Building resilient and strong neighbourhoods is more important than ever, especially in the face of climate change and other societal stressors. To face these challenges, neighborhood and small grassroots groups are organizing across cities in Ontario. These groups strengthen their local communities by focusing on initiatives such as sharing resources, establishing community gardens, working on local waste reduction strategies, and advocating for active transportation networks. A common theme of their work is connection, connecting with people and connecting with nature.
Larger umbrella organizations help in aiding and empowering the work of grassroots groups focused on neighbourhood and other related civic matters. While many of them were not formed to directly tackle resiliency issues, they have always advocated for strong and healthy communities. These umbrella groups can aid in building urban resilience by connecting grassroots groups together, supporting them financially on projects, and putting them in touch with appropriate municipal staff and politicians. Together with municipal governments, umbrella organizations hold a pivotal role in providing stable leadership for smaller neighbourhood and grassroots groups to function well.
The focus of this paper will be to showcase some of the neighbourhood-scale resilience building efforts of London, Ontario. In particular, attention will be given to the empowering work of London’s umbrella group for neighbourhood and civic groups, the Urban League of London. A case study will investigate how a relatively new neighborhood association, Kensington Village Association, has been empowered to build a strong and resilient neighbourhood using three simple building blocks of resilience.
I. FOR CITY-WIDE RESILIENCE, URBAN UMBRELLAS ARE NEEDED
The Urban League of London (commonly referred to as the League) is an example of an umbrella organization that can foster and enhance the resilience building work of local neighbourhood groups (such as neighbourhood or taxpayers’ associations) and grassroots groups (such as environmental, civic, or cultural groups) which are building sustainable and successful communities.
The League was formed fifty years ago with the intent of forming a city-wide (umbrella) group to represent each member neighbourhood association to speak on behalf of broader city issues and to build capacity within each group. From those early days it has grown into its existing structure as a charitable organization with over forty members made up of neighbourhood groups, environmental organizations, individuals, and other community-oriented groups. Of the League’s community groups, seven out of thirteen are environmental groups. The League works with these groups to strengthen resident connections and amplify their voices on important city issues.
The League’s members are incredibly active. Many host events and campaigns throughout the year to advocate for change or to engage their community. By having a basis of trust, they are better able to respond to conflict or opportunity when an issue arises in their community.
Moreover, the League offers workshops, networking events, conferences, and campaigns that build the capacity of our member organizations. In 2017, the League co-organized the Resilient Cities Conference which showcased a variety of speakers regarding building a resilient community. In 2017-18, the League also organized a workshop series on how member organizations can improve communicating their messages, recruit volunteers, organize events, govern their group, and plan for the future.
Overall, having well-functioning and connected communities is important because community groups are the social fabric of cities; they mitigate social isolation and build critical mass behind important social, cultural, and environmental issues. Since they are the backbone of cities, they are able to advocate for change when necessary. A great example of an association advocating for change as well as putting it into action is work done by Kensington Village Association, one of London’s youngest ULL members. The following case study showcases how a community can come together and build neighbourhood resilience one block at a time in a very short period of time.
II. BUILDING NEIGHBOURHOOD RESILIENCE ONE FOOD FOREST AT A TIME
Kensington Village is an older neighbourhood located just west of London’s downtown with about 500 mostly single-family dwellings. The Kensington Village Association (KEVA) was formed in 2015 by a group of neighbours who were actively working on a project called the Wood Street Park Food Forest (Figure 2). Food forests are fruit and nut producing gardens planted to mimic forests both in their structure and in their function. The community chose this project because many of the neighbours felt that issues of food security, healthy food, and children’s health were important values to integrate into the community’s daily life. What the residents did not realize was that the main outcome of the food forest project was the bringing together of an entire neighbourhood into a much more cohesive unit – a community with strong relationships of trust and caring.
Since its inception, the fruits of the edible forest garden have been multiplying. Not only have the apple trees and raspberry bushes started budding, but social fruits of the garden have also been steadily growing. Wood Street Park has been turned into a thriving outdoor community centre where the community comes together to work, play, celebrate, and give thanks. During the last three years, KEVA has built a community gazebo, extended the size of the original food forest, and provided ongoing maintenance of the park.
