Our project uses local knowledge acquired through heritage-focused interviews with residents, business owners, and community leaders to devise new neighborhood-level indicators of community sustainability based on local-scale understandings of change. We are investigating pathways to sustainability in small urban neighborhoods, particularly those often left out of sustainability initiatives because of real and perceived instabilities.
The most common rendering of sustainability has it resting on three supports, usually pillars or legs of environmental protection, economic development and social equity. This model implies a false independence of the three dimensions. Instead, we take sustainability to be, at its core, about changing relations and flows among people and environments in order to reduce exploitation (human, environmental, and otherwise) and increase social and environmental endurance.
Also missing from the normative concept of sustainability is engagement with hyper-local scales. Homes, porches, sidewalks, community centers, places of worship, social service offices, parks, and other neighborhood places are where relations are formed, knowledge is shared, and aspirations and frustrations are expressed. To enact more sustainable relations in small postindustrial urban neighborhoods, we must first identify and establish shared values.
Stable and productive relations among city officials, NGOs, businesses, and citizens is critical for sustainability planning and implementation. This does not mean that there must be universal agreement of priorities and actions. In fact, conflict can be quite productive in bringing into focus underlying structural inequalities. But it does mean that the true sense of the term “collaboration”—working together to produce something new that would not be possible without all participants—is mobilized to establish a basis for shared values. Values shape priorities for action.
We have sought to use urban heritage and collaborative planning as tools for community capacity building. Working at the hyper-local scale of urban neighborhood and accessing residents’ place-based local knowledge through heritage discourses and collaborative planning offers an alternative to top down, elite-driven sustainability projects. While changes at the neighborhood scale may appear to be reactions to present conditions, local knowledge shared among residents in face-to-face interactions can provide both long- and short-term views of what has changed, how and why things have changed, and how to best bring about sustainable environmental, economic, and social relations. More importantly, heritage work and collaborative planning opens up opportunities to establish shared values that can ultimately strengthen neighborhood cohesion and the social fabric supporting sustainability efforts.
Our ultimate goal is to build neighborhood capacity and to understand neighborhood change and sustainability, devising new ways of increasing neighborhood sustainability at higher levels of government and civic society.
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