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Why some communities thrive, while others survive

February 17, 2011

Ann Dale sees her research in action every time she steps into the backyard.

As neighbours around the Ontario lake she lives on vie for the best dock space, Dale reflects on what research has shown consistently throughout the first five years of her Canada Research Chair position.

"Canadian's care deeply about place, they have a strong identity about place," says Dale, a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability. "(But) even though we care deeply about place we still don't understand we can't have our cake and eat it too."

The lake is the perfect example. Homeowners want to build docks so they can enjoy the space, but there is a lack of a bigger discussion about the impacts of everyone building a dock, she says. There are examples across the country of people moving to an area because they love it, only to change it, gentrify it and lose the essence of why they liked it in the first place.

This is bad news if, as Dale and her team suspect, diversity is one of the four main factors in sustainable community development. What makes a community thrive, rather than just survive, is what Dale has focused her CRC in Sustainable Community Development on. Appointed in 2004, her position was renewed for another five years in 2010.

"What we were trying to do was to experiment with communities around four concepts that we thought were critical to sustainable community development," she says.

That meant looking at what the concepts of place, limits, diversity and scale meant to a community. It was looking at the impacts of size to see if a city could be too big, how important the physical space is and what role does diversity play on the community.

In order to ask those questions, Dale and her team established e-Dialogues, allowing the best minds in the country to converge online and talk about different issues. To date there are more than 45 e-Dialogues archived online.

"You can't have sustainable community development unless communities are actively engaged in dialogue," she says.

Communities across Canada are disconnected from larger conversations because of their location. Her own home, roughly 35 minutes outside of Ottawa, Ont. doesn't have access to high speed Internet or cellphone coverage, Dale says. There needs to be a way for people who are not in the urban centres to gain access to the knowledge there - without having to move there themselves, she adds. 

That's where the Internet comes in. People everywhere need to be able to build networks and learn from what has been done elsewhere. When someone experiences a personal tragedy, it's their support network that gets them through it, Dale says, and the same goes for community development.

"It's how dense and how connected your networks are," she says. "If they are diverse and if they are open to others and new ideas that is the only way a community goes from getting by to getting ahead." 

More than 40 case studies have also been posted online. They look at a number of topics, from food production to car share programs and city planning. Promoting access to the conversations is one thing, but ensuring people are asking the right questions is equally important, Dale says. Research from the first five years consistently showed that while Canadians are deeply connected to a sense of place, they are guilty of wanting to "have their cake and eat it too," she says.

"It's as if we lost our ability to see the aggregate impacts of all of our decisions. We have lost the ability to see the big picture. I am not sure we are asking the right questions."

With her Canada Research Chair renewed, Dale and her team plan to look further into governance models around sustainable communities. Still to be fully defined they are basing the work off the idea of community vitality.

"We think it's the difference between a community thriving rather than simply surviving. What's the difference, how do you define it and what are the variables?"

You need to deliberately plan for diversity to happen and many governments operate on a reactionary basis, when they should be anticipatory, she says. The tools will again be online, with the hope to create a one-stop-shop for resources, pooling tools that have already been created.

"We are working on a basis that there is fabulous stuff happening out there, but nobody is connecting the dots."