Through grants from the City of London, KEVA has purchased an apple cider press and several large tents. These physical amenities have given agency to organize community events such as summer concert series, Saturday morning community cafes, community celebrations on Canada Day and Harvest Day, youth plays and Indigenous sunrise ceremonies (Figure 3). The food forest has been the site of educational workshops to learn about tree maintenance and to increase food literacy for children. Naturally, the park is also frequently used for informal gatherings.
Figure 1. Kensington Village Association in action on May 21, 2015 when over 75 residents came together to plant a food forest in one of London’s smallest parks, Wood Street Park. The day, which started as a tree planting activity, organically turned into a community celebration with potluck lunch, children’s activities and musical performances by local musicians. Photo by G. Sass.
KEVA’s sustainability and resilience-building work has been recognized externally and is growing deeper roots to reach out to the wider London community. The Urban League awarded its Green Brick Award to KEVA in 2017 for the unique community space created in Wood Street Park. The City of London selected Kensington Village as one of London’s Active and Green Communities which is a designation to recognize and foster ‘active and green’ initiatives such as active mobility choices as well as improving energy efficiency of residences.
Figure 2. The City of London funded the community-built gazebo, situated in the middle of the food forest at Wood Street Park, which has given agency to hold a variety of community events such as concerts, Indigenous sunrise ceremonies and Saturday morning cafes. Photo by G. Sass.
KEVA’s experience shows that one of the key building blocks of community resilience is relationships – not just amongst the people living in a neighbourhood – but also between people and the ecosystems they are embedded in, even if they reside in the middle of the city (Figure 4). Trusting and caring relationships are built over time and manifest in things such as the number of people that show up to community events, the quality of food brought to a community potluck, and the number of people signed up to email lists and social groups.
Another important resilience-building block is resources. These range from financial funds through to physical space and equipment. As a beneficiary of City of London and local fundraising efforts, KEVA has planted two food forests and a community pollinator garden, built a gazebo, purchased a community owned cider press and tents, and paid for professional concert series. The sharing nature of the neighbourhood is evident when resources are needed to put on community events, such as potluck meals and community garage sales.
Figure 3. Building blocks of a resilient neighbourhood which include relationships, resources, and re-imagination. The more a neighbourhood has of these three basic building blocks the higher the resiliency.
The final building block is re-imagination. Citizens, communities, and cities are reimagining what urbanism means in the 21st century, putting more emphasis on diversity and inclusivity. Diversity in ways of thinking and approaching problems leads to more options for dealing with opportunities and challenges. Inclusivity, on the other hand, means that more people feel welcomed and empowered to take part and to take action in their communities.
Recently, two specific events have tested how KEVA handles stress and demonstrates its resilience. During April of 2018, upwards of 20 homes were flooded in the low-lying part of the neighbourhood. Members of the community rose to the occasion and offered their help to those impacted by the flooding. Citizens were lending equipment, providing moral support, and opening communication channels with city officials. Additionally, on November 8th, 2018, a police standoff closed a large segment of one of the local streets for over eight hours which resulted in many people being locked out of their homes. Residents extended their support for their neighbours by inviting them in to their homes and offering a place to stay for the night.
For both stressful events, the lines of communication were open and up-to-date information was available to those affected. These outcomes are the hallmarks of a resilient community, or at least one that is more resilient than it was five years ago. Can KEVA now cope with anything that is thrown at it? Of course not. However, KEVA has integral building blocks in place to cope and adapt with adversity in light of an uncertain future.
III. WHAT CAN OTHER COMMUNITIES LEARN FROM KENSINGTON VILLAGE AND THE URBAN LEAGUE?
KEVA demonstrates the power that transpires when a community comes together to create resiliency through the simple acts of connection, resource sharing, and food growing. It can start simple, as easy as organizing a community potluck, a porch concert, or a street cleanup. From there, personal connections are made, and friendships may develop that not only reduce isolation but can also be useful in times of need or crisis. If there is capacity and will to move beyond these initial connections, a group can form to plan for shared community assets such as a small community garden, a tool lending library, or a food forest.
Resiliency isn’t about protection from calamity; it is about creating the kind of neighbourhoods we all want to live in. These are places where people belong, have a shared purpose, and serve the basic needs of the community including food, energy, and even jobs. When thinking about how to replicate this in other communities it is important to consider that resiliency was not the main goal of KEVA’s work or the work that the League does. Connection and the shared vision of a strong community are at the root of these initiatives. Is it possible to build more vibrant, resilient, and inclusive communities? Absolutely – and it starts by getting to know our neighbours.