Rural community developers need more than ever to conserve resources and focus their efforts on what's basic: sustaining the environment. Rural life and livelihood depend on it.
Rural community development practice and research are in a quandary. Daunting issues face physical places out yonder. Mix problems of pollution, weakening infrastructure and inadequate transportation with shrinking government, shifting economies, and global warming — it’s enough to run you ragged.
The traditional view of community development is ethical, rooted in self-governance and determination. But perhaps it has not been ethical enough in today’s world. The future, always uncertain and sometimes a bit scary, now offers some totally frightening scenarios of national decline. Symptoms include government paralysis and retrenchment at all levels; little or no care and concern for the victims of a prolonged economic malady; long distance corporate decision making; climate change and global warming.
There has been evident prosperity in some rural communities. The central plains states, the Dakotas in particular, have managed to weather this recession relatively well, and high agricultural prices have buffered some impacts of the deep, nationwide recession. But let’s face the overarching issues that still prevail in rural communities. When look underneath the averages, problems of poverty, low wages, and limited job opportunities continue — worsening in many regions.
The current sweep of political, economic, and environmental events (and I say this with great sadness, desperately hoping I am wrong) will continue to marginalize rural communities. Where we have suffered market failure, we now see widening political failure at the federal, state, and local levels. The trend only reinforces the anti-government rhetoric and inaction that have come to permeate not only political discussions and personal relationships but governments themselves.
In my travels across rural Illinois in the past year or so, I’ve seen widespread suspicion of government and outright dislike for many government programs. Many rural residents seem to think government is wasteful and welfare is unfair to working people, though when the post offices in their own communities are threatened with closure, they protest. Not in My Backyard.
This is the landscape where many community developers now negotiate. It can be quite unfriendly.
My growing sense is that options for contemporary rural community development practitioners are going to keep narrowing. As global capital grows ever more dynamic, governments are shrinking, doing less and less for rural areas – a kind of devolution.
Floyd Norris, writing for the New York Times, found that government employment in February 2013 was lower than it had been a year earlier, the 31st straight month of such decline. According to the conservative National Review, federal employment has shrunk slightly but state and local governments have seen fairly sharp falls in employment. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, there were about 19.71 million full and part-time state and local workers in 2009. Since then, that number has fallen to 19.29 million, a decline of about 2.3% in two years. Impacts have been variable from state to state but have included cutbacks in medical services, schools, and road maintenance.
Under these conditions, a more pragmatic and ethical approach to rural community development is needed, an envirocentric approach, more in the spirit of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful philosophy/economics of the 1970s.
Make no mistake. This is not the stuff of a wild hippie mind. Today’s realities suggest the urgent need to alter traditional community development practice by putting ecological sustainability at the core. An ecocentric approach to rural community development offers ways for places to build on their human assets to improve the local ecology and perhaps provide an environmental cushion from broader factors that are out of their control.
We need enlightened community developers to revamp the field’s rich traditions. While continuing to respond to community needs, they need to create grassroots support for self-interested green communities capable of maintaining an enduring good quality of life in troubling times of growing isolation, real and perceived.
Envirocentric community self-interest translates into putting sustainability first. As an economic, political, and social approach to local development, sustainability puts human communities into their natural ecology, working with and for nature by conserving, nurturing, and replenishing the ecological setting, the larger community — soil, water, air, plants, and animals.
This kind of community development does not “create an ecology for small business development,” as the current faddish rhetoric suggests. It sees that the role of business must be to care for the house that nature has provided, to use it carefully and wisely, always with an eye on the future.
What does this mean? In theory, envirocentric rural development offers an ethical anchor based on principles of social justice, community security, and health, all resting on high environmental quality.In practice, a new paradigm for communuty development is far more complicated; it requires more than merely setting up a group of people who want to bring about a better quality of life. It demands a long-range vision. How will current-day activities affect the natural environment in generations to come?
It’s all too easy to say that rural communities need to take control of their futures; in practice, it isn’t all that easy to do. Sustainability is elusive and can be short lived because of internal divisions or outside, uncontrollable factors. Still, with all these pitfalls, some community developers are already aiding communities to move toward sustainability, rooting their new development effort in an old ethic — building social relationships through democracy.
Dan Kahl, an extension instructor for the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, is one leader in this approach to development. Kabl makes environmental education a crucial component in building community capacity. His model of development includes the following:
• Focusing on a definable geographic area;
• Working collaboratively with a full range of stakeholders through partnerships;
• Promoting sustainable ecosystems and communities through integration of environmental, health, economic, and quality-of-life goals in community-based efforts;
• Assessing, protecting, and restoring the quality of air, water, land, and living resources in a place as a whole; and
• Integrating public and private action using the most appropriate regulatory and non-regulatory activities to forge effective solutions for unique community and regional concerns.
Kahl’s community work is part of the Kansas PRIDE Program, a partnership of K-State Research and Extension, the Kansas Department of Commerce, and Kansas PRIDE, Inc.; The Healthy Ecosystems-Healthy Communities (HEHC) Program, supported by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, is one facet of this work. Three cases from Kansas illustrate the flexibility of this more environmentally-centered approach.
According to Kahl, Humboldt, Kansas, developed an amphitheater along the Neosho River, installed walking trails, fishing areas and river access, and improved the park restrooms. The Humboldt HEHC/PRIDE was able to improve water quality and educate citizens on water quality protection. Humboldt more than doubled its grant match for community improvements.
