...Cooperate for the common good.
Communities must learn to use their information networks, trusting relationships and skills to achieve what is best for the community as a whole. Cooperating for the common good involves acting on behalf of future generations. It sometimes means giving up personal desires for the benefit of all.

Leaders often climb to the top by being "take-charge" people. Unfortunately, the very force of personality that placed them in authority can have a chilling effect on group candor. Of course, a leader’s request for critical comments or diverse input is a hollow exercise if he or she shows irritation or cuts off debate when the group starts to carve up a cherished idea or to move in a direction different from the leader’s personal goals.

Sustainable community requires that the leaders (especially) and the members be able to put individual preferences, goals and opinions aside when necessary for the greater good of the community as a whole. Communities with the ability to cooperate for the common good are better prepared to turn innovative ideas into reality and to meet the challenge of sustainable development.

...Provide opportunities for communication and learning.
Our choices are more likely to be thoughtful and wise when we have regular opportunities to gather information, learn from experience and communicate with others. Communication and learning occur through many channels – through public forums, computer networks and local publications, as well as through face-to-face discussions, casual get-togethers and formal classes. Sustainable communities continually look for ways to improve communication among all their members.

What is done with knowledge – whether it is kept or spread – can be a valuable indicator of the sustainability of a community. A learning environment is about empowering others (rather than about being possessive about knowledge). Knowledge *is* power, and a healthy, sustainable community strives to empower its members and make knowledge as accessible as possible so that it will have a strong, sustainable future.

...Seek to develop and not just grow.
A key difference between sustainable community development and traditional development models is that sustainable community development distinguishes between "growth" and "development". Sustainable development leads to improvements in the quality of people’s lives from one generation to the next. Simply put, growth is about "getting bigger". Sustainable development is about "getting better".

Too much growth can erode the quality of life, or improve things for only a select few. Since in any community resources are limited, there is a point at which growth no longer contributes to a community’s well being. A healthy community provides sufficient resources not only for new members (growth), but also meets the very different needs of long-term members (development). A sustainable community learns to recognize when encouraging growth is beneficial and, when it is not, to focus on other long-term ways of improving itself.

No matter the size of your community or the amount of resources available, sustainable community health is an achievable goal. The method used to achieve sustainable goals will vary from community to community based on the individual needs of a community’s membership, and – ultimately – sensitivity to the individuals that make up a community is the underlying key to a successful community.

[1] - Groupthink is defined as the deterioration of reality testing and moral judgment in the interest of group solidarity. Behavioral symptoms include a shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgments conforming to the majority view, formal and informal attempts to discourage divergent views, lack of positive attention for groups or individuals that criticize or oppose an "approved" decision or opinion, and group members showing strong favoritism toward their own ideas in the manner by which information is processed and evaluated. (Irving L Janis and JR Eiser)


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By Sana Karine (Zanetta Wilson), copyright 2004.
For more information, please email homecircle@mindspring.com.