Abstract

Indicator-based projects have become central to community development initiatives. The quantitative basis of such projects means that achieving ‘sustainability’ can be reduced to a technical task – that of gathering data and ticking boxes. The size, scope, and sheer number of indicators mean that indicator sets are often unwieldy and resist effective implementation. This techno-scientific emphasis can mask possibilities for taking into account the structures of power and cultural–political assumptions that frame the use of indicators. Too often, locally available resources and conditions that might support sustainable practices or challenge the existing unsustainable practices are subsumed by ‘hard facts’. The necessity of citizen participation and active involvement do not necessarily figure in projects driven by quantitatively determined indicators. We elaborate an alternative, two-level process of community engagement that is explored in one case study example. At the first level, it involves community members as active participants. At the second level, it builds upon this process to more deeply involve people in learning about and negotiating over what constitutes knowledge about how best to practice sustainable community development.

Introduction

Over recent decades, ‘indicators’ have become central to a range of community development projects aimed at engendering ‘sustainability’. Indeed, ‘growth in the use of sustainability indicators is nothing short of phenomenal’ (Morel-Journel, 2003, p. 581; Rydin et al., 2003, p. 582). A ‘sustainability indicators explosion’ is extending itself horizontally across the globe and vertically, on the back of processes of globalization, from neighbourhood to international policy-making and development initiatives. As well as community sustainability indicators, there are corporate-sustainability indicators, city-liveability indicators, well-being indicators, happiness indicators, waste-disposal indicators, and so on. Projects that centre upon such indicators offer valuable tools for measuring the standing of a community in relation to some or other concept of ‘sustainability’, such as that offered by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987, p. 43), which defines development as sustainable if it ‘meet[s] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. However, many projects that are driven by indicators of sustainability seem to focus too narrowly on the rise and fall of quantitatively determined indicators or metrics, and the immediate responses required to move up various ‘league tables’ or development ‘indexes’. This article sees such approaches as too often failing to bring into question the nature of the relationships and values that go into reproducing resilient, cohesive, fair and, so, sustainable communities over time.

In part, this is because indicators and metrics represent a relatively abstract view of things. Of course, all understandings of social life take the form of knowledge that is abstracted from lived conditions through formalized analytical reframing. However, sustainable development based around sustainability indicators is often undertaken ‘as a relatively technical task’ (see, for example, Rydin et al., 2003). The problem of achieving sustainable development is dealt with as an instrumental one, with expert consultants enlisted to generate the ‘right’ indicators and then tailor a solution to get the community ‘back on track’. This might work in a limited way for business corporations, where command-and-execute decision-making processes are direct and comprehensive, but it does not work in relation to more complex and open-ended political–cultural formations, such as communities. As Muthuri (2007, pp. 187–188) suggests, there are structural limitations to citizen participation in corporation-led community development projects, not least of which arise because participation requires more than ‘manager-centred unilateralism’.

Arguably, even when indicator-based projects attempt to deal with issues on qualitative terms, particularly when they add in social and environmental dimensions – for example, measuring and assessing ‘well-being’ or ‘community health’ – they still tend first to reduce them to step-by-step technical questions. Step 1: assume a social good (for example, people meeting together socially is culturally positive); Step 2: draw a one-to-one connection between a social good and its indicators (how many cafés or bowling clubs exist in given area); Step 3: draw a one-to-one connection between the indicators and social policy (encourage the opening of more cafés or bowling clubs). This process tends to assume generative values of what is good and what is bad: inclusion = good, exclusion = bad; participation = good, authority = bad. Good and bad practice is assumed, the indicator set is developed, and practice is based on moving towards (or away from) what is measured by the ‘indicator’, such as cafés or bowling clubs per square kilometre of a city.

Despite best intentions, such projects displace understandings of life in communities as a negotiated and contested condition, while depending upon thin evidentiary claims about what constitutes sustainable or unsustainable practices. In the worst cases, such approaches blur the empirical and normative differences between institutions with particular and instrumental goals and interests, and the goals and interests of community or society in general that require sustainability be conceived of in holistic and open-ended terms.

