Organizing for urban sustainability:

A summary model of social change
  Don Alexander

The following is an overview of a model of social change introduced at a workshop held this past July at the Community Development Institute entitled "The Ecological Footprint, Land Use, Community Issues and Community Action: Exploring the Barriers to Sustainability." It is being elaborated on in greater depth in a manuscript currently under preparation. This brief summary assumes an urban context and a focus on municipal activism.

The model starts from the assumption that to encourage social change in the direction of a more sustainable society, one must identify the major power-holders that constitute leverage points for achieving institutional change [see diagram]. These are four-fold (hereafter referred to as the "four estates"). The first consists of politicians and business leaders (for instance, developers in the municipal context). Their power consists of the ability to pass forward-looking official plans, pass progressive zoning by-laws, and mandate the creation of other policies for the conduct of the municipality's business. For instance, by agreeing to a particular policy envelope for the proposed Southeast False Creek `sustainable community' City Council is able to lay the basis for the creation of a truly innovative and `environmentally-friendly' development. On the private sector side, private developers and financial institutions (such as VanCity) are able to promote innovative approaches to development, and encourage the growth of `home-grown' approaches to environmental and social problems.


At senior levels of government, politicians are able to pass legislation which can profoundly shape the rules governing the conduct of society's affairs, as with the growth management legislation enacted in the states of Washington and Oregon. Though not relied upon as heavily in Canada in relation to municipal matters, the courts are also a powerful arena whereby the first estate can effect social change. One need only think of the effective use of litigation made by First Nations, and how the resulting rulings have profoundly changed the political landscape, to see the truth of this.

The second estate, the bureaucracy, in both the public and private sectors, is in a position to influence public and private decision-makers by conducting research and formulating draft policies and regulations. In a municipal context, planners, engineers, health officials, and other city bureaucrats create the envelope within which development and public amenities take shape, and are key players in the evolving drama of Southeast False Creek.

The third estate consists of the general public, and the various social movements that enjoy its support to varying degrees. The environmental movement has been particularly effective in recent years in forcing government and business to acknowledge the necessity for more sustainable policies, even if this if often echoed more in rhetoric than in action on the ground. Nonetheless, when concessions and progressive initiatives are wrung from the powers-that-be, this creates a precedent for even more victories. The price of success, of course, is permanent vigilance since previous gains are always in danger of being undermined by changes in administration and in budgetary priorities.

The fourth estate consists of various "opinion-makers" - those who shape the views of society more generally. The mass media are pre-eminent among these, though religious and cultural leaders, and educators, also play an important role. Each of these "estates" plays an essential role and enlisting their support, however grudging, is the challenge facing social change activists. Each group is amenable to certain kinds of strategic pressure, and the trick of social change involves learning how to be effective in mobilizing their potential as agents of change.

The various strategies employed to influence these groups can be likened to the diversity of tools that make up the activist's toolbox. If one is engaged in a carpentry project, one would not be content to use only one tool. A hammer, a saw, a plane, and a screwdriver would likely all come in handy. Similarly, in social change one must learn to use all the tools at one's disposal.

The strategy most appropriate for influencing politicians and businesspeople is that of electoral pressure and lobbying. In a municipal context, one might try to get new, more sympathetic, councillors elected. Or, if one doesn't have the resources to do that, then one might hold candidates debates or publicize candidates' positions on key policy issues, so that electors might vote more knowledgeably on election day. In between elections - on specific policy issues - one can "get out the troops" for major council decisions and make sure they represent as broad a cross-section of the public as possible. This has proved effective at key "decision points" in the evolution of the Southeast False Creek issue.

The main strategy for influencing bureaucrats is to do policy work. This involves analyzing the comparative costs and benefits of existing and proposed policies, and demonstrating instances where the advocated policies have been implemented with positive results. Working to activists' advantage is the "bandwagon effect" - jurisdictions are often quite aware of what is being done elsewhere, and don't want to feel that they're out of step or "backward." Activists and sympathetic professionals have been quite successful in winning over certain sections of the city bureaucracy to the value of implementing more sustainable planning policies, as evidenced might by the momentum to create a "sustainable community" in Southeast False Creek.

