Nurture to grow

Nurturing the Carrying Capacity of Communities

In structural engineering the concept of “carrying or bearing capacity” of soil refers to “a given mass of soil’s resilience and receptivity to infrastructure such as buildings or bridges before it begins to degrade.” Similarly, in agriculture as with mono-cropping for example, the question with regarding to carrying capacity is: “how often can the same crop be planted in any given field, before the nutrients in the soil are leached and the soil begins to degrade?” Understanding the carrying capacity of the environment/context is vital to sustainable development.

Communities also have carrying capacity, which to say they can achieve amazing things, but it is also important to stress that that’s not unlimited and should not be exploited. Communities, like soil, can only take so much downward pressure before social capital starts to crumble. Cars, longer working hours, consumerism, individualisation, atomization, professionalization of care and neighbourliness, and an average of eight hours a day on screens, all combine to create crushing downward pressures on our communities.

So how can we learn more about the carrying capacity of a given community? And, more to the point, how can we better respect existing capacity and support it to grow naturally: at the speed of trust?

Advice for outside helpers?

Most communities have services of one kind or another. Some have experienced years of different agencies working with them. Many of which operate from their narrow focus, such as youth agencies working only with younger people, older people’s services only working with senior citizens; disability services only serving people with disabilities and so on. The unintended consequence of working in this way is that it has caused further atomisation to people’s sense of community, and the consequent depletion of carrying capacity.

Since the traditional siloed approach in effect treats communities like tangerines, in that it segments members by age and condition. In this way people end up being inadvertently defined out of community and redefined as service users and patients. This form of siloed service delivery has had a similar effect on the social capital of communities as has mono-cropping on our land and wider ecologies.

Now, on top of this; triggered by austerity, communities are experiencing a new phenomenon in terms of their relationships with outside agencies, whereby agencies are telling people, after decades of service delivery, that they can no longer work this way, as it’s neither sustainable nor empowering. Instead communities are being told they must do more for themselves and each other. In short, the current message to communities from agencies is: you will have to carry more of the responsibility, because the agencies have less resources. I wonder if the agencies and indeed the communities fully appreciate the irony that underpins that message? The irony being that the agencies who are telling communities to use more of their carrying capacity, are the self-same agencies who have inadvertently eroded that carrying capacity for decades, and are currently not doing enough to build it back up.

The irony becomes more acidic when one considers that some agency leaders are asking communities to take on referrals, in the shape of folk that previously were highly service dependent, yet not providing the community with the necessary supports to build the carrying or receiving capacity to do that well. At times, it seems as if community building is the horse that every agency is backing, but few are actively and properly supporting. If we are to get past this we need to take Bill Mollison’s advice.

Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture, advises that land and people can be thought of through the lens of two basic questions:

“What can I get from this land, or person?


What does this person, or land, have to give, if I cooperate with them?

Of these two approaches, the former leads to war and waste, the latter to peace and plenty.”

As policy makers and agency leaders look to communities as a means of reducing demand on beleaguered public services, they would be wise to ask the latter question, and avoid like the plague the former. The impulse of outside agencies to seek to harvest or harness community assets to back fill for services they once funded is a sign of poor stewardship and short termism. Support agencies should instead be supporting residents in discovering what they have, and how they can connect what they have, to secure what they need.

Approaches like Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) should never be used as a replacement for services or programmes, since in fact they are not about the provision of services, but the strengthening of social capital within communities. Such approaches are not meant to save institutional systems money, they are meant to save people from a life of institutionalization, and to create community alternative to the systems world.

Achieving this demands a shift from agency-led delivery of services, to community-led discovery of assets. If policymakers are serious about reducing unhealthy dependence on healthcare and other systems, then they ought to be equally committed to investing in the community capacity to discover and connect assets that grow interdependence outside of ‘serviceland’. This needs to be done in way that does not leach the ground on which we all stand and depend. It must instead be done in a way that assures communities they will not be abandoned by outside agencies. Since the result of good stewardship in times of crisis is sufficiency and abundance, not scarcity and abandonment.

Good stewardship can only happen when we acknowledge that our welfare is nurtured at three levels:

  • There are things that communities do best, and outside agencies should facilitate them, and remove barriers to their efforts.
  • There are things that communities can do themselves but with some help from outside. Outside agencies should seek to be in right relationship with communities and provide proportionate support that does not displace or diminish community power.
  • There are things that communities need done for them by outside agencies. Agencies should seek to do those things in as transparent and accountable a way as possible.


Here’s the rub, to discover the capacities and functions underpinning each of these three levels in a way that does no harm to social capital, we must get the sequence correct. We need to start by learning from communities what they can do and care enough about to do, without help, then progress to hearing from communities what they can do with some support, and only then what external resources are needed. The logic that underpins this is simple: communities can’t possibly know what external supports they need, until they first know what internal capacities they have. Currently far too many agency conversations are starting and remain stuck on the third level, and without proper investment in community building they will remain there. The third question phenomenon has led to a form of top-down service delivery; tantamount to mono-cropping, it has engendered an erosion of social capital and a high level of dependence on external resources that are disappearing before our very eyes. That needs to change, for everyone’s sake, and that change must begin with the commitment to re-seed associational life at the hyper-local level.

Cormac Russell

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  • Spot on. Excellent article.

    October 6, 2017 at 11:50 am
  • Euan Duguid

    Thought-provoking read, Cormac. Vivid analogies. Hope you are well. Euan

    October 7, 2017 at 1:50 am
  • Jane Pightling

    Great blog Cormac. I think with responsibility comes agency and the power to take decisions and act. In my recent experience there is a need to support communities to take up the responsibility and also to rediscover how to take collaborative decisions and call each other to action.

    October 9, 2017 at 9:28 am
  • Caitlyn McCarthy

    Very thought provoking – thanks Cormac. I look forward to our discussion on Monday. Caitlyn

    October 20, 2017 at 9:47 am

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