In this sense, achieving good results on the indicators too frequently comes to be an end in itself. References to the ‘facts’ submerge possibilities that people can engage reflexively in the often long-term process of creating and reproducing sustainable practices and relations and, as such, contribute to the development of community as a ‘life-context’ in relation to broader political, economic, ecological, and cultural conditions. The argument of this article is that quantitative indicators can make a greater contribution to understanding and practicing sustainable community development when embraced as part of a broader approach to how persons engage with each other: that is, as ‘participatory’ projects that engage ‘active’ citizens. The article proposes an approach –based in the experiences of the authors and colleagues in projects across metropolitan and regional Australia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Timor-Leste – that includes, while also moving beyond, the important task of quantitative measuring and assessing sustainable development. It first sets out the theoretical framework for an alternative approach that emphasizes some of the qualitative possibilities raised by the spread of ‘indicators’ in sustainable development, and then presents a case study that fills out the claim that this can be achieved by involving community members as active participants in developing workable indicators of sustainability.

A key assumption of the article is that many of the problems associated with indicators proliferation are intimately related to issues surrounding citizen participation in community development projects. The aim, therefore, is to take the potentially fruitful exercise of developing ‘indicators’ of sustainability out into the field, while avoiding what has been called the ‘tyranny’ of participation in community development practice (see Cooke and Kothari, 2001; Hickey and Mohan, 2004; and more recently, articles in CDJ 43(3) 2008). The claim is not that the existing quantitative data are unimportant or unnecessary, or that a new and more perfect set of indicators will be developed, making others redundant. Rather, it is that understanding and using quantitative data are part and parcel of engaging to achieve sustainability in a complex and ‘globalizing’ world. All manner of information – presented in the form of quantitative ‘facts’, such as population demographics, climate change or resource-use data, and ‘rankings’ of one sort or another – provides important and useable evidence about the world. However, the approach advocated here views this information as one contribution to the creation of knowledge that can support practices aimed at achieving sustainability. On the other side of raw information are the fields of power and values that give shape and form to knowledge, and qualify its uses. Understood in this way, an implicit claim of the article is that the job of defining what sustainable community development is comes down to community members themselves developing greater knowledge of what it may entail, of what the interests and values involved are, and of how to negotiate these.

Seeing things in this way involves a partial rethinking of what quantitative indicators actually represent. In effect, the suggestion is that many of the things that are understood as ‘indicators’ in quantitative terms need to be taken as sub-indicators or metrics, and embedded within a more comprehensive qualitative framework. In other words, quantitative metrics need to be understood in terms of qualitative indicators. It is just such an approach that Charles Tilly proposes when arguing that it is important to remember that, the application of formalisms, whether quantitative or qualitative, should not mean ‘conforming to a single dominant understanding of how the world works’. Different formalized understandings should rather be combined and interweaved in modal ways, to allow people ‘to distinguish between totally inadequate and less inadequate representations of social processes’. It is this combining and interweaving of formalized understandings that, for Tilly, ‘opens the way to increasingly reliable knowledge’ (Tilly, 2004, p. 597, 600). Put differently, community development work that centres upon indicators of sustainable development needs to be undertaken as ‘both a professional [research] practice and a political practice’ (Shaw, 2007, p. 26).

As such, this article suggests an approach to developing ‘indicators’ that involves citizens and researchers in reflexively developing new understandings of the kinds of values and forms of social power that can contribute to sustainable community development. In this approach, quantitative indicators become discrete elements of research and practice, rather than dominant framing rationales. ‘Indicators’ are thus treated as merely representing reality. In the approach described here, it is the practical activity by which citizens learn about and ‘select’ indicators that is seen as having the potential to change the relationships between people and between humans and nature, thereby changing people and changing nature (MacIntyre, 1977; Gare, 1998). What is suggested here is that problems of ‘technique’ need to take a back seat to the task of negotiating the form and content of the economic, ecological, cultural, and political relations in and through which people create and reproduce the communities that constitute the social world.

Without getting into too much more scene-setting, the approach views working to achieving sustainable development within a community as something that begins as a task of reflecting upon the nature of human activity. The aim is to develop and implement practices that can ensure that communities are being re-created to ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED, 1987, p. 43). Of course, there remains a lot more that can be said about the meanings of concepts of ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, and ‘needs’. Nevertheless, within the WCED definition, sustainability indicators are, in the first instance, simply a means for assessing the distance between a current state of affairs and the ongoing task of achieving a sustainable way of life. In the second instance, they can also be much more – a means of instituting dialogue over the very conditions of sustainability.

