Sustainable Communities

A View From Wolfville

When one thinks of “cities” or an “urban agenda,” the university town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia (population: 8,000, including students) is likely not the first place that comes to mind. “The city” here almost invariably refers to Halifax, some 90 km to the east. But - perhaps because of a quirk of Canada’s electoral system, which disproportionately favours rural voters over urban - Paul Martin’s “New Deal for Cities” is (or has quickly become) in fact a plan for municipalities, encompassing Wolfville (and surrounding Kings County) as much as Canada’s metropolitan centres. The urban agenda thus matters to Wolfville, and developments in Wolfville around issues of “sustainable communities” may be important for those elsewhere, who are concerned with the ecological sustainability of the urban form.

Scientific conceptions of sustainability have focussed on crises: historical instances where primitive and modern cities and cultures have undermined or polluted their own resource base and therefore cause their own collapse. Rome; Teo-tihuacan (Mayans); Easter Island; the great American “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s; the current loss of rural communities and culture worldwide. All show telltale results of ignoring the fundamentals of sustainability.

Sustainability, however, can be understood not just as a science of crisis avoidance, but also more positively as a means to create systematic models to prevent future ecologically-induced destruction. Ecological crises, however, are also social crises: human misery and death are felt as ecological limits take their toll in the form of compromised food systems, the loss of water sources, the depletion of basic resources such as timber, and the build-up of toxic environments. Sustainability therefore means optimizing social well-being: a guideline for the constitution of communities that integrates health, knowledge, culture, economics, and politics as well as ecological science.

Unfortunately, the sustainable communities movement is still far from having proved the realization of its ambitious ideals. “Sustainability” itself is a fundamentally contested concept: it does not tell us what is being sustained, how, and for whom. “Sustainable Development Frameworks” abound, but does creating a “sustainable community” mean durable municipal infrastructure, fostering local economies, creating affordable housing, setting up community environmental monitoring systems, supporting ethical businesses, or a little helping of everything?

An Index of Community Health

As a starting point for discussion, one way to measure sustainability is the Genuine Progress Index (GPI). This tool, spearheaded by GPI Atlantic, seeks to create an alternative accounting system to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), by including a broad range of quality of life indicators. For the first time in North America, a community-based GPI survey was conducted in Kings County by means of 3-hour-long door-to-door surveys. From this, an extraordinarily complex and detailed database was created using “genuine progress” indicators such as levels of volunteerism and care giving, environmental attitudes, employment patterns, health, time use, safety concerns, and of course the standard demographic, education and financial indicators. Systematic statistical analysis teases out information on community health, and corresponding social and environmental factors. If community wellness monitoring can be hard-wired into municipal decision-making structures, such indicators can provide direct and understandable links to sustainability. The goal of the project is an informed movement toward community health and sustainability. The key is to provide communities and decision-makers with the tools and common language they need to aggressively tackle ecological sustainability issues

Wolfville’s Sustainability Program

Representatives from the Town of Wolfville attended the Sustainable Communities conference hosted by the Federa-tion of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) earlier in the year. Inspired by other communities, and spurred on by accessible funding and support, the municipal government committed to starting a sustainability program in Wolfville. Working with the Centre for Rural Sustainability (CRS), they aim to create a model for cultivating sustainable communities that is attuned to the needs of rural Nova Scotia. The project is expected to kick into gear in the fall, using the Natural Step (TNS – www.naturalstep.org), GPI and working directly with local decision-makers to “green” town operations, planning, and infrastructure. A team will also provide broad spectrum education about sustainability and global awareness directly to the community. Incentive programs are envisioned that will encourage residents to reduce the environmental footprint of their homes, and encourage consumers and businesses to support more environmentally and socially just products and services.

CRS directors (www.ruralsustainability.org) anticipate that communities all across Nova Scotia will be attracted to the benefits and values of sustainability visioning and planning, and that similar programs will soon emerge elsewhere.

Regional Possibilities

Nova Scotia communities are already active on the environmental and social fronts. Nova Scotia is the birthplace of Father Moses Coady’s co-operative movement, and the co-op spirit remains strong throughout the region. Nova Scotia boasts a world-class provincial solid waste recycling system; it is the only province to take the 50 per cent waste diversion goal seriously. In addition to numerous watershed conservation groups, the Atlantic Coastal Action Program, ties together many coastal communities throughout the Atlantic provinces to protect their environments by direct community engagement.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is working with communities in Kings County to explore a new ambitious possibility: a model “sustainable region”. Is it possible for all the municipalities in Kings to work together and coordinate sustainability efforts? With the possibility of using GPI data to fashion a common sustainability language, FCM has already started to find interested members among local municipalities, interest groups, and the regional Community Economic Development Agency.

It’s not hard to garner support when you’re waving a big carrot: FCM offers community partners access to the Green Municipal Funds. This pot of money ($250 million endowed to FCM by the federal government) makes up to $350,000 available to municipalities in order to provide support for planning, research, climate change work, and infrastructure upgrades, as well as support other municipal projects that relate directly to sustainability. That kind of money may look like peanuts to a big city, but for a small community, it’s substantial. This funding lubricates good ideas where funding, expertise, and specific capacity are often lacking.

Sustainable Communities in a Globalized World

In a recent paper entitled “The Urban Agenda and the Fate of Rural Communities,” University of Alberta political scientist David Whitson cautions that an urban agenda may facilitate geographically uneven development in which urban areas prosper while rural communities increasingly serve “two new and very different functions - playground and dumping ground.” While scenic Wolfville obviously requires an element of ecological sustainability, the development of playgrounds as well as dumping grounds are driven by urban interests, and in this sense may be socially unsustainable. The culprit here is not so much the big cities themselves, but the process of urbanization and the productivist logic that undergirds it. To counter this, Whitson suggests an expanded definition of productivity, including stewardship of the land and other issues valued by rural communities.

Seen in this context, rural people might be speaking not only for themselves, but for all of us who find our lives increasingly subordinated to the relentless demands associated with productivity and competitiveness, and have come to accept such demands as “normal.”

“Sustainable communities” seems likely to emerge as a new buzzword - one whose meaning remains, for the moment, fluid. One possibility is that, like FDR’s New Deal, it will be simply a means of getting through a particular crisis without addressing the social processes that generate crises in the first place. The other possibility is that the sustainable community models being developed in Wolfville and elsewhere can be used to construct an alternative to the neo-liberal version of the “urban agenda.” We feel municipal governments have an important role in creating the conditions to achieve the latter, but that it requires thinking out of the traditional “town manger” box and into the complex realm of financial, political, cultural, and environmental integration.

Community sustainability in this sense would mean: sustainable and stable funding and ownership, public participation, state responsibility, progressive social indicators for success, and of course tangibly reduced pressures on the eco-sphere. Most importantly, the notion of community sustainability needs to be understood as one that operates at multiple scales, and in the context of an increasingly globalized world.

Given the global scope of both economic and ecological processes, the notion of selected single communities in isolation being “sustainable” makes no sense. Community sustainability should neither be about autarkic isolation nor about the displacement of negative social and ecological externalities. Instead, it is about building and enriching human relations across space and time: community autonomy and empowerment in a context of global and intergenerational solidarity.Andrew Biro is the Canada Research Chair in Political Ecology and Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Acadia University.

Leon de Vreede is the founder of the Centre for Rural Sustainability, and resides in Wolfville, NS.