Federation for Community Development Learning
Federation for Community Development Learning

What is the Value of Community Development when doing Sustainable Development?

By Dhara Thomson


This article was also circulated to members in the FCDL Update, July 2012.


I became involved early on with the Federation for Community Development Learning (FCDL)'s work as part of Every Action Counts, a DEFRA-funded, 3 year programme to “help community groups across Britain become future-friendly”. I contributed to some of the initial work to identify relevant taster sessions, wrote course material and then went on to deliver sessions around the country, particularly aimed at CD workers and how they could make use of the various resource packs that the FCDL had developed.


Following a detailed survey, FCDL ran a series of workshops, which made it possible to develop training and learning materials relevant to Community Development and sustainable development. (Downloadable from our publications page here). 


Many Community Development practitioners were already doing this type of work and had been for years and found the resources useful - “I would never get the time to put these resources together myself, but I will use them now you've done it”. For others there was confusion and frustration about what was meant by sustainability. A common misunderstanding about our sessions was that they were about financial sustainability and how to maintain funding. “Talking about green issues just isn't relevant to poor communities that we work with” was also something I heard a few times. Our explorations of the connections between social and environmental justice issues opened up the direct relevancies that do need to be addressed.


During the course of the program there did seem to have been a considerable shift in public understanding about the need for a radically more sustainable way of living - one that meets people's basic needs now, without comprising the quality of life for future generations – sustainable development in a nutshell. Is this shift due to the program or is it due to extreme weather events happening on our doorsteps?


Hull, Gloucester, Carlisle, Shrewsbury, Sheffield, Cockermouth are the big names that come to mind, when thinking of communities massively affected by extreme flooding events.  And who do we see being worst affected? Those unable to afford to insure their homes (before or after the flooding event), children unable to attend schools shut for months (91 out of Hull's 99 schools were flooded in 2007) 1, vulnerable people dependent on social services that can't operate, people who don't own cars and are unable to get about as railway lines go under water or mud. These local scale impacts have caught peoples’ attention, interest, anger and motivation to do something about what is such a large scale issue.


It's interesting to observe how communities cope in the immediate aftermath of extreme weather events. While local and national government takes a while to move into action, and focuses on the big stuff (bridges, levees, power stations), it's volunteers who get on with checking on neighbours and accommodating displaced people.


The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) make one of the biggest contributions to helping communities hit by floods – all lifeboat crew are volunteers and the RNLI is 100% funded by public donations. So some of the core Community Development principles like working collectively and sharing resources are clearly part of any sustainable development strategy (whether emergency relief or longer term) when it comes to issues such as extreme flooding events and it is coming from people who regularly work in this mindset – the voluntary and community sector.


You can do sustainable development to people, but a Community Development approach believes that people are the experts in their own lives, in terms of identifying needs, utilising and developing skills and knowledge to overcome or meet these. During the program this shined through in the sense that people might not know much about growing food or the practicalities of greening their community centre, but their groupwork and planning skills are as relevant in maintaining a community allotment as in any other activity. Community Development helps to find and identify the resources within people, with the knowledge to share and off you go - tapping into the knowledge retained by, for example, older people who have kept contact with growing food throughout their lives and are able to share this knowledge with people who haven’t.


We found such a person on a neighbouring plot when visiting a community allotment. Working with a group of refugees and asylum seekers the knowledge of “growing” was rich as there were many former farmers in the group. Due to the circumstances of now being in the UK, they didn't have access to land, as a direct result of their housing situation and allotment waiting lists. A Community Development approach looks at addressing the power inequality in that lack of access. The solution, when exploring this with that group, was for one person to offer her large garden to anyone else who wanted to help her to grow something, as well as to find out about community gardens to get involved with.


The connections between environmental justice and social justice issues have been easy to uncover during the program, if often complex and without easy answers. Some examples that came out of the program:


Some people at a session in Hartlepool thought they should take in the US navy ghost ships that contentiously arrived in port for dismantling, as a way to get some work in. But then someone else in the group would pipe up 'who does the work though and what happens to them when they get ill from all the toxic contents?'


In Newquay people thought it was all very well to talk about taking holidays in the UK instead of flying so much, as it is more environmental friendly. However, holiday homes in the South West were pricing young people out of the housing market and roads are continually being widened in the south west to get the tourists in and out.


A Community Development approach to these issues is about going beyond simple right and wrong, which environmental messages have put across for ages, but collectively working together and learning from each other to come up with alternatives.


The growing number of small scale community energy projects always sparked interest, dealing with the need to generate renewable energy, but keeping control within the hands of consumers and bringing fuel bills down, not mega-projects that centralise power (literally, in the National Grid) and wealth. See www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/cafe for more on this.


There have been the unexpected outcomes of bringing people together. On visits to community garden projects, we have tried tasting and naming plants, and there was real surprise for some people when they realised what you can grow in these islands. Food plants considered mildly exotic (and expensive or hard to grow) were considered easy to grow by some people newly arrived in Britain. It was also surprising how some normally reserved people got their hands dirty and had plenty to say once they were given some land to work on, as the focus was on what they knew and their skills!

For me the work on sustainable development has always worked best when you balance discussion and theoretical concepts with practical things like planting up a herb bed or cooking food together. As a facilitator my experiences is that visual literacy is a vital way of doing this – with a group in Leeds we made a banner to explore 'coal connections': where we get it from, what we do with it, who profits, who loses. Arrows and lines connected events and information that the group knew about collectively. While the result was challenging to viewers, it wasn't dogmatic and encouraged the participants to come up with their own responses – and at the same time impart knowledge.


In the 'current economic climate' (as the staggeringly obvious unsustainability of our relationship with a finite planet is so euphemistically referred to) we need to put sustainable development, at the core of all our work. It can no longer be afforded the status of a luxurious add-on if we are serious about positive social change and a sense of justice that thinks of planet and people. A way to do this is through Community Development.


Hopefully the work done by FCDL and its members will continue to do this.




A lot of useful resources were developed by FCDL as part of the Every Action Counts work.


These are available on FCDL's website to download or purchase. Some that have worked well for me are:

'My favourite food' icebreaker in Food and Communities Taster Pack 4


'What Planet are you on?' booklet – crossword, quizzes and cartoons

The latest Community Work Skills manual has many useful sections for working on sustainability issues.


Derrick Jensen, 'As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial'. A graphic novel that deals with some of the thornier questions about how to deal with climate chaos, great for individual reading or to prompt group discussions.


H. R. Grant, 'Self Help in the 1890's Depression', the chapter on community gardens.


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