In Larned, Kansas, the project team cleaned up the Pawnee River area and installed a dock at Camp Pawnee, making it more accessible for fishing, canoeing, and camping. The initial $5,000 grant project was matched with more than $130,000 in additional grant and gift dollars to transform the campground into a place for families and friends to gather in the great outdoors. According to Kahl, the whole community now enjoys the new playground equipment, walking trail, camping hook-ups, basketball court, tether ball, horse shoe pits, and park equipment.
Alden, Kansas identified a priority project and installed a retention pond in its park, Kahl said. With the addition of landscaping and the development of an environmental interpretive center in the community building, the pond captures and settles rainwater run-off. It also provides an aesthetically pleasing location to teach environmental education. Because of the HEHC program’s effectiveness, PRIDE was awarded an “Innovative Program Award” in 2012 from the Community Development Society, a national association of community development professionals.
According to Mary Emery, formerly of Iowa State University and now at South Dakota State University, The College of Menomonee Nation (CMN) in Keshena and Green Bay, Wisconsin, partnered with Iowa State to gather the wisdom from the tribe on successful adaptations in forest management, exploring how the tribe can best adapt to changes in the Menomonee Forest that are resulting from climate change.
The project linked larger academic institutions with a smaller one, with great benefits for the tribal community. According to William Van Lopik of the College of Menomonee Nation, tribal colleges like CMN need partners in order to access federal research funds and build their research capacity.
Emery said the project involved students in interviewing elders and analyzing the data to create a report on the forest. In addition, students, faculty, and staff met with climate change experts and indigenous elders from other tribes to learn more about anticipated changes and promising approaches to adaptation. The forest is of huge cultural and economic importance to the tribe, anchoring it to traditional lands while providing sustainable income.
Cornelia Butler Flora of Iowa State University has been involved in many envirocentric programs, including a project in Iowa that demonstrates community empowerment in the face of larger-scale failures. According to Flora, the Iowa project, along the Raccoon River watershed, originally emerged because the city of Des Moines was concerned about high nitrogen levels caused by agricultural runoff. Led by a private regional foundation, the state of Iowa, and the Federal government in conjunction with fertilizer companies and the soybean producers association, the effort turned out to be a false start. It wasn’t able to continue when outside funding from a number of sources ended in 2000.
After the first effort dissolved, according to Flora, the fertilizer companies and soybean producers formed another group that focused on balancing optimal production and profits with environmental considerations, especially along the edges of fields. This group was concerned about making sure farmers would meet state environmental standards in order to avoid increased regulations.
Flora said that another group, the Raccoon River Watershed Association (RWWA) emerged in 2004. Michael Delaney, a sociology professor at Des Moines Area Community College, owned 30 acres on each side of the river, land that had been converted back to native species. His group started at a small scale. He brought together friends and neighbors to discuss the river’s deterioration. The smaller group convened a public meeting that organized the Northern Raccoon River Watershed Association with membership that included paddlers, a descendant of the first Europeans in the river valley, two property owners with land near the river, a neighbor from Des Moines, and another community college professor. They organized a canoe trip down the river to involve others and publicize their cause.
In its early stage, the group decided to meet regularly, charge minimal dues, and made a critical decision not to seek outside funding from governments, businesses or foundations, according to Flora. The group has legal status, but decided to make itself independent and self-supporting through member donations and volunteers. That decision was based on the failure of the Raccoon River Watershed Project. Flora said the decision to maintain independence was important because it allowed RWWA to avoid entanglements with groups that could offer financial support but possibly dilute the group’s powers. RWWA continues to keep in contact with these groups but focuses its efforts on action, not fund-raising she said.
In its first year as a formal organization, RRWA’s Operation Massive Assessment recruited volunteers to conduct water quality tests that were linked to secondary data to develop a picture of the watershed’s condition. The group also interviewed key personnel in public and private agencies, according to Flora. The study resulted in an effort to clean up the river and its banks. To do that, the city of Perry needed to clear its access road, which had become a dump. The cleanup effort garnered positive publicity, and the trash removal made the river more appealing to anglers and paddlers. In collaboration with the city of Perry, RRWA removed three trucks full of garbage from the river. Seventy members joined the group that year.
At the end of the RRWA’s first year, Flora, then director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development at Iowa State, helped RRWA analyze the resources of the association and its members. The analysis showed the group was strong in its approach to the watershed’s natural and cultural capital, with effective human and social capital to carry out its local tasks. But the analysis also revealed limited political and financial capital. As a result, the group recruited new members who supported its efforts and had political connections. It also formed alliances with like-minded local, state, and national advocacy groups, according to Flora. In addition, RWWA designed a strategy to work with the government and private sectors, while maintaining its core value of financial and political independence.
RRWA continues to be an action-oriented group of volunteers. It uses its webpage and social media to maintain communications and accountability. According to its website, the group recently completed a bike trail from Perry to Dawson and created a new river access at Dawson.
Debate over the role of government in rural areas has now passed a major turning point. It is no longer a matter of budget-tinkering. We are witnessing phased withdrawal. This is the challenge communities and community developers face.
Sustainable, self-interested community development may be the last resort. Local resources are too scarce and too precious. What’s left needs to be nurtured and used in a truly efficient, future-oriented way. It may seem burdensome to do a realistic appraisal of environmental assets now and for future generations. But the future hinges on it.
In the past, community developers have taken pride in building democracy. We now must link democracy with building and healing local environments. Healthy and accessible food, green energy, clean water, and affordable housing are more than amenities. They represent essential human and community needs that are being denied in times of widening geographic discrimination. At the same time, they offer opportunities for smaller-scale, more sustainable community development that can help put people to work helping themselves and each other.
It appears that more and more rural communities are going to be more and more on their own. Under these constraints, people of these places can still find ways to make peace with their ecological homes while building a good life for themselves. Some are already doing just that.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.