Outline of the approach

Possibly as a product of greater interest in sustainability and institutional responsibility, many indicator-centred projects begin with the ‘triple bottom-line’ model. These characteristically aim to measure the impact upon the economic, social, and environmental ‘bottom lines’ of a community as a discrete functional unit, with a single goal. A key implication of seeing things in this way is not just that it tends to centre on the (capitalist market) economy, but also that it assumes a strong commensurability of values between different domains of social practice. Even when moving beyond plain monetary value and return on investment, triple bottom-line approaches tend to presume that social and environmental sustainability are either commensurable a priori of other considerations or that the economic domain that grants primacy to efficiency and growth imperatives provides the basis for translating between them. For example, instead of treating the ecological domain has having its own imperatives, inherent in the relationship between a community and nature, the environment becomes an economic ‘externality’; another cost or benefit considered in instrumental terms. It may be noted that a similar logic seems to frame understandings of cultural life that involve a concept of ‘capital’ drawn from this particular understanding of value in the economic domain (Somers, 2005). While these debates go beyond the scope of the present article, such claims remain notable because, in the predominance of capitalist markets, the intrinsic values, norms, and rules of such markets tend to override possibilities that other domains of social practice are understood in terms of their own values, norms, and rules. In these respects, the approach builds critically upon the insights of thinkers such as Walzer (1983) and Boltanski and Thévenot (2006 [1991]).

The approach developed here, therefore, recognizes the indelible existence of tensions between generative values that arise in different domains of practice (for example, between human ‘needs’ and ecological ‘limits’ that effect how community is ‘lived’ on economic and ecological terms, as well as on cultural and political terms). It also recognizes that community life necessitates that commonalities and continuities expressing particular values exist across different domains of practice. Thus, instead of treating domains of social practice, such as the economy or the environment separately from the social, the approach discussed here starts from society – the holistic universe of human experience – and analytically divides it into four domains of practice – the economic, ecological, political, and cultural. The suggestion is not that these four domains are in practice divided spheres of activity, but that it is analytically useful to treat them as such. Hence, this is a deliberate decision to put sociality – the practices and relations that go into creating and reproducing a life held in common, over time and in a particular (community) place – at the centre of questions about sustainable community development, its measurement, assessment, and practice. Within each domain, the difficult task of negotiating a set of indicators of sustainable community development remains.

A brief excursus here defines the domains of practice that frame and inform the approach. The discussion then explains the approach as a two-level practice of community engagement before examining a case study that has employed the approach.

The Economic Domain is said to encompass activities associated with the use, exchange, and management of resources. The domain of economics bears upon questions of production, exchange, consumption, organization, and distribution of goods and services, as well as the criteria for value that coincide with these. Of course, ‘economics’ most often focuses exclusively upon quantitatively appraising the value and costs of production, distribution, and consumption. However, such an approach is unsuited to the present aims, because in failing to account for where it is that (economic) value comes from, ‘economics’ as a discipline tends to take as given the ends of economic activity. As such, the concept of an economic domain ‘takes a step back’ to look more closely at how value is constituted as a meaningful thing. That is, rather than privileging the technique currently predominant – that is, capitalist markets mediated via abstract value (money) as the medium for exchange – the approach takes as given only that people draw upon resources to produce and exchange things, knowledges, and services in order to maintain and enhance social life.

The Ecological Domain is defined as the intersection between the social and the natural, focussing upon the dimension of human engagement with and within nature. While the natural environment is a material reality that extends beyond the human experience of it, and despite the increasing capacity of techno-science to reconstitute elements of nature, the ecological domain is both social and natural. This is not quite the same as the point most crudely made in arguments that suggest that nature is always socially constructed or we are seeing the end of nature. Certainly, more and more of nature is being physically reconstructed, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that nature continues as a realm beyond the human even, as it encompasses us all. Nature beyond the human always bears back upon the human condition, and this has consequences for dealing, for example, with natural disasters and what may be called ‘Acts of God’.

The Political Domain is defined in terms of the practices of authorization and legitimation. In this sense, politics is not just a practice restricted to governments. It is the task of organizing the rules for a life held in common (Wagner, 2008) that is carried on in space and over time, anchored in bodies and extended or amplified, withheld or diminished through technologies and the techniques and knowledges associated with their uses. This includes processes of authority formation and its legitimation in corporations, non-government organizations, and even non-formal institutions such as the family.

