Building community and learning from failure

Many of us have dreamed of living in community but have struggled to know where to start. You can read all the books out there and still flounder. Having both explored the possibilities of starting a community we feared that we were repeating the same mistakes others had already made. Despite a long tradition of eco-communities in Britain there are relatively few successful examples, and among our friends there were many who had experienced failure. More than that, most successful eco-communities are full of people who have endured multiple failures on their way to finally building a project that worked.

We didn’t want all that experience and knowledge to go to waste so we started a small research project where Ruth interviewed members of groups either in the early stages of a project or who had decided to abandon an idea. We worked with five groups in Britain: two co-housing projects, a co-operative, an eco-community and an emerging group. Talking about failure is not only emotionally difficult but stirs up all sorts of accusations about who, how and why things didn’t work out. As we don’t want to make this personally difficult for those involved we have had to anonymise who we are talking about. We want to share stories about three of these groups and the lessons they learnt about starting a community.

Penninsula Park Commons USA

In the west of England people started meeting about the possibility of setting up a co-housing community in the region. There were lots and lots of meetings and various visits around the country to other communities and co-housing projects – like LILAC in Leeds – to learn from what worked. The group spent two years discussing and evolving their plans, they also had support from the local Council and a government agency who were both keen to facilitate community self-build projects in the region. The group had significant expertise and knowledge amongst them, including an architect, an academic who had worked with numerous communities worldwide, members of previous housing co-operatives, and a trained group facilitator. Many participants noted how much they had enjoyed meeting new people who shared their goals and politics, and the optimism of feeling like they could build a new way of living.

Yet after years of meetings little progress had been made. The main problem, it seems, was that the group was too open to new members and every time new people arrived the discussions would repeat. As one member argued: “It seems a shame but had there been a small core group with clear ideas, a possible location and an agenda, a stronger group might have formed earlier and those with a different intention might have gone off and formed another group rather than too many disparate people hanging on together for too long”. This lack of clarity about, for example, whether this was an urban or rural project and everyone being too polite to argue over points of potential disagreement eventually led to the group fizzling out. Rather than simply celebrating points of commonality it is also necessary to explore the detail and different perspectives around which people might diverge. It eventually emerged that some members wanted the group to be a support network, others an information sharing point, and others still a practical building project. While it can be hard to start a community with a clear vision, especially when you want to be inclusive and democratic, it was clear in this instance that the lack of agreement on what the purpose was and the turnover of people involved used up the energy of the group. As one member suggests “don’t open the group out to all and sundry until you have a firm base of understanding in the core group … different people dipped in and out all the time and affected the dynamics”.

Further south a group began with public meetings and quickly a large number of people were interested in building an urban co-housing community. They worked out a finance plan only to realise that although they all had money to invest they did not all have capital immediately available and they could not, therefore, purchase the land they had found. They connected with a Housing Association (a non-governmental social housing provider) who was keen to work with the group and very quickly the land was purchased. It was at this stage, when the group was tied into working with this third party, that things got complicated. The group began to lose control of the project as the Housing Association began to act like a private developer. The quick success of the group also attracted more people, each with their own agenda. . The Housing Association started, as one member described, “making conditions on the co-housing project … that finally we didn’t feel we could sign up to … the cost of each unit [and] we had all said we wanted intergenerational but the Housing Association … said over 55’s”. It became unclear to the group what the final houses would cost. Eventually most of the original group withdrew from the project, with those remaining setting up a new group to continue working with the developer. The new group is going ahead and co-housing with a shared common house is due to be completed by January 2017.

Finally, is a group of people who were part of several attempts at starting communities in the South West until just four of them decided to setup their own rural eco-community. The initial attempt, a co-housing community, suffered from a lack of clarity, as one of the group recalled “it was very, very difficult to create … you can’t really create a vision out of an amorphous group. I think it is better to have a smaller, better defined group than larger amorphous groups”. There was a fear, by some of those involved, of limiting the group and yet “they’re going to have to learn to say no to some people” for practical reasons if nothing else. Having decided to leave that project the four of them went on to work with another group who were working with a Community Land Trust. Much like the group in the south, once the Community Land Trust got involved the members began to lose control of the project. The group got sidelined as the Trust negotiated with planners in development jargon and “the whole thing was going so fast, we were running to keep up with it”. Eventually people walked away from the project, disheartened at the way it had been co-opted by others with different agendas, feeling “exhausted, I’m going broke, I’m quite anxious”. Now the group have purchased a small piece of land and are establishing a rural eco-community.

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These stories share several frustrations with ideas being co-opted by others, often external organisations, to the difficulty in balancing a clarity of vision with being inclusive. The entrepreneurial drive needed to push a project through to realisation requires determination and spirit and to grasp opportunities as they arise, but this very drive can take groups into alliances with those they ultimately do not wish to work with. Perhaps stereotypically for the British some members felt that people were too polite to each other, not identifying points of disagreement until they became highly divisive. Avoiding disagreements does not strengthen a group, rather there needs to be space to discuss and resolve conflicts, with agreed conflict resolution processes This is especially important as the need for an entrepreneurial spirit to get a group off the ground means that groups are full of initiators, people with lots of skills and passion, who also tend to be strong characters. This is a good thing, and necessary, but it can result in quite serious personality clashes and differences in approach that can result in groups splitting up. It is better to work out conflict resolution processes before being in conflict -While strong characters can help a group move forward, disruptive personalities can undermine the ability of people to work well together Without some ways in which to minimise disruption, people who you would like to keep in your group will walk away, probably without telling you why. If you are in a group that works well, then develop a membership policy to help it stay like that. Also, everyone involved could ask themselves periodically, ‘is my behaviour helping or hindering the process?’

