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Growing Insights Module 2: Social Dynamics

Social Dynamics - Introduction

In this module we will explore the social dynamics of urban agriculture and local food by asking “Why do people get involved in Urban Agriculture, and what social benefits do they value?” This begins to help identify the many layers and dimensions of social dynamics.  Additional stories and resources help ‘unpack’ the social element of society, as well as a look at a potential Urban Agriculture/Local Foods ‘supply chain’. These help to articulate where and how social dynamics and urban agriculture are related.

These different lenses add to Module 1’s conversation of intangible and tangible assets. The content from this Module gives opportunities to explore the potential value of adding social benefits to the equation alongside environmental and economic benefits.

As an introduction, read "What do we mean by social dynamics" and then move into the Units. This article describes different facets of ‘social dynamics’.   David Suzuki said that “How you imagine life determines how you live it “. In the same way, how you imagine ‘social dynamics’ determines how you look to improve it and grow it. As we look towards developing a better ability to value social assets, and to account for them - thus making them more likely to be an important element of land use decisions - it is important to understand what we mean by the concept.

Unit 1

The Social Benefit of Urban Agriculture

Consider this question: “Why do people get involved in Urban Agriculture, and what social benefits do they value?” This begins to help identify the many layers and dimensions of social dynamics.  Additional stories and resources help ‘unpack’ the social element of society, as well as a look at a potential Urban Agriculture/Local Foods ‘supply chain’. These helps to articulate where and how social dynamics and urban agriculture are related.


Video (5:54): Beth Sanders - Social Habitat - What It Means.  
Beth Sanders is Past President of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute and Principal, Populus Community Planning Inc. Different people use different language to express their understanding of social dynamics.  In this video, Beth describes the impact of a healthy social habitat.

Video (6:12): Dustin Bajer - Social Ecosystem - maximize stability and resilience with multiple and diverse connections Dustin Bajer teaches permaculture and ecology at Jasper Place High School, Edmonton. He is a member of the Edmonton Food Policy Council and is leading the Urban Agriculture High program for Sustainable Food Edmonton. Dustin presents his thinking on social dynamics as social ecosystem.

Article: Urban Agriculture & Local Foods - Who’s involved & Why?
•    This article presents a graphic of the wide range of the ‘big reasons’ that motivate people to become involved in Urban Agriculture - social dynamics type reasons like  food justice, or food quality can play a role in contributing to all of them, but may not be the initial driver.

Article: What are the range of ways that people can be involved in Urban Agriculture / Local Foods and get personal benefit?  
•    People don’t have to garden, or even like gardening to be happily engaged in urban agriculture!  This post presents a way to ‘unpack’ a community garden operation to illustrate the wide range of roles needed in making a successful community garden. This might also be useful at identifying how to design ways to grow more social assets into a community garden project.

Case Studies

  1. Holyrood Neighbourhood - The Holyrood Community Greenspace Project has been underway now for about 8 years, and so they’re able to see some of the longer term impacts for neighbourhood social dynamics of creating a greenspace - including the development of capacity for the neighbourhood to think not only of what is, but what could be - and prepare for long term neighbourhood health that embraces new development and shapes its impact.

2. Grow Calgary - Grow Calgary is an 11 acre Urban Farm located on a utility corridor in Calgary that’s dedicated to growing food for the Food Bank. The only mandate of the volunteer society, Grow Calgary, is to grow food for the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank. Paul Hughes, the Farm Manager, talks about the sustainable capacity of local food from public and city owned land (1100 acres in Calgary). Paul Hughes says we don’t need more farmers markets; we need more farmers.

3. Calgary's Community Gardens & the New Consumer - Inglewood Community Garden is one of the 140 communtiy gardens in Calgary. The video shares different people’s stories of why they see Community Gardens as an important contributor to different dimensions of social dynamics, from connecting newcomers in a big city, to long term residents with a passion for organizing and fundraising.

