Urban Strategies: Involve the Community

Have you ever found an idea that was so interesting that you are compelled to action? What if your friends felt the same way and your singular action multiplied and had a much greater effect? How could we create and harness some of that energy for other causes, like environmentally friendly neighborhoods?

Galvanizing a community around a common goal or action can be difficult in any situation. Ecodistricts present further challenges to traditional models of engagement, as the scale of planning and type of commitment that is required is outside of a single development cycle and can be generational in length. It is easy to look back in retrospect and identify long term trends in a community. We wanted to know if it is possible to involve individuals and groups to create both immediate benefit and lasting effect for a community.

Communities can form around different purposes but we propose that successful ones employ three key strategies for engagement. We found these qualities to be effective in communities, companies, or any organization that is trying to address complex problems whose solutions require collaborative effort. Sustainable communities and organizations navigate with the following tools:

Foundational Identity

Sustainable communities craft a foundational identity that reflects the present reality as well their positive vision of their future. This identity builds resiliency so that when difficulties occur, they are seen as exceptions and not the rule.

Living Cities Masterplan – Locating Foundational Identity is key in community building process

Two types of identity form a community; foundational identity is an organization’s self image that changes slowly and often generationally; fluid identity is responsive to short term events and so changes much more rapidly. Foundational identity is understood as the core qualities of a community, whether real or perceived. Like many Silicon Valley tech companies who promote their “founder’s garage” startup mythology, foundational identity is part fact, part desire. Fluid identity is a community’s self image as it relates to specific events and is a reaction to the community’s long term foundational self image. For example, a community of loyal sports fans that believes they are “a team of champions” (foundational identity) responds to a lost game as an exception and not the rule (fluid identity).

The cultivation of foundational identity needs to be well crafted by the community, for it can be a fine line between perception and reality. Foundational identity is informed by past trends and when combined with future vision, it creates the stability by which risks can be taken and failures can be tolerated. We have found that a strong benchmarking process helps to give an accurate grounding for an organization or community. Combined with a robust visioning process, it provides the material for a strong foundational identity that gives a community a firm base upon which to build future action.


Sustainable communities empower individuals to engage information and supply tools and methods to interpret and discuss it. They communicate through a diversity of visualization techniques that reflects the richness of a community of learners.

Penn Green – a mock-up of Climate Migration Services for displaced climate migrants

A strong community shares information that people need to make decisions. We are in a data-rich environment and researchers like Robert Cialdini [PDF] have suggested that what we know affects our beliefs and actions. Information helps build community by creating a common background that forms the foundation of vision of the community. Although we are in a data rich age, the availability the data is not always equitably distributed, whether due to technology constraints or to the legibility of the data. Information must be physically accessible and easy to understand for people to participate as individuals and as a community. Communication has to reflect the diversity of learners in the community.

In our work we use different ways of making abstract ideas and information visible. Mapping and information graphics show us patterns that we could not otherwise see in real time or in a single glance. It is important to make invisible or difficult to perceive flows, like energy, water and other forces, visible by relating them to things that we can easily identify. Lastly, installations or prototypes help us understand something remote ideas and relationships. These full scale mock-ups make abstract ideas seem more real and give everyone courage and knowledge to make it so.

Common Cause

Sustainable communities can use physical projects to mobilize people around a common cause. These campaigns clearly identify and communicate issues and the desired outcomes. Rallying around a common cause requires shaping both long term vision and opportunities for short term action.

Adelaide: Mapping Sustainability – The Adelaide community can rally behind the common cause of carbon

Communities naturally go through active and passive cycles of activity and strong communities know how and when to mobilize. Our research has examined the most successful ways to build capacity is to create campaigns that clearly define the common cause, develop visible and measurable goals, and develop opportunities for action. This clarity of common cause is especially critical for ecodistricts, where success is determined by measurable ecological performance as well as less visible networked relationships.

Common cause develops focus from physical projects. We have found that the design and stewardship of our buildings and neighborhoods can be one of the most effective ways of mobilizing a community around sustainability. These projects are effective because they give a focused understanding of sustainability, require action for only a limited time, require people to work together in new ways and develop new networks, and have tangible results that can be seen and experienced after the project effort is complete.

The power of a community is in its people, its processes and its places and involving the community is core to all three. A positive foundational identity provides stability and is developed by engaging people to rethink current and future visions and goals. This effort is reliant on information on the processes and flows of a community to understand current conditions and future possibilities. Focusing on places is a good way to organize actions around a common cause. Together these leverage sustainability knowledge into ongoing actions that create resilient and robust communities.

Evolve EA