Civic Ecology: A Citizen-Driven Framework for Suburban Communities

by | December 9, 2013 0 Urban Design + Planning

This paper was presented by Tim Smith at the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference on June 26, 2013 at The Governor Hotel  in Portland, Oregon. Tim was also interviewed as part of this conference on Citizen Engagement via Civic Ecology.

Reshaping suburbia suggests a shift toward mixed use, green buildings, complete streets, densification and transit oriented development… in other words, greener, more efficient forms of suburban “hardware.” While these strategies may lead towards greater efficiency, transformative change will require deeper intervention beyond re-forming and efficiency. Suburban areas must be re-imagined as whole communities animated by active citizenship. In this role they become the place for civic engagement around shared prospects for a resilient future.

This paper describes the Civic Ecology framework for sustainable communities and its application for suburban contexts. Civic Ecology is the integrated web of energy, nutrient, resource, financial, information, and cultural flows and interactions that are envisioned, created, and managed by citizens acting for the common good within a geographically-defined community and its city-region. It is a human ecology of place, intimately integrating both natural and social/cultural systems. It is the “software” of community.

The Civic Ecology whole systems framework is designed to foster a new social contract that empowers citizens to participate in the making and ‘ownership’ of their community’s resource flows. This paper details Civic Ecology principles and benefits, and processes for empowering citizens to envision, create, and manage their community’s “software”. Included are examples of communities employing this approach and utilizing an innovative community resource flow mapping tool.

The Civic Ecology framework represents a new paradigm for suburbia, a soft systems urban design that goes beyond more efficient urbanization and toward deep sustainability.

A Living Community Framework for Sustainability

A successful strategy for building sustainable communities relies on a new level of civic participation. Tim Smith, Principal at SERA, has defined a framework for communities of all sizes to shape their own vision of a sustainable future, and join together to work toward that vision. In his work as an architect and planner over more than two decades, Tim has come to view communities as ecosystems. Just as ecologists study the relations of organisms to each other and their environments, Civic Ecology focuses on the web-like pattern of relations between humans, natural resources, and economies in a particular place to reveal insights for shaping healthy, thriving, sustainable communities.

Energy flows, local food production systems, local-global economic webs, social networks, community governance, and resource sharing networks are just some of the community systems that, when synergized in a specific place, constitute a complex human ecosystem or “Civic Ecology.”


Emphasize Software vs. Hardware

Much of the conversation around sustainable development has focused on designing better “hardware” – energy efficient buildings; renewable energy; leaner, greener infrastructure. While these manifestations of sustainability in the built environment are important, SERA recognizes that they are not the whole solution. Great communities have great “software”, the self-initiated, self-perpetuating activities and social networks of local citizens. Civic Ecology illuminates that the software and hardware together, constitute a complete sustainable community.

The Civic Ecology workshops, run by Tim Smith and his team from SERA, energized the SE Portland sustainability community and promise to give it greater coherence and a new direction.” – Bryan Brumley, HACE

Recommit to local

A significant challenge with sustainability is the degree to which communities have become dependent on outside resources and economies.


Industries and small businesses that once defined towns have withered or gone elsewhere. Meanwhile nearly all food and energy is purchased from sources originating hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Individuals and whole communities struggle to meet basic needs, often giving up control over their own resources. Civic ecology emphasizes the need for appropriate scale of place, where systems are focused within the community, and, to the greatest extent possible, provide locally produced energy, use local resources, enhance community economic multipliers, and draw upon social capital.

Map resource flows

The process of mapping resources flows on the neighborhood, town, or regional scale can shed some light on realities that are taken for granted by many citizens.

Where does our energy come from? Where does our water come from? Where does our food come from? How does money flow in and out of our community? What common resources do we share? How are these resources expended?


All communities have problems and needs; all communities have assets and capacities to help address those problems and needs. By identifying these flows, a community can begin to answer some questions.

Where are we now?

Where would we like to be?

How do we get there?

How do we know if we are getting there?

Who wants to help find out?

Activate social capital

A community that recognizes the wide-ranging benefits of local food production can come together to create a drastic shift from sourcing food at the grocery store, to sourcing food (and social capital) from community cooperatives and local farmers markets. Initially one may say, “Who has time to produce their own food?”

This is where social capital kicks in.

Are there students in the community? Are there seniors? Are there underemployed? Are there hobbyists?

Take Weaver’s Way Co-op  in Philadelphia, PA as a shining example of  the social impacts that can emanate from a community owned market. From farm education programs to a school-based cooperative food business run by students, the Co-op functions as both a viable market and a philanthropic entity run by the community for the community.

Food is just one example. The map of resource flows will inspire countless ideas that can be adopted and championed by passionate citizens.

SERA’s latest series of Civic Ecology work sessions in the Hawthorne business district and surrounding neighborhoods of Southeast Portland left us particularly inspired by the ability of people of all ages and backgrounds to rally around common goals.

The process was part of the Hawthorne Area Civic Ecology (HACE) project, a collaborative effort of businesses, residents, and organizations along Hawthorne Boulevard and in surrounding neighborhoods, passionate about building community.

Together, they’ve dedicated extensive time and resources to help generate ideas for socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable projects that they can get up and running with the help of their neighbors, area schools, and local businesses and organizations.

Maximize the benefits

SERA has witnessed that 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 embedded systems necessary for implementation, citizens maintain more control of their community assets and collective future.

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.

3. Community resilience.

Integrated systems that are locally created and managed generally result in richness and redundancy.

4. An enhanced sense of place.

Communities that are resilient, distinctively local, open, and adaptive – and ultimately unique – will succeed as valued places to live, work, and play.

5. A deep sense of community.

Citizens of communities with a strong Civic Ecology share in learning about their community and envisioning its future. 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.

TEDx Concordia University – Tim Smith | May 2011

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