Enterprising Communities: Grassroots Sustainability Innovations: Volume 9


Table of contents

(18 chapters)

As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close, the threats associated with economic crises, social inequalities, and human-induced environmental change focused unprecedented attention on global development trajectories. While questions about how the nature and impact of economic growth should be managed have long featured in environmentalist thought, the stark conditions created a new policy landscape of opportunity for alternative development strategies. National governments around the globe began to disseminate policy statements calling for ‘green growth’ and some, for example the United States, even developed stimulus packages aimed at restructuring economies towards a low carbon future. At the same time international non-governmental organisations such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have developed entire initiatives focused on shaping what has come to be termed the ‘green economy’ (UNEP, 2011). Even large multinational corporations, such as Shell and their dialogues mechanism, are engaging with green economy discourses. New partnerships are emerging across governance sectors with Microsoft Corp and UNEP signing an agreement in 2009 to share knowledge collaboratively around green economy issues. In the United States, the BlueGreen Alliance is consolidating activity of labour unions and environmental organisations in order to maximise the number and quality of jobs in the green economy. With such a broad spectrum of actors and interests involved, it is unsurprising that there is no one agreed vision for a green economy. Some argue for development scenarios that promote reduced or no-growth pathways (Scott-Cato, 2009), others see the current crises creating innovation opportunities for new growth in different areas through processes of ‘creative destruction’ (Florida, 2010).

The previous chapter outlined the conceptual debates surrounding the multiplicity of activities that can be defined as already existing spaces of grassroots sustainability enterprise. The case has therefore already been made for a serious reflection on the contributions that these activities are making, and perhaps more importantly potentially could make, in terms of creating more resilient communities. In particular, the importance of grassroots sustainability enterprise has been emphasised for those who are already vulnerable to the vagaries of unsustainable development as currently practised around the globe. While these benefits, and the challenges that abound in terms of realising them, will be more carefully examined through detailed case study analysis in the second part of this book it is important to engage first with the complex issue of how such benefits can be elucidated in the context of sustainable development.

Arguably waste management, in its various guises, has been subjected to more analysis at the community level than any other environmental sector to date. This attention spans geographical boundaries with community-based waste organisations, particularly those focused on recycling, minimisation and reuse, subjected to critical analysis across Africa (Myers, 2005) and Asia (Forsyth, 2005), as well as in North America (Adhikari, Trémier, Martinez & Barrington, 2010; Weinberg, Pellow & Schnaiberg, 2000), New Zealand (White & du Preez, 2005) and the UK (Luckin & Sharp, 2003). While all focused broadly on matters of sustainability and governance, the first explicit analysis of community-based waste initiatives as grassroots sustainability enterprises was undertaken in Ireland in the mid-2000s (Davies, 2009).

Low impact development (LID) has been characterised as a radical approach to housing, livelihoods and everyday living which began in Britain in the 1990s as a grassroots response to the overlapping crises of sustainability (Halfacree, 2006; Maxey, 2009). It employs approaches that dramatically reduce humans’ impact upon the environment, demonstrating that human settlements and livelihoods, when done appropriately, can enhance, rather than diminish ecological diversity. However, LID is not solely concerned with the environment. It is also a direct response to social needs for housing, an anti-capitalist strategy forging alternative economic possibilities, and a holistic approach to living that pays attention to the personal as well as the political needs (Douthwaite, 1996). Thus, LIDs are a good vehicle through which to explore radical and innovative forms of sustainability and to critically assess their potential as a response to environmentally damaging ways of living. Rather than seeing LIDs as a rural back-to-the-land phenomena (Halfacree, 2007b; Jacob, 2006), this chapter argues that the movement is ‘engaged in social transformation through everyday-lived practice’ (Woods, 2008, p. 132).

In 2007, the development of Ireland's first eco-village began in the small town of Cloughjordan, which is in a scenic rural area of the midlands region in Ireland. Approximately 1.5hours from the capital city of Dublin, it is accessible by train from a number of urban centres. In the past the town had suffered from both population decline and population ageing. Some of its key services, such as the bank, post office and a school, were either under threat or had already closed. However, the town and its hinterland are rich in both natural and social amenities. Before embarking on the empirical analysis of the Village, which is based on interviews with a range of stakeholders and local residents as well as site visits and documentary research, it is useful to reflect on the concept of sustainable housing.

