On the Appropriateness of Local Scale & the Importance of Place

An excerpt from ‘Exploring Participation’ (D.C.Wahl, 2002)

“No amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale.”149
— Wendell Berry

Any approach to sustainability imposed by centralized systems and outside forces is bound to fail, since the process of sustainability will be specific to each particular location, and it will not be possible to replicate one generic approach across scales.

Van der Ryn and Cowan argue that sustainability “will take endless forms, the very diversity of design possibilities helping to ensure that the whole patchwork quilt of technologies, cultures and values is sustainable. Bringing sustainability home is about growing a culture of sustainability that is suited to the particularities of place.”150 Intimate knowledge of a particular place and the way that long- and short-term cycles of environmental variables affect which behaviours are truly sustainable and which are not, grows over time in a local community.

“Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place. Therefore, it is small-scale and direct, responsive to both local conditions and local people. If we are sensitive to the nuances of place, we can inhabit without destroying.”151
— Van der Ryn & Cowan

Local cultures of sustainability evolve over time through a participatory community process. This process of learning is the process of sustainability. For learning of this kind to take place the feedback between actions and subsequent corrections, based on trial and error has to be fast and thus on a very limited scale.

People have to take responsibility and be accountable for their actions, functional redundancy has to be high, so failure of one localized trial doesn’t affect the whole community and control should be decentralized, so people can reach a local consensus regarding the decisions that affect them directly. All these are characteristics of resilient systems that allow for the communal process of designing a sustainable culture to take place. [Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. Be mindful that I wrote this 15 years ago and enjoy!]

David Orr argues that ecological design “requires a community of people applied to particular problems in a particular place over a long period of time.”152 He points out that:

“At a local scale, people’s actions are known and so accountability tends to be high. Production is distributed throughout the community, which means that no one individual’s misfortune disrupts the whole. Employment, food, fuel, and recreation are mostly derived locally, which means that people are buffered somewhat from economic forces beyond their control. Similarly, the decentralisation of control means that the pathologies of large-scale administration are mostly absent. Moreover, being situated in a place for generations provides long memory of the place and hence its ecological possibilities and limits. There is a kind of long-term learning process that grows from intimate experience of a place over time.”153
— David W. Orr

We have a lot to re-learn about the importance of place. We have to understand that through our relationship to the places in which we live we are expressing who we are. We are literally shaped by those relationships.

The architect Christopher Day writes: “Places are the outer framework within which we live our lives. The congruent wholeness or conflicting fragmentation of their sensory messages conveys their underlying individuality and works deeply in us.”154 Paying closer attention to the reciprocal relationship between us and the places we inhabit will enable us to feel and intuit, what is appropriate in a particular place. Christopher Day speaks about the genius loci, the spirit of a place, which developed over time and continuously changes and grows. He believes that:

“Wholeness and integrity depend upon the place’s underlying, invisible ecology. Spirit-of-place is influenced by human thought and action: how places are used revered, un-valued or exploited affects them… Listening to a place’s past will tell us where it wants to go in the future: what it needs, what it can’t accept, what would be sustainable and what wouldn’t.”155
— Christopher Day

Goethean science has developed a methodology for a consensus based design process that takes such listening to the particularities of a place seriously. The collaboration between Magaret Colquhoun, a Goethean scientist and the architect Christoipher Day, with many years of experience in consensus -design has been particularly fruitful. Day regards present place as past-formed. He believes that “if we dismiss the old and only value the new and exciting, we devalue our present selves. For the past, its traditions and knowledge, heritage and continuum, embodies who we were, so how we’ve come to be as we are. Like wise if we only value the past, dismissing the future, we devalue everything that inspires us to make the world a better place — and more than this we deny life.”156 Day believes that we have to take both the wisdom of tradition, the intimate local knowledge of a place into account, as well as create visions for the future through a participatory approach to design. He writes:

“The more participatory are processes of forming, changing and caring for places, the stronger will these be. Above all, and directly resulting from these, they must be places of beauty. Places so made imbue matter with spirit meaning. This alone can justify the environmental costs which all building, even the most eco-friendly, carries. Striving to do things this way moves beyond mere sustainability concerns — they become too integrated to separate out — to sustenance. Actions dedicated to human healing have influence on wider issues — healing our environment as well as ourselves.”157
— Christopher Day
Genius Loci by Red Earth (National Trust)

I will discuss this crucial relationship between individual and overall health in more detail later. Let me now clarify another important point. In making an argument for the appropriateness of local scale and the importance of meeting human needs within the boundaries and limits of their local environment, one is often misunderstood as advertising a return to the narrow-minded localism of the past, but this is not what I argue for. I simply believe that in order to design for humanity’s appropriate participation in the processes of life, we have to integrate the need of a particular local culture to the matter and energy flows of its local environment and rely as little as possible on far-flung ecological subsidies.

The only way we will make progress in learning about sustainability and appropriate participation is if we understand that we will have to protect the local environment through responsible participation in locally sustainable communities on a global scale. I agree with Christopher Day’s statement that:

“For better or worse, globalism is here to stay. Better and worse! Socially it’s broadening; culturally, enriching; but economically, disempowering — with the social (and cultural) consequences of being victim to global capital agendas. Global and local, though polarities, aren’t mutually exclusive. In our global world, the challenge is to be local, be in the place in which you are now. To re-find roots and anchor connections to place.”158
— Christopher Day

[Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. It addresses some of the root causes of our current crises of unsustainability. If you are interested in the references you can find them here. The research I did for my masters thesis directly informed my 2006 PhD thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (2006), and after 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert-generalist in whole systems design and transformative innovation, I published Designing Regenerative Cultures with Triarchy Press in May 2016.]