Building Community Resilience in York

Posted on 6 March 2014

What is the best way to make a community more resilient in the face of climate change?

New Earswick Planting

The Good Life Initiative was conceived as a practical intervention in the low-income community of New Earswick, a suburb of York consisting mainly of social housing managed by the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT).

The initiative aimed to stimulate community resilience by encouraging residents to achieve a healthier, more sustainable, knowledgeable and sociable life. It was developed in collaboration between researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute centre at the University of York’s Environment Department with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), JRHT and York in Transition.

Community initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and encourage more sustainable living have gained increasing national support. They also improve community resilience, allowing neighbourhoods to better adapt to change. This action research project investigates different ways of engaging residents to create a more resilient and environmentally sustainable community in a low-income neighbourhood in York.

While affluent households tend to have high expenditure and consequently high carbon emissions, low-income households are potentially more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The project took a broad approach to sustainability and tried to promote the best use of community resources holistically, rather than focusing purely on environmental behaviour.

Specific project objectives were to:

  • raise public awareness of low-carbon lifestyles;
  • foster community cohesion through joint actions;
  • support connections between community action and JRHT work on sustainability;
  • enhance local skills for self-sufficiency and build local resilience;
  • achieve a measurable reduction in household carbon emissions.

Key points

  • Making links between sustainability issues and the underlying interests of community groups, and connecting to their existing social networks, was important to engage a cross-section of people.
  • Attempts to build new community groups solely around energy saving and sustainability proved difficult, with declining participation at themed events.
  • Identifying ‘hooks’ relevant to local people’s interests was important for encouraging shared action among residents and proved pivotal to success.
  • The most successful ideas to engage people were a community sustainability event with the local secondary school that was linked to a global environmental conference, the Rio Earth Summit; activities to improve residents’ connections with their natural environment; and developing neighbourhood maps of local problems which helped spawn ideas to improve the area.
  • Sustained engagement was vital to build trust. This was linked to a phased reduction of outside help to try to embed change in the community and encourage a legacy for achievements.
  • The initiative achieved notable success in building new social links as well as reinforcing some existing networks. These improvements appear to help significantly increase community resilience.
  • Local and national organisations can support community resilience and inclusion by providing the wider policies and infrastructure that promote it.

Community resilience is about how people living in a particular place deal with economic, social and environmental problems. Going beyond merely coping, resilient communities can actually become stronger and more adaptable over time as they adjust to the problems they face. This could be by acquiring new skills, strengthening social connections and developing new physical resources. This way of thinking about communities and resilience – their inherent strengths, flexibility and resources – implies that a resilient community might also be a more sociable, inspiring and sustainable place to live.

Conclusion

Building community resilience can be complicated. Local leadership needs to be supported and enhanced to encourage and enable people to take collective charge of developing community resources, including green spaces. And the inevitable conflicts of direction have to be addressed creatively. Relationships are critical in maintaining resilience in the face of adversities, and the most successful communities are those that take a ‘joined up’ view of developing a diverse range of neighbourhood resources.

By involving a wider range of people with new skills and better connections, the project may have spurred New Earswick on to becoming a more resilient community – a community more able to respond and adapt to future challenges. It also highlights how new ideas need to be made locally relevant, and considerable care and time is needed to embed them.  

The Good Life Initiative shows that, with the right kind of practical support, communities can take on more responsibilities, have a greater say in local decisions and encourage environmentally sustainable and resilient development.

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