Citizen Engagement via Civic Ecology: Interview with Tim Smith

Tim Smith is a Principal of Urban Design and Planning at Sera Architects in Portland, Oregon. For the past twenty years he has developed the framework of Civic Ecology and has been a proponent of sustainable cities everywhere. For more information about the process you can hear Tim speaking at Tedx ConcordiaUPortland and watch a time-lapse video of a Civic Ecology workshop in action. His complete slide presentation and paper at the 50th IMCL Conference are also available in the eConference Proceedings.

1. What is Civic Ecology? Is it a special way of working with the community to develop a shared vision?

Civic Ecology is a framework for community resilience. When working with communities, we refer to two aspects for action: software and hardware. The hardware consists of the buildings, streets, parks and other physical components, while the software is the underlying resource flows and interactions that animate the community. This community “software” or Civic Ecology can be defined as the integrated web of energy, nutrient, resource, financial, information and cultural flows and interactions that re-envisioned, created and managed by citizens acting for the common good within a geographically-defined community and its city-region. It is a human ecology of place, intimately integrating both natural and social/culture systems.

In this framework, citizens are empowered to “own” their place and they know that they don't have to be an architect, engineer or other type of expert to impact their community’s future. So, Civic Ecology is a framework that facilitates creation of a shared vision based on their knowledge of their place and their shared core values.

This is really a different way of designing communities; it’s a more resilient and humanistic approach.  People without a technical background seem to understand the systems approach and get to know how to design community systems without any trouble and with very little training. Creating a vision to answer some simple questions like where will our energy come from in the future? How will our water flow? What will we do with our waste? How will we feed ourselves? --is a profound experience. Our education system has created file cabinets in our minds that keep us from integrating systems across topic areas and thus prevent us from thinking creatively like this. What we're finding is that people actually just know how to do this instinctively, particularly children.

2. You recently spoke at the 50th IMCL Conference on Civic Ecology: A Citizen driven framework for suburban communities. Is Civic Ecology applied to a suburban community different from Civic Ecology applied to a city center community?

It's actually different in every single community. People and communities have different personalities, habitation patterns and issues. No two communities are alike. But there are differences between urban and suburban contexts. In urban areas, there tends to be greater  density and a higher percentage of people with a history of civic participation than in suburban contexts. Let’s face it, people move to the suburbs  for a variety of reasons, greater access to open space and nature, a perception of less crime, better schools and services, etc., but also to perhaps be a bit more isolated. Getting them to come out to civic events is a bit more challenging- we're doing it, it's just different. We have also found there are different opportunities to build community resilience around in the suburbs. For instance, looking for space for urban farming is hard in more dense areas, whereas in the suburbs a lot of development was built on former farmland, land that is fertile and more plentiful for things like community gardens, community compost, etc.

I would say though that the issue common to both urban and suburban, and I talk about this in the paper I wrote for the conference, is the need for 21st century green infrastructure - the hardware, but the underlying software too. We're at the point now where suburbs are aging, and some of the development and underlying infrastructure is not aging well and is not as resilient as it could be in the face of climate change impacts. So, the idea of “nature works”, a more people-centered infrastructure than exists in either cities or suburbs is a way of promoting a more functional, resilient and sustainable commons. The Civic Ecology of a place can be the basis for a greener hardware to gradually replace the existing 20th Century grey hardware.    

With nature-works- it’s more about human/nature systems than heavy infrastructure and engineering. So its more about people and less about pipes. The point I make in the paper and the presentation is that merely redeveloping and reforming suburbs may not be enough. We need to dig deeper and do a fundamental “re-wiring" of the underlying soft systems to evolve resilient communities. This is how we can get suburbanization to become community-fication.

3. Is Civic Ecology a community workshop process? What are the exercises citizen representatives are asked to perform in a typical Civic Ecology Workshop?

We have created a five step process for this that actually spells out the word CIVIC: Convening, Investigating, Visioning, Implementing, Charting Progress. The first step is convening - where people from the community that want to get involved in the process come together and begin the journey. We know we can’t get everyone, we may only get 5% of the people. What is important io to get the fire-souls, the people who are passionate and willing to take this on and be ambassadors to the community.

Next comes investigation - we want people to know how their community works right now. Where does your money go? Where does your food come from? What is going on at the moment? How resilient or sustainable are your current systems? For this we often employ a “sustainability filter” - a framework to help assess current performance. One example is the Natural Step and its four systems conditions (among others). This was a sustainability framework conceived by a Swedish doctor who did research and found that the alarming rates of cancer in children were because of their environment. He realized that this was probably the same worldwide and came up with a framework that focuses on social equity and biodiversity - not taking too much from the earth and not giving it too much that can't be absorbed. For citizens in this phase the investigation question becomes, are our current systems resilient? Usually the answer is no but that knowledge gained from asking the question becomes the basis for a new vision. We also like to have the community talk about their shared core values as opposed to talking about conflict. It helps them move forward with the civic ecology work.

