Ecological re-enlivenment and the role of the arts in community development

This summer I participated in an independent study with a group of graduate students exploring different methods of “ecological re-enlivenment.” Dr. John Browder, a professor in Urban Affairs and Planning here at Virginia Tech, uses this term to describe the end goal of environmental change efforts. Instead of going back to an environment that has been lost, re-enlivenment takes a step beyond restoration to discover ways to move forward to create a new ecosystem in an area whose previous one has been damaged. This idea appeals to me in its practicality and in its applicability to community development, my main subject of interest.

A key tenet of ecology is that ecosystems are constantly in flux. Disturbance and re-establishment are regular occurrences in any dynamic environment. Since no ecosystem is ever static, one cannot, as a practical matter, speak of simply returning it to a previous state of affairs. Unfortunately, as many scientists have observed, ecological restoration is often based on just such an assumption. So, too, I believe, are many social change efforts. That is, we often think the best (or even the only) way to help a community is to help it return to a previous state. Yet, for example, although community developers may want to bring back the middle-class manufacturing jobs that once fueled a robust American economy, they must face the reality that the opportunity to do so may no longer exist. Once those seeking to assist communities acknowledge this fact, they can take more informed action.

My summer project analyzed the role of the arts in re-enlivenment, a strategy I have found enlightening. Art is increasingly being used as a talking point, an organizing tool, and as a resource for the environmental movement. More than this, it is also being employed to create new spaces and centers of life. Quite literally, some artists have used their craft to transform ecologies. Mel Chin, whose 1991 work Revival Field employed plants to draw toxins out of a superfund site and who also displayed those designs at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is perhaps the most famous practitioner of this form of art making.

The same concept that underpinned Chin’s work has been applied in the social realm. Two of the community groups I visited and interviewed this summer—the Beehive Design Collective in Machias, Maine and Wormfarm Institute in Reedsburg, Wisconsin—are actively using art to revitalize communities and economies. Both have environmental foci as well, but a key piece of their value lies in their re-enlivenment of the towns in which they are located. While the Beehive Collective does impressive national and international work—in which they help communities address environmental destruction and globalization, creating new social connections, skills, and hope in the process—they also have actively worked to revitalize Machias, an old lumber town whose economy, like much of the state’s economy more generally, has faltered since that industry’s collapse in the 1990s. Their work restoring the town’s old Grange Hall is one example of the new environment they have helped to create. The Hall now hosts free summer camps for local children, serves as a location for community group meetings and activities and holds the annual Blackfly Ball, a mini music festival that brings hundreds of visitors to Machias each year.

Critically, the Beehive Collective did not attempt to return Machias to an old way of life; neither they nor anyone else can bring the lumber industry back and many environmentalists would argue against doing so even if this could occur. Rather, with community help and support, the Collective has helped to foster efforts to create a new town. “Re-enlivenment” implies change in the social as well as the ecological, if communities are to be created anew.

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i.The necessity of re-enlivenment in lieu of restoration is a point on which those involved with social movements should reflect. The food movement comes to mind as an example, due partly to my experience in it. Many of those involved in this effort want to destroy the corporate food system and put in its place a network of small farmers and producers — an idea with which it is easy to agree in principle, to be sure. But when one considers how to do this, I believe we should draw inspiration from the tenet of re-enlivenment that moving forward is far more realistic than going back. To paraphrase food justice activist LaDonna Redmond, whom I quoted in my last R&E piece, we cannot go back to a fair, just, and healthy food system that has never existed.

Sarah HFSarah Halvorson-Fried is a student in the Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning degree program at Virginia Tech. She received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Macalester College and has worked in agricultural education, engagement and community building in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Sarah currently serves as a graduate assistant in Partnerships and Engagement at the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech. Through her studies, she hopes to understand how public policy can more effectively facilitate community driven, equitable economic development.

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