Sustainable communities are dynamic communities III

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. My last post focused on communication keys, and the previous post on more general keys. Here are the final keys 11-15, which focus on structure:


11. Know that structure can lead to dynamism
Having spent much of the past twenty years working with non-profit organizations, I have heard a great deal about the desire to resist the creation of intentional social structures or to document one’s intentions. Often, ironically, these desires are expressed during meetings. People may see structure and documentation as a means to oppress the knowledge and skills of the many talented people who make up the learning community. However, I see structures as quite the opposite – they often act as facilitators of freedom and allow more individuals to contribute to their community. This is for two reasons, as made explicit by Jo Freeman:

  • No group is truly without structure. Without any formal structure, informal structures remain in place. These informal structures often favour the hoarding of information, poor communication practice, and unequal power relations. I am not advocating for overly structured communities. Instead, I suggest that we should be conscious of the underlying structures that exist in any organisation and put measures into place to help address any inadequacies. For a practical starting point, check out Chapter 4 of Building Powerful Community Organizations.
  • Groups without a clear structure often rely on informal personal networks. These networks are often segregated by race/class/ethnicity/gender /etc. Joan Meyers, of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, provides some interesting commentary on this point based on her extensive research with One World Natural Grocery, which successfully implemented a system that helped to facilitate participatory democracy in a workplace community.

12. Allow many to lead and step away from FOMO
Ensuring that those who wish to lead have an opportunity to do so helps build dynamic and robust communities, provided that it is coupled with healthy communication practices and a clear sense of roles. This means being open to the ideas of others, being willing to take responsibility oneself, and also being willing to follow and support others. Equally, it means that not everyone needs to be involved in everything. Many ambitious people experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) at some point in time. Multiple, fast communication methods at our fingertips has heightened FOMO for many individuals.

13. Create time and space for reflection
The best ideas are often generated when one steps out of his or her usual pattern. Stefan Seigmeister speaks effectively to this idea in his Ted Talk, The Power of Time Off . While we do not all have the luxury of taking a year to ourselves, we can find small cracks in our days that allow us to physically and mentally step away and think. This might be in the form of physical exercise, pursuing a hobby, taking a bath or finding a quiet place to sit. Communities can facilitate reflection by actively creating or preserving green spaces. The Great Neighborhood Book provides inspiration in this regard.

14. Plan for succession
Many people have discussed succession planning in terms of formal workplace models. Succession planning allows us to help celebrate and build upon our successes. It helps to ensure that the wonderful contributions of past leaders are not lost, while also developing new leaders in our communities. In these ways, succession planning is vital to the sustainability of healthy communities. However, it is important to keep in mind that succession planning should be something that allows us to celebrate and build, not just hold onto the past. The aim is not to continue doing things the way someone else has done them, or to maintain past structures, programs, places or projects in the same manner as they have always existed. If we keep the big goals in mind and understand the importance of change, succession planning becomes a key part of creating dynamic communities.

While many of us have experienced succession planning in terms of formal roles in workplaces, it is equally relevant to our communities to think about informal roles – keep in mind, all communities have structure, including roles. Who helps take care of elderly living alone in your neighbourhood? Who makes sure coffee is made in the morning or dishes cleaned up after a lunch meeting in the office? Who take leadership in ensuring that shared green spaces are kept clean? What will happen when local business owners or farmers retire? Who else could learn into these roles?

15. Balance the ups and downs (institutional settings)
For organizations working with a board, or at least in a hierarchical structure, it seems like half the people I speak to congratulate colleagues on their ability to ‘manage up’, while the other half warn of the dangers of such an approach. The key is in balance and communication.

Everyone in a learning community has something to contribute. Keep this as the focus while also maintaining some sense of organizational structure. Otherwise nothing will get done! A good board of directors will value the insights of those they have hired. At the same time, boards are there to offer a different set of valuable perspectives and experiences.

Sustainable communities are dynamic communities II

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. My last post focused on broad keys. Here are keys 6-10, which focus on communication:


6. Know thy neighbour and respect that s/he knows a lot
Everyone in a community has something to contribute. To learn from and value one another, we need to know one another. How can we make this happen? Go for a coffee, go for a walk, or invite a neighbour or colleague into your home. Let others into your private world, and get to know theirs. Socialize with people you wouldn’t otherwise. It doesn’t matter where you are – institution, office, suburb, or city – getting to know one another is always possible if we let down our guard. This allows us to appreciate each other in our humanity, but also as skilled people with whom we can connect and share. If you are really ambitious about this aspect of community, start a Human Library.