Community renewable energy has been widely advocated as a mode of implementation of sustainable energy technologies that contrast in various ways from those of public or private sector utilities (Walker & Cass, 2007). Community energy projects have been established in many countries around the world, including various parts of Europe (DTI, 2004; Lauber, 2004; Madlener, 2007), the United States (Hoffman & High-Pippert, 2005, 2009), Australia (Moloney, Horne, & Fien, 2010) and Japan (Maruyama, Nishikido, & Iida, 2007), forming part of a more distributed rather than centralised pattern of energy generation. For Seyfang and Smith (2007) they potentially represent examples of ‘grassroots innovation’, forms of niche-based social experimentation with wider significance for the emergence of forms of transition towards sustainable socio-technical systems (Smith, 2007).

In recent years, quite a number of local initiatives in Berlin have turned former empty lots or brownfields into publicly accessible open (green) spaces, some only temporarily, others on a more permanent basis. A few of those projects – often inspired by those created in New York City – can be identified as community gardens. Collective gardening, in the form of community gardens, is still a rarely known form of creating, shaping and using public space in Germany. However, for more than a decade Berlin has experienced an increase in the emergence of those kinds of grassroots initiatives. Although there are much older examples of open spaces created by and for residents, as discussed below, most of the existing gardens today have been created since the year 2000. The question is, what led to the recent rise in community gardening projects in Berlin? To answer this question, this chapter will examine the local governing context in Berlin in which the recent rise of community gardening has taken place and compare community gardens across a 20-year temporal divide.

In developing country contexts, it has become difficult to imagine the word ‘conservation’ without ‘community’ sitting alongside it, as their combination is part of the international conservation and development lexicon. Community-based conservation (CBC) encompasses several core principles, including: involving communities in decision-making; devolving control over resource management; developing community institutions for management; incorporating traditional or local knowledge; legitimising community property rights; linking environment and development objectives and providing incentives for conservation (Barrow & Murphree, 2001; Kellert, Mehta, Ebbin, & Litchtenfeld, 2000; Songorwa, 1999; Western & Wright, 1994). All of these are employed with the aims of overcoming the limitations associated with traditional ‘top-down’ approaches to conservation (Adams & Hulme, 2001; Campbell, 2002a). Ideally, CBC should benefit both people and environments, contributing to both development and conservation. In this way CBC is directly aligned to wider discourses of sustainability and to innovations in the field of conserving natural resources.

Over the last 30 years, a range of different complementary currency models have been developed and diffused across the world. Such currency systems have been researched from a variety of different perspectives, such as policy tools (Williams et al., 2001) and social movements (North, 2006). Many of these have explicit links to sustainability objectives and the green movement (Helleiner, 2000; Longhurst & Seyfang, 2011; North, 2010a; Seyfang, 2009), and some environmental writers argue that monetary reform and the development of multiple currency systems are critical factors in achieving environmental sustainability (Douthwaite, 1999). This chapter explains how such a ‘green’ currency emerged from within the environmentally focused Transition Town social movement. This movement has given rise to a range of locally based grassroots enterprises that deliver local services and goods. However, it is argued here that such enterprises can also act as instigators of radical innovations, such as complementary currencies. As such it conceptualises currencies as a form of technology and uses the empirical case of the Totnes Pound currency as an example of a technology that has emerged from civil society. Adopting this framing, the chapter draws on theory relating to the formation of innovative technological ‘niches’ to provide insights into the challenges that they have to overcome in order to survive and flourish. The chapter therefore argues that exploring complementary currencies through the lens of innovation theory can provide valuable insights into their development, and that such an approach may prove useful where grassroots enterprises are engaged in other forms of innovative activity.

The preceding chapters of this volume illustrate the vitality and creativity of grassroots sustainability enterprises around the globe. Fundamentally grassroots sustainability enterprises are concerned with providing accessible basic material human needs such as shelter (housing), warmth (energy), food (gardening) alongside higher order needs including empowering marginalised groups or communities through employment, training and personal development. However they also often provide spaces for alternative practices, creative responses and even artistic expression. Undoubtedly such enterprises are sites of innovation focused on positive transitions across the sustainability troika of economy, environment and society. However, as Campbell et al. in this volume suggest, often this innovation is invisible to policy communities, other practitioners and wider publics (following Escobar, 1994). In part this is because the entrepreneurs at the centre of the enterprises are not seeking personal reward for their work and are not interested in the nuances of innovation theory, but it is also due to the unconventional nature of the innovations involved. Nonetheless this lack of profile does affect the ways in which grassroots sustainability enterprises and their work are received. As a result many enterprises remain niche spaces of innovation with limited impact beyond the locale in which they operate (Longhurst, this volume).

Publication date
Book series
Advances in Ecopolitics
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN