Basics in community development

One might think that guidelines for sustainable community development would mostly have to do with their “eco” aspect-  how to handle the bio-system and built environment.

These are certainly important but in researching this issue and interviewing many people with extensive community experience, we have learned that the physical systems are the easiest part. They are also the most variable. The details depend strongly on the specifics of the community, its location, purpose, and composition. The guidelines below focus on where we perceive the need to be.

A sustainable social process of community development.



Recognize It will be a journey and enjoy it

If you have a “dream”, and focus too strongly on the desired end result, you set yourself and others up for frustration and disappointment. The process of community development takes time.  Joan Halifax, director of the Ojai Foundation, speaks for many community founders in the following story: “The Dalai Lama told me in an interview that there were three conditions that would make it possible to accomplish my vision for the community here: Great love, great persistence, great patience. Patience is the hardest of all!”

It helps to recognize right from the start that a community is always a process of change, and it is best to honor and enjoy the process.

Develop a vision and keep developing it 

A clear, shared vision is one of the most important kinds of bond a group can have. For a vision to work as bonding material, however, it needs to be more than an intellectual construct.

At its best, a vision gives voice to the full essence and deeply-felt purpose of the group.

There are many ways of developing a vision (and a vision statement), but however arrived at, the vision will be most effective if each member of the group feels a resounding personal attachment in response to it. Keep the vision alive by revisiting it regularly, as a group, to see whether it remains in alignment with its intentions.

Build relationships and maintain them

The other fundamental for a group comes from the heart. It is vital to build solid interpersonal relationships, mutual understanding, caring, and trust. Building rich relationships isn’t necessarily easy, but, doing things together- eating, singing, dancing, telling life stories, traveling-  facilitates the process much faster than meetings!

Healthy relationships increase the understanding and overall emphatic levels between group members and the group as a whole. Maintaining an atmosphere and possibility for continuous dialogue is beneficial to the success of the community.

Make the challenge explicit

Once the group has begun to clarify its vision and build relationships, get the group oriented to the tasks that need to be accomplished. Personality style conflicts may arise here. Some prefer to begin with planning, others would rather plunge in and experiment. The challenge for the group as a whole is to get these two tendencies into a constructive relationship, so that they contribute to each other. Both are needed.

Clear agreements on expectations and function within the group make responsibilities easily identifiable while constructive dialogue can be maintained. The constant dynamic process requires a realistic approach to all challenges to avoid tension caused by  disappointment based on unrealistic expectations.

 Get help & get educated

Knowledge about sustainable community development is growing so quickly that it is unlikely the founding group will know everything. For some specific topics, such as building details, it may make sense to perhaps partly depend on  outside expertise. On other topics, however, it makes sense to work from within in your group. Include plenty of time and resources for group learning, research possible solutions, how to manage tasks, and how to build group process and interpersonal skills. Lack of management or process skills is the number one reason communities fail.

Develop clear procedures

Community should be an adventure among friends, not an exercise in bureaucracy. The painful experience of many groups makes it clear, however, that a little bureaucracy is both necessary and helpful. Specifically, it is wise to develop clear, written procedures for decision making, resolving disputes, handling finances, and determining membership. Perhaps even more important is to develop “meta-procedures” for making changes to these (and other) procedures. Groups change, so plan on changing your procedures too! Frequently at first, more slowly later as the group matures.

Maintaining balance - sustainability 

Once the group is formed, there will be many specific tasks required to develop its eco-village or sustainable community qualities, and many important balances to be maintained:

-Between “group” and “private”. People need some of each, often in changing quantities.

-Between today and tomorrow. If not well paced, the group could either do too much too soon and exhaust itself, or procrastinate and become a debating society.

-Between “hardware” and “software”. Some people are drawn to images of solar homes and perma-culture gardens, others are most interested in the feeling of community. One aspect or another may need to be emphasized at different times, but the success of the community depends on their balanced development and a shared appreciation for both.

-Between emotion, logic and will. Every community can benefit from cultivating the positive qualities of the heart (bonding, caring, trust), the mind (clarity of understanding, vision, integrity), and the will (the ability to act with courage and effectiveness). The challenge is to integrate them in a balanced way. Affirming the importance of this balance within the vision of the group can be a powerful touchstone for assessing the readjusting group progress.

-Among different learning and cognitive styles. We can hardly emphasize enough the importance of developing clear understandings in the group of the many ways that people are different. Most of the disagreements within groups have to do with arguments over learning and cognitive styles, not over matters of substance. For example, some people would rather talk and then act, others would rather act and then talk, still others just want to act, and of course there are always those who just want to talk. Such differences, working in the right relationship, can complement each other in ways that will be liberating for each person. In wrong relationships, they lead to endless power struggles.

-Among current consumption, investment, and service. Sustainability is fundamentally about fairness and balance across time. One of the most concrete ways to express to express this is through a balance among expenditure of time as well as money: current consumption (from food to entertainment), investment (from building to education), and service to others (which may involve either current consumption or investment). Boundaries may blur, but if the future benefits are high, it is generally an investment. If the benefits are primarily here and now, it is current consumption. Healthy living and avoiding burn-out require a balance of both.

The spirit of sustainable service provides a healthy antidote for imbalances in either direction. Service focuses beyond the self and can thus lift one beyond self-centered current consumption.

Be honest

Many communities adopt the ideal of complete equality of power. But, in fact, such equality essentially never happens in human groups. There is always a “power gradient”, with some people having more influence than others. The attempt to maintain the fiction of complete equality can lead to a collective denial of the actual dynamics in the group. The paradox (and tragedy) of such a situation is that it encourages “hidden” abuses of power while at the same time suppressing and discouraging genuinely needed visible leadership.

A healthier approach is to acknowledge what is, while also honoring one’s ideals. The group may also find that it can reformulate its ideals in a way that better honors their deep meaning (for example, equal fairness for all may be more important than equal power) and better fits the complex truth of their experience.

All of these points are equally important and all are essential for the success of a sustainable community. This is however a brief overview of such a complex issue. If you have questions or experience from which we all could benefit please write to us or comment on this post.

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