Monday, December 13, 2010

Sustaining a Place

Sustainability has specific meanings for different people, but in all cases it’s about doing things in a way that you can keep doing that way over a long time.

For fisheries managers, it’s about staying within the system’s abilities to produce fish, i.e., not taking fish faster than the system can restore them. Likewise for forests, grasslands, wetlands, lakes and streams and agricultural systems – it’s all about using the resources at a rate that does not imperil the future of the resources. Sustainability is not a new term for managers of biotic resources. Sustainable multiple use has been a guiding principle for generations of fisheries and wildlife managers, foresters, rangeland managers, and farmers. In the same way, environmentally minded people talk about living within the ability of our local and global ecosystem to continue to provide the resources we want and need.

For not-for-profit organizations, sustainability is specifically about keeping the stakeholders engaged and thinking positively about results so that donors and volunteers keep donating their time, talent and money and so that new donors and volunteers can be recruited.

For a business, sustainability is making sure that cash flow is reliable over the long term. (Selling $20 bills for $15 is not a sustainable business model). Likewise for a family it’s about not depleting the bank account faster than it can be renewed.

For an urban planner, sustainability is about creating neighborhoods that last. To a rural planner, it’s about building rural communities that last, which often means keeping current residents (including youth) and recruiting new residents.

My training is in biotic resource management, which also involves rural sustainability. Vibrant rural communities are more likely to want to conserve their local biotic resources and sustainable use of biotic resources, as opposed to boom and bust, helps sustain local communities.

Sense of place ties into sustainability. Recent research confirms that development of a sense of place serves all the dimensions of sustainability described above. People with a strong sense of place are more likely to volunteer for local conservation projects (but see Sidebar, below). Likewise, volunteering helps them build their sense of place. In that regard, sense of place builds social capital which helps make the place more sustainable. It’s a positive feedback effect. Local businesses benefit, too. One research project showed that people with a strong sense of place are more likely to support local businesses. I haven’t seen any research on the converse, but I would think that people with a more positive attitude about their place may be more inclined to engage in entrepreneurial activities there. I don’t think it takes research to show the negative of that. Clearly if a place is not seen to have a future, few people would invest in a new enterprise there. Nor would anyone encourage friends and family to invest there.

In my reading informal research on rural sustainability projects tied to place-making, I ran across a very cool project in South Dakota (see They’re helping youth re-imagine their community.

Two recent newspaper articles give me reason to be optimistic. The agricultural economy has seen growth through this latest economic downturn and youth volunteerism is up with youth feeling connected to their communities. There’s some dots to be connected there. Perhaps one example of connecting those dots is the growing farm-to-school lunch programs. It supports local ag, but it could be a good placemaking strategy, showing young people that there is a future in the local economy.

It’s about letting youth know they have a choice. They don’t have to leave to achieve. The Re-Imagine Rural project, as do other rural development groups, makes a case for rural schools including encouragement of rural entrepreneurship. Tapping the imagination of youth, along with local support for entrepreneurship should help make rural communities more sustainable. It won’t work if we just think ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we got some more entrepreneurship going.’ Communities need to actively support it. Michigan State University is helping communities do that with the Creating Entrepreneurial Communities Project (
Two communities to the south of us signed on to that program. I’m eager to see how it works out.

SIDEBAR: Awareness alone is not enough.
While a strong sense of place may spur people to volunteer in local projects, such awareness is not enough. Potential volunteers may need further support. Becoming a volunteer is a change of habit and people sometimes need to follow a process in changing a habit.

By analogy, think of public health efforts to get people to exercise more, to eat better, or in other ways to make healthier lifestyle choices. These efforts often use a state of change model that recognizes that people need information, but then need to contemplate making the change, then plan to make the change, then try the change, and then maintain the new behavior. To enhance the success of people trying to make that change, public health agencies provide support at each step, including fostering a general sense of community support for the change.

Research shows that volunteerism can be enhanced by providing support at each state of change someone goes through while becoming a volunteer. If you're trying to increase volunteerism, you need to foster a positive attitude in the overall community towards volunteerism and let potential volunteers know that there is a whole community that will help them along the way.

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