New Partnerships Needed for New Kinds of Neighbourhoods

By Dr. Meg Holden

Model sustainable neighbourhoods today are being built by new kinds of partnerships in new kinds of structures. Arguments exist from a number of different perspectives about why this is needed: to build financial capacity, to close gaps in jurisdiction and authority over different pieces of a project, to distribute risk, to engage more democratically, to promote new ways of thinking about how to solve old problems. Recognizing that partnerships are necessary for successful sustainable neighbourhood projects, is one thing. Knowing how to pursue these partnerships, and maintain and grow them over the long process of rebuilding a neighbourhood, is another.  Addressing the partnership question adequately means changing the nature of the development process itself – the who, what, where, when, why and how of urban neighbourhood (re-)building.

The partnership question in model sustainable neighbourhood development is core to Ecourbanism Worldwide research.  Understanding the dynamics that this creates, and how to leverage these dynamics for better outcomes, is a significant part of Ecourbanism Worldwide research into the phenomenon of model sustainable neighbourhoods. We are trying to pry open this question by examining case studies of neighbourhood developments with the nature of their partnerships in mind, and by seeking to partner with different types of groups involved in bringing these new neighbourhoods to life to better understand their own dynamics of interaction, including by forming our own International Advisory Group of different kinds of professional and research actors in this domain of urban work. Here is how IAG member Perkins + Will understands their partnership with Ecourbanism Worldwide.

And we are seeking to better understand the dynamics that make the difference between ecourban development partnerships that work, and ones that fail, by asking questions about the experiences of those involved. One way we did this was at a workshop we hosted as part of the Ecodistricts Research Summit in Denver, Colorado in September 2016.  In an interactive workshop format, we asked five questions about partnerships in our domain of practice, and we received some answers that are at the same time revealing and suggest the need to pry further into the way in which partnerships in practice work. The tips below suggest a need to put in the work required to create a collaborative structure when we can assume most participants are used to a much more competitive structure. Also, the work of creating a partnership structure that approaches a sense of equity among members requires having difficult “worst case scenario” type conversations early on, in order to put practices in place that can be fallen back to when things go wrong (as, inevitably, they do in a long-term partnership). Other tips include a need to gauge different levels and expectations of what makes active and engaged participation, how the process of partnering itself needs to be viewed as a valuable outcome, and that in the absence of a strong, formalized professional ethical protocol, the diversity of members of a partnership can in and of itself provide a sense of ethical safeguard.

1 – Creating a “level playing field” among diverse participants requires real work.

Ecourban development partnerships get off to a somewhat contradictory start: they aim to engage diverse people from government, different domains of private sector work, social, environmental and community development work, many of whom have never considered a project like this to be within their powers and mandate before, and they aim to persuade all these people that their contribution is critical to the success of the project. The work of matchmaking in a successful ecourban partnership needs to be sensitive to different starting points of power and expertise of different groups and representatives and aim to create a “level playing field” of exchange. It needs to be inclusive of all the voices who “need to be at the table” and still offer the “safety” of free expression and exploration of possibilities that can only come in an environment of mutual trust. Some workshop participants described the challenge of the group as moving from an understanding of the power of independent thinking and action to the power of interdependent thinking and action.

2 – Ask difficult “worst case scenario” questions up front to know how to get back on track in the event of a breakdown.

In many contexts, the contemporary expectation of public-private-civil society organization relationships in the development process is combative relationships, obfuscation, or collusion. From such a starting point, the task of forming a respectful partnership among equals, and keeping the parties honest throughout the process, is one not to be underestimated. While a typical development process may value the privacy of key information above all, and the efficiency dividend of a streamlined, professional approach, this can be a recipe for mistrust and misgivings in a partnership. To function effectively in the long term, this structure requires more up-front work by the group to address project goals and how they align with individual member goals, principles that could serve the partnership well to develop a unique partnership work culture, and to foresee “worst case scenarios” in order to ensure that measures can be put in place up-front to rebuild with more resiliency in the case of any breakdown between members. Having such difficult conversations up-front, some workshop participants agreed, would go a long way to creating that sense of trust and “intimacy” within the group mentioned in point 1.

3 – Participation vampires, participation fatigue, and other engagement thresholds. 

Building a trusting and inclusive neighbourhood development partnership takes time. In order to achieve a mutual vision, set of goals, and mix of actions for a model neighbourhood, it also seems fitting to form and solidify the partnership as the first order of business. But not all key partners are in a position to participate from the very outset, and others may need to drop off mid-course. Under these conditions, determining the start and end point, pacing and intensity of engagement of a partnership are questions that need to be asked. Issues of particular concern to participants included the evocative phrase of “partner vampires” who take more than they contribute. One member’s participation fatigue may be another partner’s authentic engagement threshold, in a partnership made up of diverse perspectives and approaches to the work of neighbourhood-building.

4 – Ensure all participants value the partnership process itself as you go forward.

On this question of finding a balance between self-interest and the interests of the groups in neighbourhood development outcome, some participants emphasized that a key test of whether the participants are indeed “right” for the partnership is whether they see the partnership process itself as having value for them. This interest in seeing an effective partnership flourish can hold enough power to see a group through difficult changes in project goals and specific deliverables. When all partners have an interest in the process of partnership, space will exist for more frank discussion and building the competency and interest of all members of the group in posing and pursuing research questions.

5 – Diversity of participants is an ethical safeguard in its own right.

Whereas researchers are accustomed to being bound by standards of ethics maintained by an independent ethics board, such bodies do not exist for neighbourhood development partnerships. The work of drawing a line between what can and cannot be disclosed, what should be attributed to whom, and fair and principled flows of information, relationships and money still needs to be improvised, group by group –some, but not all, of this work can be taken on by ethics boards of different institutional members of a partnership. Some workshop participants pointed to diversity of perspectives and institutions within a partnership as a key to balancing key questions of ethical and equitable practice. Reporting of progress based on measures that are important to the full gamut of partners can also serve the aspiration of an ethical partnership well.

These responses provided to us by workshop participants are based upon their own experiences of successful and not so successful partnerships.  Some are drive by normative values brought by these participants, others by hard lessons learned.  They demonstrate the danger of taking collaboration for granted, but also demonstrate the benefit of introspection into the collaborative, integrative and multidisciplinary approach that underpins sustainable neighbourhood development.  Collaboration and the bringing together of multiple and divergent viewpoints, skills, expertise, and disciplines is similar to the need to consider the discrete dimensions of sustainability as they contribute to the whole, much like the discrete dimensions of the ecourbanism framework that contribute to ideal of the model sustainable neighbourhood:  each component has equal value toward the end result.

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