What is Civic Ecology?

Civic Ecology is the integrated web of energy, nutrient, resource, financial, information and cultural flows, envisioned, created, and managed by citizens acting for the common good.

– Definition by SERA Architects

Who Are We?

The Mission

The Institute for Civic Ecology is an initiative created by SERA Architects in Portland, Oregon to bring whole systems democracy to communities and institutions. Our mission is to empower North American communities to take a whole-systems approach to achieving resilience and enduring prosperity by facilitating citizen-led partnerships and helping entrepreneurs envision, implement and manage integrated patterns of energy, water, food, materials, waste, economic, information and cultural resource flows for the shared good of their community.

The Principals

Communities that develop and nurture their Civic Ecology enjoy five essential benefits:

  1. A high degree of control. By creating a shared vision along with the adaptive framework and embedded systems necessary for implementation, citizens maintain more control of their community assets and collective future. Community ownership and control is enhanced by charting progress towards developing systems that rely largely on locally-based resources.
  2. Enduring wealth. Because Civic Ecology integrates systems flows across sectors, it is possible for a community to realize the multiple benefits of ecological, economic, and social wealth. The common alternative pits the economic, ecological, and social camps in “zero-sum game” opposition, resulting in economic growth at the expense of ecological and social impoverishment.
  3. Community resilience. Integrated systems that are locally created and managed generally result in richness and redundancy. An example is a diverse economic base of locally-owned businesses and local resource inputs that is less affected by rising transportation and labor costs. These businesses are less likely to “up and leave” the community for a better deal elsewhere because they are of the community. This local web contributes to a
  4. community’s resilience, allowing it to weather the inevitable peaks and valleys.
  5. An enhanced sense of place. With globalization, and the increasing homogeneity that accompanies it, communities that are resilient, distinctively local, open, and adaptive – and ultimately unique – will succeed as valued places to live, work, and play.
  6. A deep sense of community. Citizens of communities with a strong Civic Ecology share in learning about their community and envisioning its future. They also collaborate on designing the systems to implement that vision and labor together to keep the community on course. They work with strangers, friends, and occasionally enemies to create a collective future for themselves and the next generation. In doing so, they become citizens in-full and experience a true sense of community.
The Benefits

Communities with a strong or burgeoning Civic Ecology all share several essential qualities, which can be translated into five principles. Specifically, these communities:

  1. Employ a whole systems approach. Civic Ecology is the web of flows that animates community life. All great, enduring communities – whether rural farming villages, suburbs, urban neighborhoods, or institutions – have a refined array of locally-based systems that facilitate resource, economic, and social flows. Moreover, these flows cross sectors; that is, economic, ecological, and social systems are intertwined rather than set in opposition.
  2. Focus on place. The systems of flows must be focused within the community, and, to the greatest extent possible, must provide locally-produced
  3. energy, use local resources, enhance community economic multipliers, and draw upon social capital.
  4. Require a new social contract. Presently, paying taxes and voting in exchange for services are viewed as the defining factors of citizenship. Civic Ecology draws upon a community’s social capital by requiring active civic engagement in the creation, management, and monitoring of community systems.
  5. Match needs and assets. A community’s capacity to create a positive future is dependent on the assets and strengths it has developed over time. The whole systems approach seeks to understand problems in terms of their root causes and broader needs. Matching assets to needs is at the heart of creating community systems that will result in an enduring Civic Ecology.
  6. Are dynamic. Communities are continuously-evolving organisms. Because of this, Civic Ecology must be designed as a “learning ecology,” – a web of systems that adapts based on knowledge gained through constant vigilance and monitoring.
The Process

The Institute in collaboration with SERA Architects has created and tested a five step process that is tailored to each community and institution’s needs. To begin the process of creating Civic Ecology, a community must ask itself five essential questions:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be in 10, 20, 50 years and beyond?
  3. How do we get to where we want to be?
  4. How do we know if we are getting there?
  5. Who wants to help answer these questions?

These questions can be answered by completing the following CIVIC tasks:

Convening, Investigating, Visioning, Implementing, and Charting progress.

Convening: Convene a Civic Ecology working group consisting of stakeholders from all sectors of the community: business, non-profits, institutions, governance, citizens, and activists. These stakeholders must be willing to put in the time and effort necessary to see the process through and most importantly, work together on behalf of the community. The group will be trained in systems thinking in order to see their community and its future in a different way: as a web of interrelated systems and flows.

Investigating: In this task, the working group investigates what presently works, what does not work, what systems exist, and what the community needs. This assessment identifies problems and their root causes, as well as leverage points to effect change.

Visioning: This step begins by helping the community ask itself where it wants to be in 10, 20, 50 years and beyond. It may also be useful to predict where the community will be if existing trends are projected into the future. The outcome of this visioning can take a variety of forms but must always build upon the community’s shared core values.

Implementing: Led by the Civic Ecology working group, the community creates community-scaled systems to help realize its vision. Some systems may be new, others enhancements of existing systems that seem to be working. In either case, the systems must bring identified assets to bear in satisfying identified needs. The group must also acknowledge barriers, assign responsibilities, and delineate specific tasks and time frames for implementation.

Charting Progress: In this final, but never-ending task, the working group and community create a series of indicators that, when measured over time, will help the community assess progress towards realizing its vision. Periodic assessments and adjustments ensure that the Civic Ecology framework is truly a learning ecology.

Civic Ecology’s whole systems approach will yield a snapshot of the community’s desired future, the “software” necessary to achieve that future, and the ability to chart whether means and ends are in alignment. It provides the fundamental context necessary for making decisions about capital investment in “hardware” (buildings, streets, schools, parks, and utilities), economic revitalization, business growth and retention, main street improvements, and virtually anything related to the common good.