4. Calgary Horticultural Society, Calgary Community Gardens Resource Centre - The Calgary Horticultural Society has a number of dimensions as you’ll see from the website. The Calgary Community Resource Centre is a key one, providing educational support and resources for people involved in community gardens.

5. Bissell Centre - Bissell Centre has been a contributing member of Edmonton for more than 100 years. The current CEO shares thoughts on how a community agency combines human service delivery with becoming a contributing member of a community.  He shares a range of possible ways they could collaborate around various types of Urban Agriculture and Local Foods activities.  He also describes how it can help integrate programs and help persons in poverty grow skills and social networks as they grow high quality food for themselves.

6. Permaculture & a High School - Jasper Place High School, Edmonton - A teacher combines his two loves - permaculture and teaching, to develop a resource that can support student learning, integrate curriculum, and grow the deep connections between schools and with the community that are necessary to a healthy social ecosystem.

7. Urban Gardeners Among Us - A dietitian and committed urban gardener shares her story and stories of people in her neighbourhood, as they engage in different dimensions of urban gardening and local foods.

Unit 2

Using Urban Agriculture to Support a Social Ecosystem

We’ll explore two threads: One is to explore the idea that we can learn from Urban Agriculture / Local Foods initiatives to understand more about how to catalyze & support a social ecosystem to grow and develop.  If we can understand more about this, we can do better at catalyzing both individuals and groups (whether the ‘group’ is families, neighbourhoods, towns and cities, whole societies) - to be all they can be, to reach their highest potential. Second is to explore the idea that Urban Agriculture / Local Foods initiatives could be effective ways to support the desired integration across silos in our health and human service agencies and public systems.

1.    What do we learn from Urban Agriculture and Local Foods initiatives about growing and developing social dynamics?  - some thoughts and questions:

  • Is it important to include the word ‘dynamics’ in the term - because ‘social dynamics’ is not static but always changing - either growing better or growing worse.
  • Perhaps we can’t glean learnings about the general concept of ‘social dynamics’ as much as we can if we look at particular facets. In other words, we might be better to ask: What do we learn about building individual physical, mental, relational and identity/meaning characteristics through Urban Agriculture? What do we learn about building families, social groups that are really high functioning? Communities, Cities?
  • Is it possible that resilience and reaching highest potential might not be accidents or inherent characteristics of some but not others - but something we can purposefully grow, skills we can learn, in the same way we’re now learning about how to build better brains?
  • Can initiatives like Urban Agriculture or Local Foods initiatives be a better catalyst of social dynamics if they are purposefully designed from the beginning, and adapted during operation in ways that are more supportive of positive, or generative growth of some of the dimensions of social dynamics?
  • Do successful or unsuccessful Urban Agriculture and Local Foods initiatives help us recognize the patterns in different facets of social dynamics (again, individual or group) that are growing better or growing worse?
  • Is it reasonable to think that achieving potential and vibrant health are much more than the simple absence of life problems or of disease?  If so, is it then reasonable to expect that preventing illness and injury, or preventing community breakdown are no longer enough to create the expectations and goals we now have for ourselves, our children, our community? And if that is so, if we understand how do better at catalyzing both individuals and groups to be all they can be, to reach their highest potential, we’ll be able to design catalytic services to support that and achieve more than if we just meet needs, fix problems.
  • Perhaps it isn’t possible to have a conversation about the whole ‘social dynamics’ concept. Thinking of the various facets described in Unit’s 1 resource “What do we mean by Social Dynamics’ - is it better to ask “What do we learn from Urban Agriculture and Local Foods initiatives about how individuals grow and develop?  about how families grow and develop?  about how initiatives grow and develop?

2.  Can initiatives like Urban Agriculture / Local Foods be effective ways to support the desired integration across silos in our health and human service agencies and public systems?
One of the ongoing challenges, amid increasing demands from clients and community groups, is to stop operating in silos, whether sectors, organizations or program areas. But this is actually very hard to do as the silos are a legacy of our move to the opportunities provided by specialization over many decades.