7. Ongoing communication & good communication practice
Once you have begun letting people into your world, and start to know theirs, keep it up. For those in neighbourhood settings, take it a step further and tackle a task together – help each other out with maintenance tasks, collectively take care of shared green space, or hold a neighbourhood dinner. Invite everyone, don’t be selective.

In an institutional setting, the same principles apply. However, given the prevalence of meetings in such settings, also ensure that you are employing techniques that are inclusive. Follow good meeting hygiene practices.  Behaviours that lead to the hoarding of information and poor meeting management can limit the number of people in the lead. The lack of good communication practice can leave some feeling disempowered and bitter, and ultimately the organization or project falling flat when leaders burn out or leave. There are lots of resources available that focus on the idea of conversations and open spaces. Four resources that provide practical suggestions in terms of facilitating communication are: Born’s Community Conversations; Wheatley’s The World Café; Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making; and Chamber’s Participatory Workshops: a sourcebook of 21 sets of ideas and activities.

8. Recognize that everyone has limitations
Everyone has limits on how much they can contribute to their community or workplace. Everyone has a unique skill set and knowledge base from which to contribute and upon which to build. Other life commitments may also demand that an individual focus her or his attention elsewhere (eg. elder-care, childcare, an ill spouse, a personal commitment to another community.) Recognizing that everyone has limitations helps us to respect the life balance of others, while also ensuring that we create space for many people in our communities to contribute and lead.

9. Be willing to step up and take responsibility / contribute
Take the time to think about what you are good at, what you enjoy, and in what ways you would like to build upon your skills. Consider how you can best contribute to your communities. Then do it. When you make a mistake (and we all do) take responsibility for it and use it as a learning experience.

10. Be open to feedback / ask for help
Ask for help. Ask colleagues, friends and neighbours for their recognition of your strengths, feedback on your ambitions, and what they think is difficult for you. For those in school or workshop environments, invite a colleague to sit in on a session and provide feedback. Give and receive feedback with open minds and honest intentions. Always assume the best in everyone.

A common way to pursue personal and professional development at a more intense level is to get involved in a coaching relationship. One of the most interesting coaching arrangements I have come across is the Gemini Project that teams up senior executives with youth from “tough realities.”

Sustainable communities are dynamic communities I

The sustainability of your community is likely one of your core concerns whether you are at the helm of a successful NGO or school, or simply want to ensure that your neighbourhood remains vibrant. Community sustainability is, without a doubt, central to community learning and health. However, in aiming for the goal of sustainability we sometimes get side-tracked – focusing more on maintaining what we already have than sustaining our primary goals.

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. Here are the first five:

1. Know your goals
The broadest goal of many communities is often to maintain a healthy network of happy, valued and active people. This goal matters much more than whether or not this is facilitated through a community garden, a choir, a specific program, a particular office structure, and so on. While we often lament the passing of a great initiative or the retirement of a particularly wonderful leader, it is important to keep in mind that social interaction and stability can be maintained in many ways. In fact, it is more likely that it will be maintained if the community is dynamic than if we simply hang onto the projects to which we have become accustomed.

2. Celebrate
Communities often get so caught up in what they don’t have (lobbying for better education, health or transport services; improving green spaces; perfecting programming, etc.) that they often forget to celebrate what they do have. Celebration helps to create healthy minds, bodies and communication. It lifts spirits and can make people feel valued. It can make it easier to accept change when we dwell on what is positive. It can also help us to quickly prioritize and see through the fog of criticism.

3. Letting go of competition
Humans have competed with one another since the beginning their existence, so it is no surprise that competition readily develops between and within communities. Individuals aim to protect their turf, their funding, their organizations, their green lawns, their departments, their privacy, their positions, their access to resources, and so on. However, despite the fact that we have always competed, it is cooperation that often brings us our greatest success.

After all, we wouldn’t have survived as a species if hunters and gatherers hadn’t figured out how to travel and share resources together. And just ask anyone who has scaled the highest mountain peaks, landed a huge corporate contract, maintained a successful community program, or even pulled off a great dinner party. It usually wasn’t done in a spirit of conflict. And if it was, those involved likely did not end the day feeling relaxed. Keep the big goals in mind (see #1) and respect that everyone in every community has something to contribute. Know that it is okay to feel pride and a sense of accomplishment, to celebrate successes, but that these can occur separately from competition.

