Towards local cultures of sustainability : facilitating community created environment education centres through design

Weber, Erwin (2012) Towards local cultures of sustainability : facilitating community created environment education centres through design. Masters by Research thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Ecological sustainability has been proposed to address the problem of human impacts increasingly degrading planetary resources and ecosystems, threatening biodiversity, eco-services and human survival. Ecological sustainability is an imperative, with Australia having one of the highest eco-footprints per person worldwide. While significant progress has been made via implementation of ecologically sustainable design in urban communities, relatively little has been undertaken in small, disparate regional communities in Australia. Regional communities are disadvantaged by rural economic decline associated with structural change and inequities of resource transfer. The ecologically sustainable solution is holistic, so all settlements need to be globally wise, richly biodiverse yet locally specific.

As a regional solution to this global problem, this research offers the practical means by which a small regional community can contribute. It focuses on the design and implementation of a community centre and the fostering of transformative community learning through an integrated ‘learning community’ awareness of ecologically sustainable best practice. Lessons learned are documented by the participant researcher who as a designer, facilitator, local resident and social narrator has been deeply connected with the Tweed-Caldera region over a period since 1980. The collective action of the local community of Chillingham has been diligently recorded over a decade of design and development. Over this period, several positive elements emerged in terms of improvements to the natural and built environment, greater social cohesion and co-operative learning along with a shift towards a greener local economy. Behavioural changes in the community were noted as residents strived to embrace ecological ideals and reduce fossil fuel dependency. They found attractive local solutions to sourcing of food and using local employment opportunities to up skill their residents via transformative learning as a community in transition. Finally, the catalytic impact of external partnering has also been documented. How well the region as a whole has achieved its ecologically sustainable objectives is measured in terms of the delivered success of private and public partnering with the community, the creation of a community centre cum environment education centre, the restoration of local heritage buildings, the repair of riparian forests and improved water conditions in local river systems, better roads and road safety, local skills and knowledge transfer, support of local food and local/regional growers markets to attract tourists via the integrated trails network. In aggregate, each and every element contributes to a measure of eco-positive development for the built environment, its social organisation and its economy that has guided the local community to find its own pathway to sustainability.

Within the Tweed-Caldera bioregion in northern New South Wales, there has been a lack of strategic planning, ecologically sustainable knowledge and facilities in isolated communities that could support the development of a local sustained green economy, provide a hub for socio-cultural activities and ecology based education. The first challenge in this research was to model a whole systems approach to eco-positive development in Chillingham, NSW, a small community where Nature and humanity know no specific boundary. The net result was the creation of a community environment education centre featuring best-affordable ecological practice and regionally distinctive, educational building form from a disused heritage building (cow bale). This development, implemented over a decade, resonated with the later regional wide programs that were linked in the Caldera region by the common purpose of extending the reach of local and state government assistance to regional NSW in economic transition coupled with sustainability. The lessons learned from these linked projects reveal that subsequent programs have been significantly easier to initiate, manage, develop and deliver results. In particular, pursuing collaborative networks with all levels of government and external private partners has been economically effective. Each community’s uniqueness has been celebrated and through drawing out these distinctions, has highlighted local vision, strategic planning, sense of belonging and connection of people with place. This step has significantly reduced the level of friction between communities that comes from natural competition for the finite pool of funds. Following the pilot Tweed-Caldera study, several other NSW regional communities are now undertaking a Community Economic Transition Program based on the processes, trials and positive experiences witnessed in the Tweed-Caldera region where it has been demonstrated that regional community transition programs can provide an opportunity to plan and implement effective long term strategies for sustainability, empowering communities to participate in eco-governance. This thesis includes the design and development of a framework for community created environment education centres to provide an equal access place for community to participate to meet their essential needs locally. An environment centre that facilitates community transition based on easily accessible environmental education, skills and infrastructure is necessary to develop local cultures of sustainability.

This research draws upon the literatures of ecologically sustainable development, environmental education and community development in the context of regional community transition towards ‘strong sustainability’. The research approach adapted is best described as a four stage collaborative action research cycle where the participant researcher (me) has a significant involvement in the process to foster local cultures of sustainability by empowering its citizens to act locally and in doing so, become more self reliant and socially resilient. This research also draws upon the many fine working exemplars, such as the resilience of the Cuban people, the transition town initiative in Totnes, U.K. and the models of Australian Community Gardens, such as CERES (Melbourne) and Northey Street (Brisbane). The objectives of this study are to research and evaluate exemplars of ecologically sustainable environment education centres, to facilitate the design and development of an environment education centre created by a small regional community as an ecologically sustainable learning environment; to facilitate a framework for community transition based on environmental education, skills and infrastructure necessary to develop local cultures of sustainability.

The research was undertaken as action research in the Tweed Caldera in Northern NSW. This involved the author as participant researcher, designer and volunteer in two interconnected initiatives: the Chillingham Community Centre development and the Caldera Economic Transition Program (CETP). Both initiatives involved a series of design-led participatory community workshops that were externally facilitated with the support of government agency partnerships, steering committees and local volunteers.

Together the Caldera research programs involved communities participating in developing their own strategic planning process and outcomes. The Chillingham Community Centre was developed as a sustainable community centre/hub using a participatory design process. The Caldera Economic Transition Program (CETP) prioritised Caldera region projects: the Caldera farmer’s market; community gardens and community kitchens; community renewable energy systems and an integrated trails network.

The significant findings were: the CETP projects were capable of moving towards an eco-positive design benchmark through transformative learning. Community transition to sustainability programs need to be underpinned by sustainability and environmental education based frameworks and practical on ground experience in local needs based projects through transformative learning. The actioned projects were successfully undertaken through community participation and teamwork. Ecological footprint surveys were undertaken to guide and assess the ongoing community transition process, however the paucity of responses needs to be revisited.

The concept of ecologically sustainable development has been adopted internationally, however existing design and planning strategies do not assure future generations continued access to healthy natural life support systems. Sustainable design research has usually been urban focussed, with little attention paid to regional communities. This study seeks to redress this paucity through the design of ecologically sustainable (deep green) learning environments for small regional communities. Through a design-led process of environmental education, this study investigates how regional communities can be facilitated to model the principles of eco-positive development to support transition to local cultures of sustainability.

This research shows how community transition processes and projects can incorporate sustainable community development as transformative learning through design. Regional community transition programs can provide an opportunity to plan long term strategies for sustainability, empowering people to participate in eco-governance. A framework is developed for a community created environment education centre to provide an equal access place for the local community to participate in implementing ways to meet their essential needs locally. A community environment education centre that facilitates community transition based on holistic environmental education, skills and infrastructure is necessary to develop local cultures of sustainability.

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ID Code: 52771
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Masters by Research)
Supervisor: Lawson, Gillian, Birkeland, Janis, & Hedley, Peter
Keywords: action research, community development, community economic transition, ecological footprint, ecologically sustainable development, environmental education, environment education centre exemplar, learning community, eco-positive development, ecologically sustainable design, local economy, transformative learning
Divisions: Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Built Environment and Engineering
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 25 Jul 2012 06:58
Last Modified: 13 Oct 2015 03:06

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