Social impacts of community-led initiatives

From EcoliseWiki

Anecdotal evidence and formal research both suggest strong positive social impacts of community-led initiatives. Emerging understanding of the means by which these impacts are achieved give invaluable insights into how these benefits can be translated to wider society. Many practitioners and researcher point out that such impacts, which can include creation of long term social capital, improvements in health and well-being, strengthening networks, skill development and empowerment in local communities are intangible in nature, resulting from relational and dynamic processes whose effects only become evident over the long term rather than simple cause and effect[1]

Social Capital

Much recent literature on CLIs shows them to be very effective in creating and mobilising social capital. CLIs tend to invest in inter-personal relationships, by promoting face-to-face meeting, activities and events as well as social relationships. The TESS research project recorded an average of seven to eight meetings a year among the 63 European CLIs studied in detail in the project. The frequency of social interactions typically ranged from 1 to 100 a year. In nearly fifteen per cent of cases these reached much higher levels, some as high as 10.000, showing the effectiveness of CLIs in fostering social relationships [2].

The Transition Streets project in Totnes, South West England, encouraged small groups of immediate neighbours to meet and share ideas and concerns about climate change. This achieved highly cost-effective reductions in household carbon emissions through behaviour change, energy efficiency measures, and renewable energy installation.[3] Evaluation of intangible social benefits suggested these were equally important: the majority of participants reported that the opportunity to get to know their neighbours better was their main motivation, and regarded the improved quality of social relationships as the most important outcome (although most had also realised substantial reductions in energy bills and household carbon emissions through installation of solar electricity and introduction of domestic energy saving measures.[4] Although participants anecdotally report these social benefits to have endured, the long-term impacts are hard to assess, both in terms of direct effects on social capital and leveraging of this for quantitative climate change mitigation, sustainability or economic effects.

The potential wider effects of improvements in social capital are indicated in a university study that compared subjective well-being of 84 residents of 30 ecovillages (and other intentional communities) in North America with those of Burlington, Vermont, a city in the USA reputed to offer residents a very high quality of life. Results indicated slightly higher perceived quality of life among residents of intentional communities, despite markedly lower average levels of personal income and ownership of material goods. Quality of life in intentional communties correlated far more weakly with indicators of material affluence such as income, access to healthcare and levels of education, and more strongly with quality of social relationships, equitable allocation of workloads and access to collective resources. This suggests that intentional communities are better able to translate social capital, and to a lesser degree human and natural capital, into residents' wellbeing, and therefore less reliant on built capital. This allows residents to enjoy high quality of life on the basis of far lower levels of material throughput.[5]

Ecovillager Robert Hall has identified twenty key ways in which ecovillages generate social capital and mobilise it to serve improve well-being:[6]

Economy and Work

  • pooled economy,
  • shared work
  • equitable allocation of workload
  • work-life balance

Governance and Social relationships:

  • inclusive decision making,
  • deeper personal relationships and openness,
  • inclusiveness,
  • conflict resolution,
  • limited hierarchy,
  • dimensioned communal group,
  • child-centred perspective,
  • new values and common worldview,
  • access to collective resources

Personal and Culture:

  • physical contact,
  • physical activity,
  • proximity to nature,
  • healthy food,
  • celebration,
  • self-development practices,
  • emphasis on arts and culture,
  • environmental activism and ecologically responsible behaviours.

Social Inclusion

Community-Led initiatives in Europe tend to involve a diversity of participants and explicitly address social, racial, gender and other kind of inequalities. Sixty three European CLIs studied in the TESS research project demonstrated different levels of social inclusiveness. Most CLIs have a gender balance close parity. The majority of beneficiaries tend to be nationals of the country where the CLI was formed although 27% reported more than 25% foreign nationals amomg their beneficiaries.[2] Regarding the inclusion of people at risk of social exclusion (including low income or with disabilities), in two third of the initiatives low income people are absent or represent up to 10% of the users, although in two out of 63 they represented the majority of the users. CLI more focused on waste activities tend to favour inclusiveness while the ones more focused on food and transportation tend to be more homogenous. More than 90% of the beneficiaries of a smaller set of CLI (42) have medium or high income and only 10% of the initiatives targeted the inclusion or positive impact on low-income groups. [2]

Serving a wide range of social or ethnic groups makes sustainability transitions more inclusive. Yet when resources are restricted, institutional and logistical support is lacking, or discourses remain within established cultural barriers, the "less-privileged" individuals' access to local initiatives is hindered." [1]