Then vision - Using a process called backcasting (as opposed to forecasting), we ask citizens to create a story, narrative or vision of their community in the near, mid and long term future and then describe what the first things are they would do to make the vision a reality.

The fourth is implementing - and that's where we have people with their vision undertake an activity called community resource flow mapping. We give them a map of their community and a series of icons representing things like community gardens, composters, energy generators, locally-owned shops, schools, etc. We ask them to place these on the map where they are today and/or where they would like to see them in the future, with arrows linking them together. So for example, say you have a community garden which grows for a school cafeteria, then the waste from the cafeteria can go to a composter, then that compost can go to the community garden. A community system like this can be designed by anyone, including school children like the middle school student in Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood who wanted to better her community through a more resilient school cafeteria food system. We ask citizens to identify specific projects within their systems, create a business plan for them and then as a community prioritize them for action. We have seen some interesting projects emerge like a farmer’s market, a community center, and ideas for a main street business buyers cooperative. The creative possibilities seem to be endless. 

There's a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called Chestnut Hill, where citizens have been practicing this form of creative democracy and community systems design for decades. One example is a citizen led effort to collect materials not recyclable by the City, partner with the City to transport these to a material recycling center where they were exchanged for money which was then used to build a children’s playground, implement greening projects throughout the community and fund a senior center. The result has been civic ecosystems that build social capital, repurpose waste, strengthen local ecosystems and enhance the local economic multiplier; in other words enduring community wealth. This community system has spawned a number of other initiatives illustrating a basic principle of Civic Ecology; community systems, like communities and cities are never done but are always being adapted to greater purpose. These are the kinds of systems that people can design.

And then the last phase, charting progress. So, how do you know if the systems you created are getting you to the future that you backcasted? Citizens create the metrics for measuring progress and the means for adjusting their community systems if need be.

We have found that Civic Ecology works in communities that have a lot of conflict. When we've worked in conflicted communities we have asked citizens not to focus on divisive issues. What we ask them to do is focus on the future, their children, and what you want to make the community resilient. So it's an intergenerational enterprise that is not only fun, but healing.

4. What are the benefits of the Civic Ecology approach?

What's interesting is that when you get citizens to start designing this way they realize they can have greater control over their community resources. They can begin to see ways to reduce the negative impacts of current market forces with respect to energy, food, services, water and a host of other resources. We think if we can help communities localize as much as possible, they will see real benefits economically, ecologically and socially. This translates into real enduring wealth - not just economic wealth but also a healthy local ecosystem and strong social capital.

Then there’s the idea of resilience. These systems and the fact that citizens are empowered to create and manage them, can translate into a greater ability to weather an economic downturn or an ecological catastrophe. Given the growing frequency and severity of these events this seems like a good quality to foster. Like a forest’s ability to regenerate itself after a fire, local community systems also contain the seeds of rebirth whether they be local businesses, healthy social capital or green nature-works infrastructure.

Another benefit is an enhanced sense of community tied to that place. This is tied to the idea of deep placemaking, not just aesthetics but the underlying systems that animate life in that place. Finally, Civic Ecology creates a living culture. By creating and managing local community systems we create the community’s DNA, the basis for perpetuating the community from generation to generation. Citizens can create systems that address current problems, but they also have to create a living culture that is emergent and learns forward to address future problems.

5. Can you explain more about how this process has been received? Do you think this is the future of architecture?

I have presented the Civic Ecology idea, framework and associated stories in a number of communities. It has been enthusiastically received in every single case. The issue for most communities is securing the  resources to launch the process and the resulting projects the community designs. Recognizing this challenge we're forming partnerships with innovators, crowd-sourcers, non-profits and others to bring resources into the community.

We as a society are in a resource-scarce era within which we will need a whole different way of doing things. Nature works, civic public private partnerships where citizens in partnership with local government and business become change agents, community systems and other innovations will be the gateway to a prosperous future. Basic to all this is empowering citizens and communities to own their future. Building new communities and rebuilding our existing ones cannot just be what architects, engineers and other experts do for us, it must be something we embrace as a lifelong enterprise for ourselves and future generations. I am convinced that Civic Ecology will prove to be the essence of deep community building in the 21st Century.