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Nurturing thriving communities? It’s all about connecting the people

Posted on 11 May 2023

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Why connecting people and mixing fun with delicious food is the key to transforming your neighbourhood in the new age of scarcity.

By Charlie Wright, Coordinator: Edinburgh Climate Forum, Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations Council (EVOC)

Community development and engagement has become a lot harder. Since the Pandemic, our communities have been pushed to breaking point and have lost confidence that the current system will improve their lives. The ever-growing list of complex systemic problems is becoming unmanageable and even the most seasoned community development professionals are struggling to keep on top of the list of demands placed upon them.

An alarming publication from the Community Life Survey this week confirmed that engagement in social action e.g. setting up new community groups and charities, running community campaigns, maintaining community services, organising community events, volunteering, civic engagement, and charitable giving is at the lowest level ever recorded – at just 12% of the population. Since the pandemic started in 2020, there has also been an equally concerning 7% drop in ‘people who would be willing to pull together to improve their neighbourhood’ (UK GOV: 01/05/2023).

Why is this? It is no great surprise that with the cost-of-living crisis, decimation of living standards, combined with global crises like the pandemic and Climate Emergency that people are being starved of the luxury of time and headspace needed to get involved in community improvement activities.

Ideally, both the current and next central government will invest significant resources to turn this negative trajectory around by both investing in communities and fixing our broken economy.

However, the current reality is that if we want to fix this tailspin in community involvement soon, we are going to need some seriously impressive tools to re-invigorate communities and inspire people to put their shoulder to the wheel. As practitioners in community development, we need to be able to effectively communicate to communities that through their involvement, they can transform their own as well as their neighbours’ lives. This cannot be tokenistic; People need to be able to witness their impact and rediscover the notion that through collective activity change is possible.

So, we need tools which are capable of moving communities into a space of collective shared activity, where participation has its own reward and where there is an immediacy of the sense of joy and impact. In essence, we need something which quickly injects a mixture of play, practicality, progress and some social magic back into the community.

Participants share their assets and projects on Cross-pollination cards from the Share, Connect and Create Cross-pollination workshop in Edinburgh

As practitioners, we need to comfortably operate and engage with the messy beginnings of community development, which are often looked on as “too involved” to the outsider. I am of course referring to the foundational activities of any community; coffee mornings, ceilidhs, book clubs and gardening groups. These activities are rarely acknowledged as an important part of community building, but they are the backbone and lifeblood of any community development process. The groups who run these kinds of activities often take years building trust and operate on extremely tight margins. They are the community’s main social assets, and they are important.

We need to recognise the full pallet of social assets present within communities and move beyond the idea that there is one ‘perfect place-based community development organisation’ in every community. Successful community development involves an understanding of the importance of pluralistic local networks, nurtures collaborations and introduces tools which support collective action on local priorities. Fundamentally, we need to value approaches which can play football with the under 12s, dance tango with the over 60s, play frisbee on the beach with the 20 somethings and then bring them all together to decide to fix the broken swings in the local children’s playpark.

Thankfully, in recent years, there has been a steady increase in the number of approaches which recognise the value of social assets and community ecosystems, which we can use to help bring communities together in a more socially meaningful way. Authors like Cormac Russell and John McKnight, the writers of “the Connected Community: Discovering the Health, Wealth and Power of Neighbourhoods” and Priya Parkers author of “The Art of the Gathering” have shared ideas and techniques which celebrate the importance of unique gatherings, building social connections and movement through recognition and joy of sharing each other’s gifts. These are asset-driven approaches, and they are fantastic!

The Glass-House Community-Led Design and their strategic partners The Open University have developed their own socially created asset driven methodology called ‘Cross Pollination’ and it is a wonderful example of a simple and easily repeatable ‘Connecting Tool’. Their approach doesn’t just focus on the activity of bringing people together but also creates a special event around it with amazing food and workshop materials.

Share, Connect & Create Workshop, tools for connection and collaboration including the Cross-pollination Resource

In Edinburgh, we had the chance to give the Cross-Pollination methodology a go earlier this year. At Edinburgh’s Voluntary Organisations Council (EVOC), we began to recognise the deep need for people to come together socially and to rediscover their community connections before they could effectively tackle huge issues like the Climate Emergency and the Cost-of-Living Crisis.

We contacted Sophia from The Glass-House last year and were fortunate enough to be able to invite The Glass-House and Open University team to one of the community areas in Edinburgh. We felt that the area in question needed help, and an opportunity for collaboration was created through their Cross-pollination research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

We chose to run the Cross-Pollination workshop in an area of the city where there are a good number of community-based organisations but where there was little by way of shared activity between them all. The combined Gilmerton and Liberton area was a part of the city which needed to develop better connections between people organisations and local priorities.

Sophia and Katerina arrived in early March to help deliver a day-long workshop using the Cross-pollination approach, where community organisations learn how to connect and share what they’re working on and discover shared priorities, activities, and points of interest within the community. With a very packed room and a fantastic meal provided by Bridgend Community Farmhouse Trust, we were able to see the wealth of assets and connections available in the room as well as have time to discover new ideas over dinner.

From this we have been able to understand a small portion of the scale of assets, offers, and collective ambitions within Liberton and Gilmerton. We are excited to explore how we can continue to deepen the Cross-pollination process, spread it more widely and develop catalysing activities across the community, where local groups and residents can get involved in a set of transformative projects which bring people together in common cause. The learnings from this process and similar asset-based approaches have given our team a fresh perspective on tools and methodologies available which can build new social connections and support collective action in neighbourhoods.  

It is often suggested that for us to tackle the Climate Crisis and other global issues, we need to confine individualism to the past and rediscover how to work together collectively.  So, if we are to move beyond this decline of community involvement and face the big issues of today, we need to broadly restore the importance of community building activities in our work. To do this, we need to acknowledge social assets and prioritise the creation of connections between people. Our work needs to value the formation of lasting friendships across groups, residents, and practitioners.

Community development really shouldn’t feel like a drawn-out, complicated process, it should feel like a series of very memorable parties and gatherings where good things happened, and where people really got to know each other. Some of the best ways to do this are by using approaches like ‘Cross-Pollination’, and the ‘Connected Communities’ where good food, fun and action can be brought together in a delightfully cosy way.

Charlie Wright is the coordinator of EVOC’s Climate Program which supports community, voluntary and social sector organisations across the city to deliver on Edinburgh’s ambitious Net Zero by 2030 Climate Goals. Charlie’s background is in Urban Design & Planning and he has worked with informal communities in a variety of international contexts. Charlie’s current focus is exploring the role of Community Wealth Building in unlocking a just and equitable transition to a net zero economy for Edinburgh.

EVOCEdinburgh Voluntary Organisations’ Council (EVOC) has been supporting the people and communities of Edinburgh since 1868. They do this by supporting, developing and promoting the interests and work of voluntary and community organisations across the City. EVOC is part of Edinburgh’s Third Sector Interface (TSI), or Council for Voluntary Service in England (CVS). CVS and TSI organisations have an important and often overlooked role in community development as network builders, conduits for specialist support and local advocacy.