The Cultural Domain is understood in terms of practices, discourses, and material objects that express commonalities and differentiations, continuities and discontinuities of meaning over time. Like all the other domains, ‘culture’ is difficult to define simply (Williams, 1976). While the dominant contemporary use of the concept of ‘the cultural’ is in relation to the arts or popular culture, it is defined here more broadly to emphasize patterned expressions of social meaning that include but extend beyond either the ‘culture industries’ or the realm of the aesthetic. As such, focus upon the cultural domain in this way can help to draw attention to the somewhat muddy distinction between ‘popular’ culture, which is both created and reproduced by a community, and ‘mass’ culture, which is consumed within a community.

The approach in practice: level 1

Level 1 begins with something of a sustainability ‘self-assessment’ task. This is designed to get the process moving, and involves those in a community in a research-like or record-creating effort of ‘social mapping’.1 This strategic part of the project serves as a guide and overview of the community's aims and objectives, as well as a timeline for the project. It identifies key participants and those affected by its implementation. In summary, this initial stage builds up a profile or ‘map’ of the community as part of the social body and its place in the world. The objective is for participants and members of the collaborating research team to come to some understanding of what the community is, and how it is situated within the world. To this end, Level 1 is also promotes actively learning about ‘indicators’ and ‘sustainability’. One of the first tasks of the project, therefore, is to ask how a particular community defines itself as such in terms of each of the four domains described above. This encourages participants to act as self-defining citizens (that is, active denizens) to set out some ‘objective’ criteria that establish where their community is located in space, in time, and relationally, within wider societal contexts. While this might include things like exploring historical relationships with other communities, cities, nations, and/or institutions such as NGOs or corporations, for example, such matters are not at this stage a central concern.

Seen in this light, the first level of the project is guided by two background considerations: Guided by these two framing questions, Level 1 engages participants in negotiating what it is that requires ‘indicating’, and how or under what conditions such indicators can be implemented as targets (to be aimed for) or base lines (to be moved on from). The kinds of quantitative indicators that are of concern to participant communities are therefore given definition in the field, and participants are called upon to begin to consider how taking note of such measures might affect life conditions across each of the four domains. In this way, an existing indicator set, such as the GRI framework (2006), provides some core metrics and a large number of additional interrelated metrics for the project.

  • (1) What kinds of things indicate that a community is sustainable?

  • (2) What kinds of things indicate that (when present or missing) a community is unsustainable?

The approach in practice: level 2

The step from Level 1 to Level 2 of the approach establishes the basis for community participation in the project, taking things beyond what Andrea Cornwall recognizes as ‘feel-good talk of “participation”’and towards ‘invited’ participation (Cornwall, 2000, 2008). Here, participation takes the form of contested, negotiated, and self-defining citizenship. By providing a link into globalizing processes of ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’, the approach supports locally autonomous, yet also ‘informed’, participation and ‘community engagement’ (Mulligan and Nadarajah, 2008). In a double process of negotiation, the aim of going beyond quantitative indicators is to prompt negotiating over what constitutes knowledge about how best to practice community sustainability, and to develop and implement learning and practice along these lines. The key claim here is that it is only by engaging in the task of deliberating over the normative criteria that frame possibilities for implementing indicators that the information represented by them can guide sustainable development practice.

Hence, Level 2 builds upon Level 1 and is aimed at prompting self-understanding about how best a community might develop the resources it has, and how it might better gain access to further resources amidst the ‘globalizing’ of local conditions. Hence, the two guiding considerations from Level 1 are complemented by two further background considerations: The key considerations in Level 2 are designed to elicit reflection upon how important issues that inform community life, in the context of wider social conditions, might contribute to or detract from the goal of achieving sustainable development ‘outcomes’. At this point, ‘invited participation’ is reversed in the form of an external agency being invited in to broker the parameters of the development project (Cornwall, 2000). Thus, in moving to Level 2 a considerable amount of time from within the community and from external consultants is required to move the project from the social profile to identifying major tensions, problems, and blockages. A number of different tools can be employed at this stage, including panel groups, individual questionnaires, attitude scale statements, lengthier interviews and conversations, and community events centred on things such as ‘green planting’ an area, promoting ‘safe sex’, or resource-use issues.

  • (3) Who benefits and who loses in the current situation, and how might this be changed?