Might initiatives like Urban Agriculture and Local Foods offer some ways that multiple service areas could come together to support the people involved?  Sort of like housing becomes a focal point around which multiple services can be ‘wrapped around’ the person rather than them having to identify multiple services they need, which then need coordination.

Or, are the initiatives so small and local that they couldn’t make a real impact on the systems?

Explore further by watching some videos from this Resource List:Growing Insights Resource List 2-2.pdf

Unit 3

The Economic Value of Social Dynamics in Communities

1.  How do we value and account for the social dynamics dimension?
Returning to the video resources provided in Unit 1  - especially the Who is involved and Why pair of videos - it seems as though the idea of ‘value’ needs to be considered at multiple levels.

One is the personal / family / household level.  People grow their own food and / or support the ecological cycle (through composting / soil revitalization)  OR volunteer at a community garden for a wide variety of reasons.  It seems reasonable to assume that the benefits they gain (either for personal gain or by giving back to others / the community) suggest a valuation at the personal level.   

Another level might be the individual business - where the owner determines part of their brand and reputation come from using local foods, supporting local growers, having a rooftop garden or other ways of engaging in an Urban Garden / Local Food process. This likewise assumes a tacit valuation is going on.
The information we have on these (personal/ family and business ventures) seems largely anecdotal though - this works on the personal / family level but won’t be as satisfactory as metrics for larger aggregates.

Other levels are the community / city / societal level.  Economists and Non-financial accounting professionals might be more interested at the societal level.

And if we are valuing at the societal level, what is it that we are including in the equation that relates to social dynamics. Annette Anderwald speaks of nutritional value and family /parenting benefit.  Robert McGarvey speaks of wellbeing of societies (and the video resources from OECD also highlight this approach). Mark Anielski refers to Happiness. Robert also shares his thoughts on what needs to change, and what we need to know before we can adequately value social assets. Both because social dynamics are intangible assets, and because the valuation of social dynamics is in its pre-infancy, it seems we are very early on Roger Martin’s Knowledge Funnel (provided in the resource list), so it will take time to resolve his questions in sufficient rigor that we can reliably and routinely report and account for social dynamics / social assets.

Perhaps it is most beneficial to move beyond the tradition of valuing solely within the silo of the social dynamics dimension - and need to use approaches such as Annette suggests with her ‘worthedness’ scale -e.g. it might not to most helpful to look at nutritional value in isolation, but at the nutritional value per unit of energy used.  In other words, land use decisions are about balancing social, environmental and economic dimensions, so perhaps the way we value needs to honour that interaction. In complex systems, where interaction of various dimensions and the emergence of outcomes is better understood than modernist science - might the key to valuing be found in bringing more than one factor together?  Do the ecological sciences provide some insight into this question? A more complex approach, but if it were easily resolved, we’d be doing it already.

2.  Bigger Questions, Bigger conversations that this exploration of the social dynamics dimension of Urban Agriculture / Local Foods leads us to consider:

  • Mark Holmgren provides a few examples of bigger questions, bigger conversations in his video resource.  A few additional ones that come to mind.
  • Do we need to take a whole systems perspective?  For example, the Victoria Community Foundation recently completed an outcomes mapping process for the Victoria Food Security System (links provided in the resource list). Both the process, which brought a wide range of system members into the work, but also the resulting outcomes map, which can be then used to locate particular activities within the whole. Might this be a useful tool for assessing collective impact (a resource for Collective Impact thinking is also in the resource list)
  • Does it help to understand the valuation of Urban Agriculture and Local Foods if we migrate our current policy and governance structures from the classic silos we’ve created over time - health, human services, environment, economic development, and infrastructure? Is Urban Agriculture / Local Foods one pointer to the benefits of a ‘whole society governance’ mindset?  Are we anywhere close to ready to explore the utility of that mindset?

Explore more through these resources:Growing Insights Resource List 2-3.pdf

Additional Resources

Additional Resouces for Module 2

For more details on the social dynamics of urban agriculture & local food, check out the links in this list: Growing Insights resource list 2.pdf


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