Why place matters for community regeneration

Sustainability challenges are complex and global, but they are experienced most acutely at the local level. These challenges touch economic, environmental, social and cultural aspects of local places, and they affect every community differently. Each community also has its own unique capacities, strengths and resources to draw upon. So, while we develop societal and global strategies to combat sustainability problems, we must also address them locally. 

Across domains of research and practice, partnerships and cross-sector collaboration are considered necessary for building holistic solutions, but creating the conditions for these types of collaborations is difficult. How can we draw upon the unique strengths of local places to build partnerships to address sustainability challenges in communities?

Dr. Natalie Slawinski and I explored this question in a study of two workshops held in small communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, where the primary local industry, the cod fishery, had collapsed. These workshops were co-created by researchers and social entrepreneurs to bring together community leaders from across the province who represented diverse sectors and backgrounds to share knowledge about building resilient rural communities and addressing complex local challenges. 

The workshops were designed to immerse the participants in the culture and physical environment of the host communities. Local residents guided participants on tours of the communities, taught them traditional skills, including weaving and cod filleting, and cooked regional cuisines for them. Through these immersive experiences, the workshop participants came together and bonded with one another. As they tried local traditions, told stories and made jokes, we saw that the participants became more engaged in learning from and with each other. 

Being in a new environment and out of their usual element encouraged everyone to ask more questions, and it created a space where people felt comfortable telling stories from their own communities. We found that being immersed in the physical, cultural and social elements of these places brought the workshop participants together in a way that encouraged knowledge sharing and collaboration—which contributed to building a network of community leaders working to address similar challenges.

These workshops taught us several things. First, being in place matters when we’re trying to address sustainability challenges. Being connected to the very places that are experiencing them the most deeply allows us to see the realities that communities are facing. It also gives us insight into the kinds of local resources and assets that might be traditionally overlooked or undervalued but could be important tools for addressing issues and building resilient communities. 

Second, place creates connections among people. Everyone has places of significance in their lives and stories of those places to share. Place can create common ground among people from different backgrounds and lower barriers between them. When the playing field is leveled in this way, it is easier to build trust, which creates space for people to feel like they are not alone in the challenges they face, and to recognize a shared purpose. People can see more clearly that their work is linked to others’ actions, and they can develop a sense of belonging to a larger collective of change agents. These connections that are forged through place can become the backbone of successful partnerships. 

As we face increasingly complex sustainability challenges, we need to consider where these challenges are being experienced most directly, but we also need to lean into what makes these places unique and think more creatively about how we can use place-specific knowledge, tools, assets, stories and cultures to address challenges holistically. It’s important to remember that the places being affected most severely may hold the key to building the resilient partnerships and communities needed to tackle our most pressing issues.