You may already have a ready and willing band of volunteers, or you may need to recruit them. Recruiting volunteers from the ‘community’ is usually the best option. ‘Community’, in the terms of your project, means anyone who is likely to be affected by the project. It is vital for the success and survival of most urban projects to consult and involve the people who are going to be affected.
The process of community participation involves:
- Defining community.
- Involving the community.
- Developing local groups.
ACCRA Youth Centre, Brixton
This is a centre for 5-18 year olds in a community of mainly Afro-Caribbean origin. The centre contacted TCV for advice on running environmental projects and activities. Various projects have now been successfully run for many years, including a nature club, wildflower garden, recycling scheme and producing a newsletter. A part-time environmental worker is employed to work with ACCRA and the adjoining Hillmeads Infants School. In 1995, as part of European Nature Conservation Year, a week of activities was organised. The highlight was an event enjoyed by 150 local residents, at which the children performed an environmental dance, and displayed murals and other work. In an area where there is no tradition of school summer fetes or other similar events, this was a memorable day for the community. The ACCRA project is closely linked with two local schools, and together they form the main focus for community activity in the area.
A community can range from a group of people sharing a house, to the population of the world working together towards a global strategy to reduce greenhouse gases. The term community means any group of individuals who have something in common, be it where they live, what they do or who they are.
A community may be defined by the space it shares – its WHERE. This type of community includes people living in a shared space, such as a housing estate.
A community may be defined by its cultural and social characteristics – its WHY. This type of community includes people belonging to a particular ethnic group, or age group, or who have characteristics in common such as a disability, or a political or religious belief. These people can still form a cohesive group even if they live or work some distance apart.
A community may be defined by its activities – its WHAT. These groups are defined by what they do, which could be their profession, trade or skill, or an activity such as a sports team or a hobby group.
Definitions of community overlap, for example allotment holders on one site share their space and their activities. A Chinese football team share ethnicity and activity. However, these definitions help to show the different ways that ‘community’ can arise and maintain its cohesion through some common interest.
The size of the community can be anything from a handful of people upwards, but a community which can recognize itself and work effectively together is usually of limited size. Look carefully at the area you are working in to try and create a real feeling of ownership by encouraging projects which can be effectively run by an identifiable community. For example, on housing estates it is sometimes possible to divide up the open space into areas which can ‘belong’ to a specific block or group of dwellings. In a large school, environmental activities may need to be divided between classes giving each a particular responsibility.
Small is usually beautiful when it comes to practical conservation groups. Aim for a group where people know each other ’s names, and where you can get all the tools you need into a couple of wheelbarrows.
Involving the community
Who is going to benefit from the environmental improvement? They may be the large numbers of people using a park, or just a handful of people sharing a communal garden. The great thing about a city is that so many varied groups all exist in a small space, often with shared facilities, so there is potential for a large cross- section of people to benefit.
Try to make a list of people and communities likely to be affected by the proposal. These might include the following:
- the site owner
- local residents
- local groups such as the school, church, businesses
- services including electricity, gas, water
- the local authority
- the police
- wildlife groups
It’s important to involve as many individuals and groups who may be affected by the proposal, as they can have important matters to contribute to the direction and success of the project. People with disabilities may have comments on design for accessibility. Unemployed people may have spare time and enjoy the purpose and feeling of achievement that involvement in practical projects can give. Employed people may have access to facilities and other expertise which they can offer. Many older people have skills and experience gained over a lifetime. Children have curiosity and enthusiasm. Young adults have energy and physical stamina. It’s also worth canvassing locally for skills and knowledge. You may have an urban ecologist right next door, or a carpenter who can help make information boards, or a computer designer who can design and produce your publicity material.
Consulting the community
The most important part of project planning is the consultation stage. Having identified the groups who will be affected by the proposal, you need to involve them. By carrying out the consultation process, the project may end up quite different from the original idea, but it will have a better chance to survive and prosper. For further details on consultation, see here.
Newham Community Project
This project was set up jointly by Newham Council and TCV. Newham is London’s least wooded borough, and initially the aim of the project was to carry out tree planting with the help of local schools. With time, the emphasis of the project has shifted to try and support people in achieving their own goals, rather than trying to impose preconceived ideas of environmental improvement. In an urban setting such as Newham, people’s environmental concerns are not about biodiversity or protecting habitat, but in making their own immediate surroundings more pleasant to live in. By working with a range of groups, most of whom do not have environmental aims as their primary activity, much can be achieved. Groups include community centres, residents’ associations, youth groups, religious groups, schools and colleges, day-care centres and residential homes.
Most projects involve garden creation of some sort, to provided oases of shrubs, perennials and climbers which give colour and fragrance in the urban area. Planting schemes are planned with wildlife in mind, and to demonstrate that wildlife gardening does not have to be ‘wild’ and untidy. Much of the planting has to be done in containers, or by breaking up disused Tarmac surfaces to provide planting sites.
All the projects are carried out by the people who are going to benefit from them. Ownership from the beginning helps to ensure the long-term sustainability of projects. Bringing communities together to carry our improvements to their surroundings is very empowering for those taking part, and helps to reduce the alienation that is so much a part of modern urban life. The Newham Community Project plays a wide role in Newham, contributing both physically and socially to urban regeneration.
To help ensure that projects at schools, youth clubs and other centres are sustained, garden clubs involving kids and parents are set up. Through the clubs people get involved in propagating plants, growing vegetables, composting, watering and weeding. Skills learnt can be applied at home.
In order to get as many people as possible involved, the Newham Community Project is innovative in its approach, taking a holistic view of the environment. Raising awareness is important, both of the need for action, and of what can be achieved. Arts projects such as murals, tree dressing, dance and drama all help draw in people who might otherwise not get involved.