  • (4) What does it mean, in relation to current norms, to negotiate these matters?

The approach has designated seven ‘social themes’ that constitute the basis for negotiating the boundaries within which indicators of community sustainability need to be established. They are presented in the form of pairs of related concepts, with each social theme drawing attention to major, fundamental, and historically debated sources of tension within communities. One or more of these can be brought into the approach as prompts to reflection upon the kinds of tensions that may emerge in a community as ‘indicators’ of sustainable development are implemented: Once more, the article presents a brief excursus explaining some of the conceptual underpinnings for the notion of ‘social themes’, before returning to the main discussion.

  • participation – authority

  • identity – difference

  • security – risk

  • equality – autonomy

  • needs – limits

  • belonging – mobility

  • inclusion – exclusion

Each of these Janus-faced themes is embedded in debates that draw broadly from existing ethical traditions. The concepts contained within the pairs are in tension, but they are not opposites. Even within the various classical traditions ranging from Confucianism to Christianity and from socialism to liberalism, there is no obvious and permanent answer to the question of what constitutes the good; therefore, the key question is how are such tensions negotiated in order to enhance the sustainability of a given community, given that community's situation in relation to wider social contexts. This outline describes three such social themes, in order to show how their use as a framing device can provide a background to qualitatively assessing, and community self-assessing, the sustainability of ‘development’ over time.

Participation–authority

Across the tensions inherent in this social theme, participants are asked to think about how it is that participation in sectors of social life is related to the authority structures of the community in question, and of wider society. The assumption here is not that participation is better than authority, or vice versa. Rather, what is being brought into question is the degree to which people participating in social life can do so in a meaningful way, and how they do so in relation to the forms of authority exercised within their community, and against those applied within the community but having their source outside or beyond the community. For example, the relation between customary law and state law may be fleshed out, appraised, and reappraised in relation to each of the four domains, and changing conditions such as urbanization, industrialization, or the impacts of other development projects.

Identity–difference

Across this continuum, participants are called upon to think about how it is that notions of difference are related to social identity. The aim here is to elicit an understanding of how well a community copes with difference, while being mindful of the fact that too much emphasis on difference can lead to fragmentation and dissolution of life held in common. If a social identity is too strong, or too strongly enforced, this might give rise to an unsustainable and unjust xenophobia. On the other hand, if difference and diversity within a given body are given too much emphasis, then it may be weakened in political situations requiring a common voice, such as in negotiations over funding matters, material distribution, or rights recognition. For example, in terms of the political domain, this question is aimed at eliciting how power relations within the community might support a strong sense of identity that includes a capacity for coping with change. The key here is not how much diversity and how much commonality, but how the play of difference and identity is negotiated as something that a community needs to manage if it is to be (or become) sustainable.

Inclusion–exclusion

Typically in contemporary debates, ‘social inclusion’ is treated as a social good to be achieved and ‘exclusion’ is a bad thing to be avoided (Eames and Adebowale, 2002). The issue that this very common conception of the problem elides is that in certain circumstances it is exclusion that leads to a social good. For example, in places where harassment is common or social difference is threatening, there may legitimately be a need to exclude ‘outsiders’ from certain activities or places – for example, excluding other than Moslem women from a public swimming pool on Thursday afternoons. Sometimes even the open and mobile presence of others in a zone of difference – for example, a customary sacred site – renders that site cultural and politically dead. A second, and both more abstract and activist point, is that concentrating on overcoming questions of exclusion tends to leave issues of exploitation unaddressed. Unless, taking seriously the forms of poverty specific to being marginalized under contemporary conditions of ‘globalization’, exclusion is seen to have no perpetrator (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005 [1999], p. 354). The point is that only by coming to grips with how – on what terms and who – a community excludes and includes that sustainable development can be implemented.

Case study: ‘well-being’ indicators and community sustainability

The project discussed here examined and reported on the effectiveness of community development through local arts practices, given the changes to employment, lifestyles, and culture wrought by the globalization of localized communities. It addressed three policy determinants of community well-being set by a government health promotion agency: reduced social isolation, reduced discrimination against individuals or groups, and increased economic participation. The aim of the project was to assess the role of community arts projects in achieving each of these agency-driven determinants of well-being and so, to measure their contribution to creating sustainable communities by improving indicators of ‘inclusion’, ‘connectedness’, and ‘participation’. The project focussed upon community arts festivals in two regional and two (sub)urban Australian locales in 2005–2006, and began in each of the four locations with some of the practices outlined above in terms of Level 1 engagement.