Moreover, being inclusive is not about assuming everyone brings the same expertise and skills, and yet feelings of unease around certain members overplaying their expertise can led to conflict. There are productive ways to acknowledge and identify different skills in complimentary ways and often naming them lessened people’s anxiety about them. People also have differing levels of knowledge around co-housing, which can become an issue when the group remains open to all, and new people have to catch up very quickly in order to be able to make an informed contribution to discussions. Or else feel they don’t have the knowledge to contribute and so drop out. Although we focused on attempts at starting communities that did not quite work, many involved went on to be part of other successful projects. In getting members to reflect upon what worked and what didn’t, many felt that they had actually been too willing to compromise too quickly. Finding land, funding or a project partner (such as a Housing Association) had blinded some to the risks involved. Balancing levels of pragmatism, and knowing what is worth fighting for and sticking to your principles was ultimately more important than progressing a project quickly.

There is a truism shared by those who have successfully built communities; building houses is the easy bit, building community requires all the work. The groups we worked with were emotional on their reflections of wasted hours and energy on projects that did not materialise, but none regretted their involvement. They had not just learnt personally from being involved but had hugely enjoyed the humour, laughter and friendships made in the process. Not wanting to simply list how things can go wrong we would like to end with twelve lessons that the groups we worked with identified as important in starting a community:

  1. Start small: Starting with a small core of people helps build a firm base of communal understanding and enables key principles to be agreed more quickly.
  2. Decide purpose early: A lack of a clear purpose wastes people’s time and energy. Deciding early on that, for example, the project is for urban senior co-housing or rural low impact development, helps people decide if it is something worth investing in.
  3. Decide decision-making processes early: Without clear governance structures through which it is clear how decisions are made, recorded, and checked then problems will emerge when people seek to challenge already-made decisions. If decision-making is unclear groups can end up in loops of repeating debates endlessly.
  4. Create space for informal sharing and conversations: Taking the time to get to know each other is vital in building trust and in helping people decide if they want to live together. Sharing regular meals, beers, dancing, etc. enables one-to-one conversations and friendship building. Having fun is vital to a successful project and keeps people wanting to be involved. You could also develop a ‘friends group’ through which people can get to know each other without necessarily formally committing to the group.
  5. Good practice in meetings:Hold regular meetings in a neutral space and agree who will facilitate and who will take minutes. Most groups rotate the roles around different group members. Within meetings try out different communication techniques to ensure that everyone is heard. These practices should help prevent power struggles in a group and reduce misunderstandings or assumptions.
  6. Find points of commonality and difference: While part of the point of community is to work in common with others, it is just as important to identify, discuss and resolve points of difference. Only by articulating differences can their importance be understood.
  7. Use structured activities to help group progress: Few people have time and energy to waste in endless meetings. Structured group activities (such as visioning exercises or sharing workshops), especially those that allow small-group work, enable people to see progress being made, their views included and momentum sustained. These activities can be within regular business meetings or held separately; as long as sufficient time is given to them. However, it is hard to find group activities that are tailored to the needs of setting up communities, with groups having to invent their own each time. The sharing of activities that work is something the support networks could do to help emerging groups.
  8. Develop a robust and clear system of communication: This might be a group email list or posting of minutes online, but it needs to be available to all.
  9. Develop a standing agenda for meetings: This saves time and helps in consistency. This could include; greetings, icebreakers, apologies, minutes, matters arising, current issues, reports from the task groups, any other business. Some groups also end with a short period of silence.
  10. Share case studies: By exploring other examples of community self-build projects and sharing information and knowledge, groups can reach a collective understanding of what housing they are interested in and the detailed issues involved. Be aware that all projects have their strengths and weaknesses, so look closely at more than one example.
  11. Use external agencies, training and expertise: Using third party help beings additional knowledge and fresh perspectives to your project. Through this process you also build good support networks. You will also need, eventually, to have access to professionals, such as lawyers, preferably those who understand what you are trying to achieve.
  12. Find an external project manager: Some of the most successful groups had an external project manager. Ideally you need someone who can help with people processes and someone else who understands the technicalities of building. Having someone external also means that the group does not become reliant on one individual, no one person is indispensible and this gives the group more resilience.

by Jenny Pickerill and Ruth Hayward

Jenny Pickerill is Professor of Environmental Geography at Sheffield University, England, and lives in a self-built eco-house. Her new book Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics about eco-communities worldwide is published by Zed Books.

Ruth Hayward is an environmental organiser, teacher and researcher based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.

[Published as Pickerill, J and Hayward, R. 2016. Building community and learning from failure. Communities Magazine, Spring, Number 170, pp.34-36]

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