4. Leave room for new ideas
Help to keep room open for fresh ideas from both newcomers and those who have just had a stroke of inspiration. Being open to new initiatives involves leaving space for them. In a school setting this might mean intentionally creating some blank spaces in the timetable, to be filled with innovative approaches. If a long-standing program or initiative fades away, or a key member of the community leaves, don’t feel that the void needs to be filled right away. In fact, it is better to leave some time and space for people to assess their needs and become inspired by new situations. In all settings, this might mean making sure that everyone’s life is in balance and that people have the mental and physical capacity to consider new ideas.

It is important to create an environment where ideas are received with an open and positive mindset, and community members regard each other as skilled and knowledgeable individuals with worthwhile contributions to make.

5. Know that change is freeing
Once we accept that dynamic communities are healthy communities, we often realize that change not only helps to sustain our communities, but also brings with it a great sense of freedom. Suddenly, anything is possible. New skills can be developed and old ones appreciated. We can celebrate the past but also welcome new ideas. We let go and let things happen much more readily.

Coming soon….the next post will focus on communication-based keys that foster dynamic communities. The following post will focus on structural keys.

Growing Community III: 11 more ways to get inspired

photo: Danny Woo International District Community Gardens, Joe Mabel

There are so many interesting ways to think about community gardens. My last post listed twelve of these. Venue, design, and the needs of the users all play a role in planning a community garden. Here are eleven more ways to get inspired:

1. Corporate work places
Why not help create a healthy balanced life by introducing a community-style garden at your workplace? Albert Quek, a senior manager at Yokogawa Engineering (Singapore) did just this. The garden welcomes visitors, allows workers an opportunity to grow herbs, spices and fruit trees. There is even a rooftop garden for relaxing.  Quek also created a DIY vertical gardening system after implementing a passion for gardening onto his own 1-meter square balcony.

2. First Peoples gardens
When it comes to long-term knowledge about local growing possibilities, indigenous peoples often have a deeply knowledgeable and have a unique perspective. Despite this, many indigenous peoples often have the greatest need for food security. Community garden initiatives serve the purpose of celebrating and maintaining knowledge, while also providing resources to communities.

The Yilili Aboriginal Community School located in Western Australia is a wonderful example of community learning that bridges institutional communities with geographic and cultural communities. Part of their efforts is dedicated o the school’s community garden. Local families can wander down and pick a meal, and the indigenous women who prepare the students’ lunches also use the harvest. The Canadian government has also provided funding to almost 40 communities through the Aboriginal Agriculture Initiative (AAI) for the purpose of establishing community gardens.

3. Therapeutic
The act of gardening has long been known to provide a sense of calm and bring mental and physical health benefits to gardeners. With this in mind, many communities and health care facilities have made gardens a part of their focus. For an impressively long list of gardens working in conjunction with health care of facilities, see Healing Landscapes.

 4. Fill the Food banks
Many communities are growing to help fill the kitchens and shelves of local food banks. One of these is The Stop Community Food Centre, which produces more than 4000 pounds of fresh produce each year. The Grow a Row program encourages gardeners to plant an extra row of their favourite vegetables to donate to their local food bank.

5. Seniors
The Danny Woo International Garden has been a centre of learning, beauty and relaxation for Seattle Asian Seniors since 1975. Despite its focus on seniors, many people visit the gardens just for their beauty and a children’s garden has also been recently added.

6. Accessible
Gardening can be a physically demanding activity, particularly when garden beds are located close to the ground. Fortunately, many creative people have come up with beautiful and accessible gardening solutions. The Guelph Enabling Garden is open to all children, families, elderly, and those with a variety of cognitive and physical abilities. The Sunshine Coast Seniors Garden includes raised tables and accessible greenhouse. It was designed by and for seniors, and is located next to another food garden that provides intergenerational sharing. Also check out the Francis Avenue wheelchair gardens. Click here for instructions on building a wheelchair accessible raised bed

7. Beautiful
Many community gardens conjure up images of spaces that are an improvement over their previous aesthetic but that primarily remain a series of rectangular boxes. Many have realized that this does not need to be the case, as design contests for community gardens are popping up like weeds. To inspire beauty in your garden check out this video for a permaculture and design at Coffs Harbour Community Garden, this oasis in Singapore, the Franklin Park Conservatory, and the Strathcona Gardens.