The ‘social mapping’ exercise was conducted by project researchers and community members, and involved community meetings and the organizing of a critical reference group or steering committee for the project in each of the four locales. In many cases, community members provided documentary evidence in the form of local histories, photographs, earlier research on the culture of the area, which was used to produce a supplement to the main project report. This work also included demographic and census data, and information from government agencies working in urban and regional community development, employment services, elderly care, youth work, and community mental health, as well as community arts. Input into the social mapping task, as well as the critical reference group, was also sought from local government authorities, NGOs, and business groups. The second part of the project utilized the social themes of inclusion–exclusion and participation-authority described in Level 2, and combined quantitative questionnaire-based data with qualitative interviews. Both the questionnaires and interviews were conducted with participants in and organizers of the community arts events, and involved a ranking exercise similar to that represented later in this paper across each of the four domains (see Appendix 1). The events included one-off and annual theatre and performance arts programmes for people with special needs; the Eid Festival in an area with a large Islamic community; a multicultural planting festival; a rural town's 150th Anniversary Ball; and an event for persons who had experienced coercive psychiatry.

What the project found was that the ongoing job of constituting a sustainable community and, therefore, what can be said to define community well-being is undergoing substantive change in globalizing conditions. Such change sometimes, although not always has a negative, fragmenting effect upon community sustainability, and of community members' feelings about how sustainable their community is (Mulligan et al., 2006). However, a sense of community well-being that situates one within a localized community and the wider social context remains important to peoples' lives, and this holds true across socio-economically and culturally diverse situations. The findings suggested that claims about the death of proximate local community as the grounding for social life are overstated, whether normatively oriented as arguments of the Left or the Right. Meanwhile, claims that a localized sense of place has become more powerful or valued are also problematic.

Although proximate face-to-face relations and local ways of life anchor community, ‘community’ is itself being valued differently than once may have been the case. In the past, conditions demanded and rewarded relatively fixed ways of life: the communitarian ideal-idyll could hold. In contemporary conditions, however, it seems that there is little collective memory of such fixity, and many things that were once seen as goods now represent bads: for example, a lack of openness to outside influences, such as ‘foreign’ foods or beverages is now seen as bad, and acceptance of diverse lifestyles and mobility itself is seen as good. What had once been understood as the benefits of a sense of community – such as strong inclusiveness and connectedness – can no longer be taken as givens, insofar as these signal that a sustainable community is present, and as indicators that people believe this to be the case (Scerri et al., 2009).

The project found that the starting point for understanding a community's sustainability needs to be recognition of the presence of community itself in ‘globalizing’ conditions, and that community development work based around arts projects can contribute to this. What the project findings suggest is a need for better understandings of how it is that people come to terms with the necessity of community, in an era when much societal energy is being directed towards promoting personal autonomy and flexibility. In this sense, calls for greater inclusion, connectedness, and participation are in many ways merely symptomatic reactions to globalizing conditions that privilege networking over cementing relationships, flexibility over constancy, and bursts of creativity over training in the long term. The important thing to understand is that emphases upon (‘indicators’ of) inclusion and connectedness should not replace or displace, but rather should complement and inform a shift in emphasis upon community development as a ‘lived’ experience. This requires awareness of the need for exclusion and disconnectedness. Focussing upon problems in terms of tensions associated with inclusion and exclusion and connectedness and disconnectedness in these terms provides a means by which people may better deal with the human need for community as something that perseveres and is coherent over time.

