Mid-way through UK Climate Week, Steve Cinderby reflects on a project to help a York neighbourhood thrive in the face of environmental and social challenges.
The idea of making communities more robust and able to cope and flourish despite the environmental, economic and social challenges of a rapidly-changing world seems particularly pertinent in 2014 Britain. As I write, large parts of the UK remain under floodwater after being battered by increasingly frequent storms and downpours. All this comes as the government focuses on rolling back state responsibility while encouraging greater local independence.
So is there a way of empowering local communities - particularly in less affluent neighbourhoods - with skills and resources to make them more environmentally sustainable while making people better able to face these challenges? This was the question I and a team of researchers tackled head-on in the JRF-funded Good Life project.
The project, in New Earswick, York, found that there was scope to make a difference on these issues and the key was to tap into and support practical actions linked directly to local community interests. We worked with residents to identify their needs and interests and support them in 'making the most of what you have got'. We ran community meetings on energy efficiency, organised fruit-picking and worked with the local school to communicate environmental issues, focussing on local actions for global problems.
For me, a critical link to develop was the way people are connected to each other and the place they live. We identified that the people who participated in the Good Life still had strong connections to where they lived. These people were particularly attached to the local green spaces and play areas that they used for relaxing and socialising. Linking residents through these shared interests and physical assets also allowed the Good Life team to spread new messages about other aspects of environmental sustainability. For example, we ran energy surgeries talking about practical ways of reducing the amount of energy people were using, helping people save money.
Rebuilding these social aspects of neighbourhoods by encouraging people to feel connected to where they live and to one another could help make our communities more resilient, but also healthier, more vibrant places to live.
We are all inherently social animals – we are all deeply affected by our relationships and interactions with other people, including those we share our neighbourhoods with. These social connections may be important underpinnings, not just for helping people to cope with adversity, but also for becoming stronger and more adaptable over time as communities adjust to the problems we face. A resilient community could also be a more sociable, inspiring and sustainable place to live – so we might all be able to achieve a Good Life.