8. Partnerships with Parks
Many government parks organizations have taken on the role of facilitating community gardening. This allows for organizational focus within cities, and has also opened up land. Examples include Montgomery Parks, Vancouver Parks and Singapore’s National Parks.

9. Rooftop
If you are in a city pressed for space, rooftops gardens may be the way to go. This takes careful planning as not all buildings can handle having a garden on top. St Paul’s Hospital has, however, managed to pull off this feat. Here are some guidelines for planning a rooftop community garden, complete with a photo of a garden made of kiddie pools! The Rooftop Garden Project has a slew of useful resources (most in French & English) including a complete guide to setting up an edible rooftop garden; educational guides; social, technical & environmental assessments; and even a research thesis on the topic!

10. Museum Gardens: A growing trend
Museums have often embraced a role of facilitating community interaction and learning. Many are beginning to use community gardens as one way to build upon this role.  For examples of existing museum gardens check out the Woodlawn Museum, the Enfield Shaker Museum, the Huronia Museum, and the community/demonstration garden at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. Watch out for the up-and-coming Sydney Powerhouse Museum garden. Better yet, get involved and attend the American Museum Association’s conference on Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food, and Community (October, 2011, Pittsburgh).

11. On the move?
Check out these fabulous moveable feasts: Have a look at this proposed native garden, to be installed on the back car of an operating Chicago Transit Authority train; there is also a garden truck being pedaled (yes, human powered) around San Francisco that houses a mobile garden. The most beautiful mobile garden I have seen is the Westshore Garden-in-Motion located in Victoria, B.C. I have yet to track down a photo of this one though, so you will have to wait to see it!

There are so many wonderful examples out there. Please share your favourites in the comments section below!

Growing Community II: 12 ways to get inspired

photo: Kettins Community Garden, Oliver Dixon

For the most part, community gardens are an answer to urbanization. However, the increasing recognition of the social and learning benefits that stem from community gardens has led to a wide array of small-scale horticulture projects. Check out the links below to be truly inspired by community knowledge and energy.

1. Want a garden with history?
The UK is known for its long history of allotment gardens. The oldest is located in Nottingham, England. The community has maintained St Ann’s Allotments  for 600 years. Currently, the site is home to 670 plots, although their activities go beyond simple allotment gardening. Given its age, St Ann’s allotment is also home to over 2000 varieties of apples and pears, making this site heavenly for those interested in heritage crops.

2. School-based
Check out The Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr Public School (Berkley) to find out more about a one-acre garden initiated by Alice Waters (considered a founder of the Edible Schoolyard movement). The website includes information about how the garden is incorporated into all aspects of the curriculum.

3. Ecology parks
These parks provide incredible opportunities to learn about gardening as a spectator, or a hands-on volunteer. They also provide beautiful green spaces in our communities. My first experience with such a place was spending a summer volunteering at the Peterborough Ecology Park. The park has been a place for people to freely share knowledge, skills and space for twenty years. It originally began as an organic food and demonstration garden, but has expanded to be a site for a wide range of learning. A few years later, inspired by my experience at the Peterborough Ecology Park, and with an itch to travel, I spent several months volunteering with a reforestation project in Costa Rica. This project is now part of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, managed by the Asociacion Conservacionista de Monteverde.

4. On government grounds
Looking around for a spot for a city garden? Why not use the grounds of your local government buildings? Check out the Vancouver City Hall Community Garden.

5. Improving food security in South Africa
Capetown-based Abalimi Bezekhaya works to help build community gardens in settlements (‘townships’) near Cape Town. They have successfully initiated more than five gardens in previously unproductive areas. They regularly publish newsletters that contain a wealth of interesting articles on everything from gender issues in the gardens, to basic training in agriculture.

6. Sharing our yards
Starting a large-scale community garden can be a daunting process. A simpler idea has begun to spread based on the idea of sharing our existing resources. Several programs have recently sprung up that match urban dwellers seeking garden space with neighbours who have yard space sitting idle. For example, check out Urban Garden Share (Seattle), Yardsharing (Portland), and Sharing Backyards. Landshare (UK) goes beyond backyards, and helps new farmers find land.

