Economic globalization has tended to strip out local cultural differences and nuances among communities as if hierarchical uniformity were an end in itself. Restoring a sense of identity to the community may be an unexpected but necessary adjunct to any development project. A community’s identity may have been lost over some time as knowledge of kinship with and pride in its particular assets has withered. So perceived problems need to be looked at seriously, in the context of who the community is, to truly assess which problems the community should really spend its time on.
It’s important to understand the specific nature of the communities we work with in Belize. Community does not fit into a nice neat package – every community is a little different. A “community” is a construct, a model. We cannot see a whole community, we cannot touch it, and we cannot directly experience it. More importantly, a community is not just the people who are currently in it. A community probably already existed when all of its current residents were not yet born, and it will likely continue to exist when all of the people in it have left.
Anything we do in a Belizean community requires us to be familiar with its people, its issues or problems, and its history. While we traditionally think of a community as the people in a given geographical location, the word can really refer to any group sharing something in common. This may refer to smaller geographic areas – a neighborhood, a housing project or development, a rural area – or to a number of other possible communities within a larger, geographically defined community. Carrying out an intervention or building a coalition is far more likely to be successful if we are informed by the culture of the community and possess an understanding of the relationships among individuals and groups within it. These are often defined by race or ethnicity, professional or economic ties, religion, culture, or shared background or interest.
And what is a community stakeholder? A stakeholder is a person, group, or organization that has direct or indirect investment and interest in an organization because the stakeholder can affect or be affected by the organization’s actions, objectives, and policies. Although stakeholding is usually self-legitimizing (those who judge themselves to be stakeholders are stakeholders), all stakeholders are not always considered equal. In effective community development for Belize this situation must be corrected so that all stakeholders are considered and feel themselves as equal.
Beyond simply being able to identify particular community members and understand why certain issues are thought of as problems, it is very valuable to learn as much as possible about the community. Flourishing communities are the foundation of a healthy society. City blocks, neighborhoods, towns, townships and cities are of a size where individual efforts at community improvement can effect visible change. In local communities all of Belize’s complex issues present themselves– housing, jobs, business development, crime, public participation, personal and community values, and the natural environment, etc. But how does one choose which efforts will reap the richest and most long-lasting rewards for the interested stakeholders?
Historically, the first organized community planning process was, and still is in many places, traditional comprehensive planning. This methodology is employed by land use planners to describe a process that determines community goals and aspirations only through the stakeholder and governmental planner’s identification of problems and issues. The outcome of that mode of planning is the Comprehensive Plan which dictates public policy in terms of individual, often isolated topics of transportation, utilities, land use, recreation, and housing within a geographical region. In most planning decision-making economy is the bottom line, either in the form of improving the community’s economic prosperity or more often in debating over “how much will the planning initiative cost?” In many instances, comprehensive planning has lacked significant public input and transparency on the part of the responsible jurisdiction. Instead planning is routinely performed by the town planner with decisions and executions carried out by the community legislators and/or the different governmental agencies – usually in isolation.
The follow-on from the comprehensive planning process are the strategic planning exercises encompassed in community economic development (CED). These kinds of activities often include the recruitment of a big box store or some manufacturing business that will presumably bring many new jobs and other economic spin-offs. CED recognizes that local challenges and opportunities are as varied as the individual communities themselves. By using knowledge and resources existent in the community, CED identifies and capitalizes on local opportunities to stimulate economic growth and employment. This can include developing entirely new businesses or industries, adding value to existing sectors, strengthening capacity, and improving local infrastructure to help communities achieve their full economic potential. As with comprehensive planning, however, CED is most often done in isolation from other factors connected to the realities of economic development, such as the social-environmental criteria needed to support sound economic activities.
In contrast, questions that should come to mind when focusing on community in the activities of planning and development for Belize should include the following: Can this community survive? Are systems and practices viable for the long-term? Of course changes will be made over time, but we should ask whether some of today’s practices are eliminating choices that we will wish we had tomorrow. While these questions may seem very distant or abstract to some, they are issues we all must face.
Community development is not some distant, abstract goal – it is today’s imperative and reality; but haphazardly emphasizing one element of improvement over another puts us on uneven ground. We can begin choosing options that do not sacrifice one for another through the application of sustainable community development (SCD). And they are best addressed in a community setting rather than a regional or national setting where the political will in today’s world seems unable to raise to the task of agreement on what is good for all.
Therefore, in the improvement of a community it is also very important to consider how changes will contribute to a sense of community among neighbors and then promote the key relationships that make a community strong – among its residents, businesses, government and institutions. Whatever the discussion points become, there are a number of attributes that the process of SCD strongly encourages amongst all stakeholders.
- Civic engagement: Encourages the participation of all affected people in decision-making, and supports the civic values of trust and cooperation.
- Use of local resources: Respects and uses local people and their knowledge, and local energy and materials.
- Accessibility: Allows for transportation and information access within and outside the community while fostering alternatives to single occupancy car use.
- Quality of life: Improves individual opportunity for a sense of fulfillment in life, and brings beauty into physical designs.
- Public safety: Improves the community’s sense of security.
- Education: Supports learning and skill development for people of all ages.
- Community history: Respects the values, traditions, and historical elements of the geographic area.
- Community identity: Helps citizens feel a sense of belonging to the community and fosters commitment to the geographic locale.
- Neighborliness: Supports good human interactions and relationships among diverse people within the community.
SCD has emerged as a compelling alternative to conventional approaches to planning and development. It represents a participatory, holistic and inclusive process that leads to positive, concrete changes in communities by creating employment, reducing poverty, restoring the health of the natural environment, stabilizing local economies, and increasing community control. Therefore, community development that is sustainable significantly advances the concept of traditional comprehensive planning most notably because it is sustainable, which means it is carried out in a democratic, all-inclusive, transparent, integrated means with an emphasis upon stakeholder communication
SCD can cultivate innovation and economic diversity by creating a climate that nurtures entrepreneurs, building economic resilience through diversity, plugging the leaks in the local economy, and fostering information networks that speed the transfer and use of ideas and innovation. Strength through SCD can be realized in catalyzing community partnerships by the cooperation within and across regions to address common challenges and opportunities and the creation of a culture of collaborative problem-solving to speed progress toward shared community objectives.
Rather than being a fixed thing, a sustainable community is continually adjusting to meet the social and economic needs of its residents while preserving the environment’s ability to support them. Sustainable community development uses its resources to meet current needs while ensuring that adequate resources are available for future generations. It seeks a better quality of life for all its residents while maintaining nature’s ability to function over time by minimizing waste, preventing pollution, promoting efficiency and developing local resources to revitalize the local economy. Decision-making in SCD stems from a rich civic life and shared information among community members. A sustainable community resembles a living system in which human, natural and economic elements are interdependent and draw strength from each other.
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