The main strategy for influencing the general public is direct action, both political and lifestyle. Political direct action involves dramatizing key public policy issues - such as the logging of old growth forests, the disappearance of single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, or the demolition of heritage landmarks - by civil disobedience, marches and demonstrations, and strikes or boycotts, which also have the effect of pressuring decision-makers and attracting media attention. Lifestyle direct action involves taking action in one's daily life, and thereby setting an example for one's fellow citizens. Lifestyle direct action includes things like community gardening, walking and cycling to work, engaging in stream stewardship, making one's house or business more energy efficient, and patronizing environmentally responsible businesses and products.

The main strategy for influencing the opinion-makers is through engaging in research and communication. By gathering information on the system's misdeeds, or on promising alternatives, and disseminating it through the appropriate channels, one can have an impact that extends far beyond one's own social network, especially if one learns how to adapt it to the needs of the particular medium in question.

Of course, institutional change is never enough by itself. The City of Vancouver, and the GVRD, already have policies on the books that support walking, cycling, and transit ahead of private automobile use. The fact that they have not been fully implemented has partly to do with a lack of resources. But, more importantly, it has to do with the fact that the public at large is still very pro-automobile. Any government that attempted single-handedly to force society out of their cars, without broad public support, would be doomed to defeat at the next election. Institutional change very much requires, and supports, individual change. While politicians feel that they cannot act without a strong public mandate, it is equally true that individuals can't act effectively on their progressive instincts - as with recycling or taking transit - unless governments or businesses put the appropriate alternatives in place, or at least facilitate their use.

And even once the alternatives are in place, people won't use them unless they undergo a profound change in their thinking and habits. These are influenced by what I call the "four layers of socialization." The first level consists of ideas. Often people are ignorant or misinformed about the impacts of common everyday products or practices. They may not know, for instance, about the deleterious effects associated with urban sprawl. The strategy associated with changing ideas is education. Education is commonly undertaken by activists and institutions alike - for instance, through campaigns against smoking or drinking and driving. However, education, while helpful, is rarely sufficient to change people's behaviour, which is invariably rooted in deeper layers of habit and socialization.

So, a second layer that needs to be addressed is that of values. A potentially effective strategy for influencing values is to encourage participation and citizenship. If people are asked to identify the values and priorities which they feel are good for their children, and for society as a whole - for instance, reducing automobile use or encouraging recycling to improve the quality of the environment - then it becomes more difficult for them to justify continuing with old habits that promote the "bads" which they have publicly sought to eliminate.

Much of our behaviour is motivated at a primitive level by character traits, such as laziness or selfishness. For instance, we know that it's wrong to drive our cars everywhere but, faced with stress, we find it so much more convenient. Or, faced with a significant price difference between the environmentally responsible product, and the traditional one which is cheaper, we opt to save money. In this situation, social learning offers a potential solution. Social learning can take two forms: dialogue or experience with the people or ecosystems which are affected by our actions (nothing like a trip to the municipal landfill to get us to think twice about how much we throw out!), or a change in the structure of incentives and disincentives that shape our behaviour. If instead of being given free parking at work, we are forced to pay or, alternatively, paid the cash equivalent if we walk or cycle, it might change the calculus of costs and benefits enough to make us change our behaviour. Hence, the value of "full cost pricing," so that we are no longer rewarded for using or consuming products that are socially and ecologically harmful.

A final layer of socialization involves needs and wants. We have been conditioned to think that it is more satisfying and fulfilling to live in isolated houses out in suburbia, or to eat a diet full of animal protein, fat, and processed foods. Maybe, somewhere deep inside of us, we actually desire a stronger sense of community or want to feel healthier and more fit. Through the creation of alternatives, such as co-housing and food stores that offer organic and locally produced (and hence fresher) foods, we may discover that we what is better for society and for the environment actually makes us feel good too. However, the alternatives have to actually be in place and be viable in order to lure people, who might be questioning their lifestyles, to try them.

The more people change their ideas, values, character traits, and needs and wants, the more supportive they become of institutional change, and the more they begin to demand new ways of doing things of government and business. Individual change supports institutional change and vice versa, each becoming the indivisible components of wider societal change. By learning to use, and value, all the tools of institutional and individual change, we can more readily work to create the sustainable society of the future.