Understanding things in this way suggests that community arts events, or other kinds of ‘straight’ community development work, can provide opportunities for assessing a community's situatedness within wider social contexts. Taken alongside quantitative indicators, such events can provide qualitative indication of how a community is or is not negotiating its place in the world, whether conceived of in terms of the nation or in ‘globalizing’ terms. Communities are, by definition, always bound-over to negotiate their situation within a social universe that can be welcoming or hostile, or ‘tolerant’ in the sense of begrudging acceptance for reasons of instrumental economic, political, or cultural expedience. More so, community development projects can provide grounds for a community to self-orient as the ‘site’ of a particular cultural milieu that exists within broader societal contexts. For example, celebrating the Islamic Eid holy day as a festival provided an opportunity for an Islamic community to self-define by membership and so, exclude non-members. Also, by staging such an event in a public park, around the allegedly ‘Anglo’ Australian symbol of the barbecue, this community was able to self-define as included within Australian culture, politics, and the economy. A multicultural community planting day worked in a similar way, emphasizing not only these things, but also the ecological links, shared by different communities between society and nature. Another example, held over a series of evenings in a city's ‘red light’ and drug-culture district, were street theatre-styled Sex & Drugs Tours. Organized by community arts workers and participants, this event helped to normalize and connect drug users and sex workers as citizens with a sense of history, and of humour, while also representing the plight of these citizens as marginalized and disconnected from mainstream social worlds. It emphasized how publicly negotiating and deliberating over some of the normative criteria that frame community is an important part of ‘indicating’ that a community is sustainable.

A community's capacity to develop sustainably is intimately bound up with human experiences of a sense of community, and is related to practicing being a community. In this sense, such an approach to community development work can help to draw attention towards – that is, to indicate – the quality of a community's capacity to negotiate how inclusion and exclusion, or connectedness and disconnectedness, are being understood and put into practice. Community development practices are in this sense, themselves, an important means for doing community sustainability. Indeed, a key finding of the project was that inclusion and connectedness are matters of constant negotiation, both within and between communities, and between community and wider social contexts, and that when such negotiation is not present, or breaks down, the sustainability of particular communities is weakened. The project thus offered a possibility for qualitatively indicating the sustainability of discrete communities' development, while expanding the terms for such development beyond instrumental considerations with achieving ‘indicators’. In this sense, community is understood in an active and participatory sense, and sustainability is partially redefined as something that is not only measurable and assessable in terms of quantifiable indicators or metrics, but also in formalized qualitative terms as it is ‘lived’ in a globalizing world.

Conclusion: towards indicators of community sustainable development

Overall, it is argued that this approach goes some way towards responding to a key contemporary issue in indicator-centred projects – the difficulty of discerning ‘clear links between the development of an indicator programme and actual changes in decision-making and policy outcomes … and dialogue with citizens over time [and] in terms of citizen participation’ (Eckerberg and Mineur, 2003, p. 612). The present article has sought to elaborate a path beyond these constraints by engaging citizens in the job of achieving sustainability as an ‘indicating’ task of itself, undertaken on terms accepted by them in the context of their communities and the societies in which they live. Guiding its suggestions has been the claim that a techno-centric emphasis upon quantitative data sets and metrics, as generic ‘indicators’, can occlude possibilities for appraising situations in terms of the quality of social practices for those participating in them.

The argument has been that development is not necessarily sustainable, unless it includes a degree of reflection and action, carried on with the aim of making it sustainable. Hence, the discussion has treated ‘development’ as social change over time, with all its intended or unintended outcomes, that brings about a significant and patterned shift in the technologies, techniques, infrastructure, and/or associated life-forms of a place or people. That is, development is what humans ‘do’. The job of reflecting and acting upon ‘development’ involves people, sometimes privileging ‘technique’, but most often modifying technique in the light of knowledge about the conditions in which technique is deployed. The problem confronting projects aimed at achieving sustainable community development around ‘indicators’ of sustainability therefore appears as one of community self-understanding. Recognizing this creates demands that the development team engage with the community that is being ‘studied’ with the aim of better understanding, and communicating, how relations of power and its legitimation and criteria for socially determining values affect the task of achieving sustainable communities.

Acknowledgements

The authors thank in particular Martin Mulligan, Liam Magee, Meg Holden, Caroline Bayliss, Stephanie McCarthy and colleagues at the Global Cities Research Institute and the United Nations Global Compact-Cities Programme.

1
Social mapping is a research method which involves asking people to plot out where they see the boundaries of their ‘space’. This is used to develop and refine our understanding of community, polity, and place. This involves walking with and talking to people as they move through defined spaces, and seeing how their understandings and shaping of their community or polity is informed via their interactions and movements. Social mapping in the first instance will be geared towards the central themes of the project, and mapped against the social themes of the project. These are then interpreted in terms of a series of layers of social analysis that form the theoretical level of an applied research methodology. Our intention is to move from the empirical to the abstract and back again in a constant journey of return, testing each level against the others.

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Appendix 1

graphic