7. Beyond plants
Gardens need not be all about plants and ecology. Many people have creatively used the garden as a venue to communicate information about other parts of their worlds. For example, the Toronto Zoo hosts a First Nations Art Garden that shares a part of the worldview of some of Canada’s First Nations peoples. Windmill Primary School in Oxford, England recently opened a storytelling garden. It is “…a unique environment where children can walk along different paths and use question posts and other outdoor learning materials, like sentence builders, character blocks and drawing walls, to help develop their ideas[…] The entrance fence is particularly enchanting as it represents a book shelf of the children’s favourite and in some cases, imaginary, book titles.

8. Defiant
Some gardens are made in extremely difficult circumstances, such as behind the front lines of a war or in internment camps. Kenneth Helphand has written a fascinating book on the history of these defiant community gardens. The Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) took inspiration from Helphand and created a current-day Defiant Gardening Project. This program plants gardens in containers and in the ground on military bases, in communities with military families, and sends containers to soldiers in Afghanistan.

9. Public produce
Community, or allotment gardens, are often controlled and harvested by a limited number of people. A different approach is to encourage the growing and use of produce that already exists on public lands. Juliete Anich has launched an initiative in Australia to make this easier. Urban Food Maps provides a platform that encourages individuals to respectfully share the locations of food grown on public lands. Here are also a number of projects that encourage the use and stewardship of public fruit such as: fallen fruit, city fruit,  and lifecycles. Also see Darin Nordahl’s book Public Produce.

10. Gardening in the Arctic
Think that you do not have the right climate for gardening? Check out Inuvik’s community greenhouse. Inuvik is located in northern Canada, north of the Arctic Circle, almost a stone’s throw from the Arctic Ocean, just south of the end of tree line.

11. University gardens
With cultural ecology at the heart of its mission, College of the Atlantic provides one of the most interesting examples of community farming and gardening that is linked to a university. The university operates five gardens, including a community garden, as well as a farm. These projects feed the bellies of students and local community members, and the minds and skills-sets of creative, energetic young farmers like graduates Alex Fletcher and Virginie Lavallee-Picard of Wind Whipped Farm.

12. High Rise
Even in cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where green space is at a premium, productive gardens are popping up. In Hong Kong, the government recently launched a community garden program. Arthur Van Lanenberg is a well-known Hong Kong gardener who has published several books, including a journal on urban gardening. Community in Bloom facilitates many of the community gardens in Singapore. Wilson Wong has also been active in promoting gardening and the sharing of gardening knowledge in Singapore.

To be connected with even more inspiration, check out Growing Community III: 11 more ways to get inspired. This post includes gardens in corporate work places, First Peoples gardens, therapeutic gardens, gardens for food banks, seniors’ gardens, accessible gardens, beautiful gardens, partnerships with parks, rooftop gardens, museum gardens and mobile gardens.



photo: Garden Dining, Geoff Peters

For anyone interested in gardens as a context for fostering learning and interaction, the next three posts are guaranteed to provide you with inspiration and practical resources.

What are community gardens and where can they exist?
As new sprouts push their way through the ground in my corner of the world, I increasingly turn my attention to the ways in which communities interact in the environments they create. Some of the most exciting sites for communities to come together in are community gardens, allotment gardens, and ecology parks. Gardening together fosters communication and learning. It is also extremely versatile, existing in places such as on the grounds of schools, universities, public parks, government buildings, hospitals and high rises. Given the rich history of community gardening, there is also a wealth of resources available to assist those hoping to develop a garden in their own learning communities.

What’s so great about gardens?

  • They can happen almost anywhere – schools, universities, parks, cul-de-sacs, vacant lots, roof tops, old age homes, greenhouses
  • They provide a common place for people to come together, learn from each other, and learn about one another
  • They push us to take part in collective decision-making, skills sharing, and conflict resolution
  • They provide physical exercise and spaces for relaxation
  • They can provide food resources
  • They provide spaces for insects and other animal life
  • They aid us in experiencing and learning about our natural world
  • They provide a sense of accomplishment
  • They can be the starting point for additional community-focused initiatives such as shared meals, outdoor kitchens, and parks
  • In institutional settings, they provide an easily accessible opportunity to get outside. In the case of schools, gardens tie in with all curriculum areas and, more importantly, promote social learning and interaction.

How can I start & sustain a community garden?
Community gardening comes with challenges (which is, really, part of the point!). It is useful to gain inspiration from the actions of those who have come together on previous initiatives, and to learn from their wisdom. Fortunately, there are many fantastic resources that make starting and sustaining a community garden much easier…

Where can I see examples ? Go the next post – Growing Community II: 22 ways to get inspired