Results of an international online survey of the permaculture movement, in English (two sources of bias acknowledged by the researchers) showed the participation of women to be at or above parity (53%), while participation by race showed a white supermajority (96%). Multivariate regression demonstrated that race, gender, and socioeconomic status are shaping participation in distinct ways and that each interact with structural factors. The effects of gender on social roles varied with ecosystem vitality, with women scoring higher than men in countries with high levels of ecosystem vitality, and the reverse where ecosystem vitality was low. The observed effect of race on practice varied with national inequality, such that the scores of respondents of color were equivalent to white respondents in countries with the least inequality, but descended as inequality increased, while whites were unaffected. [7]

Overall, less than half of the transition initiatives represent the diversity in their community fairly or very well. The transition initiative members predominantly belong to the age range 30-65 years old," [8]
On a related note, our results also confirm that the level of diversity representation and inclusivity is lowest among urban transition initiatives." [8]

"The post-political critique correctly identifies that Transition in practice still tends to be found in well-off locations, comprising well-resourced individuals assiduously disavowing conflict or disagreement, with consensus seen as a great virtue. Their spread from Totnes has been geographically uneven. This emphasises and repeats already existing patterns of privilege, or ‘hot spots’ (Feola and Him, 2016: 2114) of ‘alternative milleus’ (Longhurst, 2013) rather than challenge or reconfigure these, as has been claimed for the diversity of the movement (Grossmann and Creamer, 2016). However, this analysis can overlook the wide variety of activities (above, and table) Transition engage in. This range of activities then attracts a wide array of participants." (Aiken 2017:308528)

Participation, Volunteering and Employment

The TESS Project's survey of 63 CLIs in Finland, Romania, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Spain indicated that the number of beneficiaries per CLI varied from 204 to 3.493. Larger numbers tend to be associated with initiatives covering a wider geographical territory, with an average of around 100 beneficiariesfor initiatives with geographical scope below NUTS 3 (districts, sub-regions or areas of comparable size with populations between 150,000 and 800,000 people) compared with 2,000 for those covering a geographical area equivalent to or larger than a NUTS 3 unit. The number of active participants ranged from 1 to 30,000. The median number of participants was 30, and three quarters of initiatives surveyed involved fewer than 52 participants.[2]

55 of the initiatives surveyed responded to questions about their volume of volunteer time. Responses varied from 2.5 hours to over 19,500 hours per week. More than half of all responding CLIs (56%) relied on volunteers for eight percent or more of their labour input. On average, each member of a CLI is reported to contribute a monthly average of 16 hours of voluntary labour, although the majority of CLIs report an average of less than 10 hours of voluntary labour per member per month.

Less than a quarter of responding CLIs (12) rely mostly on paid labour, which in these cases accounts for an average of eighty per cent of their labour effort, the rest being carried out by volunteers. Thirty one initiatives reported that they have no paid employees. The median number of employees among the 32 CLIs who had paid staff was eight; three quarters of these reported fewer than 16 staff. The initiative with the largest staff employed 316 people.[2]

The TESS survey also showed contributions of CLIs to creating employment to be significant, with 58.7% of responding CLIs having directly or indirectly created at least one part-time job. In total, the 63 participating CLIs reported that they had created a total of 705 jobs. Three CLIs had created over 50 jobs (320 in the case of the largest of these); ten had created 10 or more jobs.[2]

482 of the jobs created took the form of direct employment, i.e. people employed directly by the CLI itself. The other 223 were ‘indirect’, not employed within the CLI but nonetheless having arisen as a direct consequence of its activities. 45 CLIs in the sample of 63 (71.4%) reported that they had not created any indirect employment. Seven of the top ten CLIs, in terms of indirect job creation, either operated in the food domain, or cross multiple domains types. Across the whole sample, CLIs reported that they had created an average of four indirect jobs each (min 0, max 70, median 0, n=63).[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 A. Hof, A. Holsten, H. Berg et al, 2016. Sustainability Transitions to Low Carbon Societies. TESS, ARTS & PATHWAYS Common Policy Brief.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Celata, F., Hendrickson, C., 2016. Case study integration report (TESS Project Deliverable No. 4.1)
  3. Ward, F., A. Porter & M. Popham, 2011. Transition Streets Final Report. Totnes: Transition Town Totnes.
  4. Beetham, H., 2011. Social Impacts of Transition Together. Report prepared on behalf of Transition Town Totnes.
  5. Mulder, K., Costanza, R., Erickson, J., 2006. The contribution of built, human, social and natural capital to quality of life in intentional and unintentional communities. Ecological Economics 59: 13–23.
  6. Hall, R., 2015. The ecovillage experience as an evidence base for national wellbeing strategies. Intellectual Economics 9: 30–42.
  7. Ferguson, R.S., Lovell, S.T., 2015. Grassroots engagement with transition to sustainability: diversity and modes of participation in the international permaculture movement. Ecol. Soc. 20.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Feola, G., Nunes, R., 2014. Success and failure of grassroots innovations for addressing climate change: The case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change 24, 232–250.