73. Civic Ecology: A Citizen-Driven Framework for Resilient Communities
Communities are experiencing profound impacts from unsustainable growth on a finite planet: resource scarcity, species extinction, food insecurity, and poverty – all which threaten our future. Undermining a timely and an effective response is a persistent lack of political will to address these issues. Building long-term resiliency in the face of these challenges will require citizens, businesses, and government to work together at the grassroots level to develop a local web of environmental, social and economic systems that can create an enduring capacity for a sustainable future.
The Civic Ecology framework has proven effective in achieving systemic change in contentious communities. It addresses the need for stronger forms of democracy in service of creating shared local projects and programs. The framework provides opportunities for project implementation, sustainability education and leadership training so that communities can customize the framework for inter-generational use.
Many communities and institutions are realizing that attaining sustainability requires more than green buildings and green infrastructure. Energy flows, local food production systems, local-global economic webs, social networks, community governance, resource sharing networks, and integrated land use/transportation are just some of the community systems that, when synergized in a specific place, constitute a complex human ecosystem or “Civic Ecology.” Nurturing this web of relationships and flows affords communities the means to enhance their local wealth (environmental, economic, and cultural), resilience, and competitiveness, and to take control of designing and managing their future. Civic Ecology (“community software”) together with the green buildings and infrastructure (“community hardware”) constitute a sustainable community.
Communities with a strong Civic Ecology all share several qualities, which can be translated into five principles. Specifically, these communities:
1. Employ a whole systems approach. Civic Ecology is the web of flows that animates community life. All enduring communities – whether rural farming villages, suburbs, urban neighborhoods, or institutions – have a refined array of locally-based systems that facilitate resource, economic, and social flows. Moreover, these flows cross sectors; that is, economic, ecological, and social systems are intertwined rather than set in opposition.
2. Focus on place. The systems of flows must be focused within the community, and, to the greatest extent possible, must provide locally-produced energy, use local resources, enhance community economic multipliers, and draw upon social capital.
3. Require a new social contract. Presently, paying taxes and voting in exchange for services are viewed as the defining factors of citizenship. Civic Ecology draws upon a community’s social capital by requiring active civic engagement in the creation, management, and monitoring of community systems.
4. Match needs and assets. A community’s capacity to create a positive future is dependent on the assets and strengths it has developed over time. The whole systems approach seeks to understand problems in terms of their root causes and broader needs. Matching assets to needs is at the heart of creating community systems that will result in an enduring Civic Ecology.
5. Are dynamic. Communities are continuously-evolving organisms. Because of this, Civic Ecology must be designed as a “learning ecology,” – a web of systems that adapts based on knowledge gained through vigilance and monitoring.
Communities that nurture their Civic Ecology enjoy five essential benefits:
1. A high degree of control. By creating a shared vision along with the adaptive framework and embedded systems necessary for implementation, citizens maintain more control of their community assets and collective future. Community ownership and control is enhanced by developing systems that rely largely on locally-based resources.
2. Enduring wealth. Because Civic Ecology integrates systems flows across sectors, it is possible for a community to realize the multiple benefits of ecological, economic, and social wealth. The common alternative pits the economic, ecological, and social camps in “zero-sum game” opposition, resulting in economic growth at the expense of ecological and social impoverishment.
3. Community resilience. Integrated systems that are locally created and managed generally result in richness and redundancy. An example is a diverse economic base of locally - owned businesses and local resource inputs that is less affected by rising transportation and labor costs. This local web contributes to a community’s resilience, allowing it to weather inevitable peaks and valleys.
4. An enhanced sense of place. With globalization, and the increasing homogeneity that accompanies it, communities that are resilient, distinctively local, adaptive and ultimately unique, will succeed as valued places to live, work, and play.
5. A deep sense of community. Citizens of communities with a strong Civic Ecology share in envisioning their community’s future. They collaborate on designing the systems to implement that vision and labor together to keep the community on course. They work with strangers, friends, and occasionally enemies to create a collective future for themselves and the next generation. In doing so, they become citizens in full and experience a true sense of community.
Civic Ecology’s whole systems approach yields a snapshot of the community’s desired future, the “software” necessary to achieve that future, and the ability to chart whether means and ends are in alignment. It provides the fundamental context necessary for making decisions about capital investment in “hardware” (buildings, streets, parks, and utilities), economic revitalization, business growth and retention, main street improvements, and virtually anything related to the common good.
Why it should be recognized:
Using the Civic Ecology framework, communities challenged with political division and broken social capital become more unified as they work to develop local webs of environmental, social and economic systems. The CIVIC process (Convening citizens; Investigating baseline conditions; Visioning futures; Implementing systemic change; and Charting progress) has helped communities implement, fund and manage sustainability projects.
The Civic Ecology framework features innovative techniques such as community resource flow mapping. This tool has proven effective in helping citizens create community-specific integrated resource flow systems. By mapping conceptual food, energy, water, waste and local economic development systems, citizens realize their shared vision of a sustainable future. Teams extract projects from their flow maps, create business plans and funding strategies, implement the projects and monitor their effectiveness.
Recognition as a Solution for Planetary Sustainability would enable communities, institutions, non-profits and government to learn about Civic Ecology. The systems design exercises embedded in the process will appeal to the Silicon Valley technology community and could result in collaboration on community and regional problems. Local governments would find in Civic Ecology—particularly in politically polarized contexts--a useful framework for engaging citizens at the grassroots level in EcoDistrict and sustainable community planning and design.