Community responses to global complexity: Planning Sustainable Communities and the Transition Movement

Barnes, Philip
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University of Delaware
Local communities are under increased pressure to develop socio-economically by accommodating the forces of global complexity. Yet global complexity is incredibly energy and resource intensive and generates net negative consequences for environments and communities at all scales. Local communities experience adverse impacts when they accommodate global complexity, especially technological dependence, loss of self-governance, and inequitable distributions of resources. Furthermore, when they accommodate global complexity, local communities contribute to its growth which amplifies the impacts and ultimately perpetuates a harmful cycle. This dissertation identifies and evaluates two alternative development strategies that are increasingly popular with communities, Planning Sustainable Communities and the Transition Movement, to determine if they are effective and viable responses to global complexity and its local impacts. Planning Sustainable Communities is an urban planning reform effort that seeks to align planning practice with the sustainable development framework. The Transition Movement is a grassroots development strategy designed to prepare communities for the impacts of peak oil, climate change, and a dysfunctional global economy. Data is collected through a review of the responses' literature, semi-structured interviews with practitioners, participant observation, and an open-ended survey. The borough of Media, Pennsylvania, where both responses are currently implemented, is examined to add depth of understanding to the analysis. The data is thematically structured and evaluated against relevant criteria: increasing community technological independence, strengthening local self-governance, enhancing distributive equity, and confronting and mitigating growth in global complexity. The analysis demonstrates that both responses are effective and viable development strategies that can generate net positive outcomes for local communities, while the Transition Movement response is more effective than the Planning Sustainable Communities response at mitigating growth in global complexity. To improve their performance going forward, both responses must acknowledge, confront, and avoid the potentially inequitable outcomes that could arise through their local community development strategies. Finally, to generate co-beneficial outcomes and amplify the positive outcomes for local communities, numerous recommendations are offered whereby the two responses can cooperate and work together to achieve shared goals.