Ann Dale and Jenny Onyx
Published May 2, 2007

Case Summary

The relationship between social capital and sustainable development is examined focusing on the nature of development in a small community. Maleny is a small town 90 km north of Brisbane, Australia. Formerly a dairy farming area, it underwent a major transformation with an influx of new residents in the 1970’s. Environmental degradation of the land was reversed and a mixed economy heavily reliant on small local co-operatives was created. There has been rapid growth over the past five years, and this growth is expected to continue.  Community cohesion, created through developing bonds to defend its community vision is examined focusing on the Obi Obi campaign to protect a piece of land in the town centre. The study documents a clash between different notions of development in this particular community.  

Sustainable Development Characteristics

Sustainable development can be regarded as a process of reconciliation of three imperatives: i) the ecological imperative to live within global biophysical carrying capacity and maintain biodiversity; ii) the social imperative to ensure the development of democratic systems of governance to effectively propagate and sustain the values that people whish to live by; and, iii) the economic imperative to ensure that basic needs are met worldwide. And equitable access to these three imperatives is fundamental to its implementation (Dale 2001; Robinson and Tinker 1997). In addition, for the purposes of this case study, to the three basic tenants of sustainable development (ecological, social, and economic imperatives) sustainable community development also includes the following: economic diversification and self-reliance; social justice through citizen empowerment and improved access to information, education, and meaningful and effective participation; ecological sustainability through community-based stewardship and the minimization of consumption and waste; and integration of economic, social and ecological strategies for, and models of, wellbeing and change.

Maleny scores high on several of these factors including: community connections; trust and safety; neighbourhood connections; tolerance of diversity; and, proactivity/ social agency.

Critical Success Factors

The most prominent factors that make this community unique are:

  1. concentration of diverse intellectual and social capital based upon bonding relationships between individuals;
  2. an active community with connections between individuals enabling a collective ability to work together;
  3. acceptance of diversity;
  4. a strong commitment to the environment; and,
  5. the openness of the local community to creating opportunities for community involvement with the result that almost 40% of the residents surveyed volunteer their time to community organizations.

Community Contact Information

Melissa Edwards
Phone: (w): 6 12 9514 3319
Mobile: 0403 807306

What Worked?

The Obi Obi campaign invoked community-wide reaction connected through collective ideas about the meaning of sustainable development of the town. Networks formed around this common issue to preserve the character of the local area and ensure a more sustainable vision of local development. A priori bonding social capital provided the foundation for the action to resist commercial development interests which would destroy a natural waterway and limit the capacity of the people to achieve their vision for their community based upon cooperation and local economic development.

What Didn’t Work?

The Obi Obi campaign is a primary example of government and developers failing to account for the social impacts of development with a resultant negative impact on the community involved. In this case, governments applied standard development plans across targeted growth areas, then development companies exacerbated the situation by merely replicating commercial building sites across regional areas without reference to what makes an environment and local community unique. Neither government nor developers had an understanding of the natural environment of the Obi Obi and the value placed on the species in the river, and even less understanding of the social dynamics of the community.  As well, conflict over what form of development, linked to the long-term viability of communities, is more sustainable will continue between traditional models of development, that is, large-scale, national and internationally centralized and locally-based economic development, especially cooperative structures.

Research Analysis

The sample for the analysis was drawn from three data sources including: a field study survey completed by 137 individuals from the community; in-depth interviews with 23 community members; and, field notes and secondary sources collected during a field study. (The field study survey of 137 individuals included the Onyx and Bullen social capital scale, previously tested across six urban and rural communities in Australia, and subsequently modified by the research team (composed of Onyx, Dale and Edwards).

The individuals interviewed were instrumental and active in the local community across a range of organizations. At the time of the field work, there was an ongoing event, called the Obi Obi campaign, involving a community wide initiative to defend the environmental characteristics of a block of land in the town centre.

Data was also included from the Maleny Working Together (MWT) project (Jordan & Hayden, 2003), which involved a household survey of 411 Maleny residents and provided a means for comparison and validation of the primary data collected for this study.

Detailed Background Case Description

Maleny has 136 community groups within the local area and 13 cooperative organizations ranging from those providing social services to product and information exchange. Maleny has the greatest concentration of cooperatives in rural Australia and is commonly referred to as the ‘Cooperative Capital’ (See Jordan, 2001). The case study interviewed people from many of these organizations. The research found that there is widespread volunteering, and strong interconnections exist between community organizations as individuals belong to many different groups simultaneously. Informally, this facilitates a critical flow of information between organizations and sharing of resources. There are several important occasions when these community organizations cooperated in large community wide events, many of which involve environmental issues.  

For example, the community organization, Barung Landcare, highlights this environmental and social connection. The central purpose of the Landcare movement is the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. Socially, the organization provides an opportunity for the building of social capital between diverse segments of the community that share a common environmental bond. One of the most outstanding examples of this social and environmental commitment was demonstrated when the Maleny community received an award for Environmental Citizen of the Year. This is significant as it pays tribute to the connectivity between all members of the community who were involved in the Obi Obi campaign. This community-wide campaign illustrates how community connections can be used successfully to preserve the environment.

The Obi Obi issue had its roots in the government Local Area Plan (LAP) development program from the late 1990s.  The state government gazetted the LAP, which included the Obi site as ‘open space’, giving it protection. Subsequently however, some of the features of the LAP were changed at the local level opening the Ob Obi site to development. The site was purchased by Cornerstone, a development conglomerate, which negotiated a lease with the Woolworths’ Grocery chain for the building of a shopping complex. There are several reasons why people were opposed to the development of the Obi Obi site. Firstly, development close to the river was considered environmentally destructive and a potential threat to the natural habitat of the platypus, an endangered species. Secondly, residents were opposed to the increase of traffic on the main street. Thirdly, people were concerned about the potential impact on local businesses, which could lose their trade, thereby reducing the community’s self sufficiency. More broadly, the action was associated with a movement in Australia against centralised grocery chains, which destroy local producer livelihoods and centralise manufacturing and distribution channels. Essentially, these issues are connected as direct opposition towards large-scale commercial development in Maleny. As a result, a large cross-section of the community, including retirees, landowners, dairy farmers, people in the cooperative movement, professionals, etc., has been involved in protests of various forms. Town hall meetings regularly had attendance in excess of 300 people to discuss action to delay the development. Action was loosely coordinated through the use of a phone tree and an email list, but people were primarily informed through word-of-mouth, further evidence of strong bonding social capital.

On April 14, 2004, a demolition company began bulldozing trees on the Obi Obi site. This met with a massive community response and action to protest the development – riot police had to hold back angry and hysterical protesters. Several residents, including some older and well-respected members of the community were arrested.  The day became known as ‘Destruction Day’ and it highlighted the need for greater organization against the developers. Subsequently, over more than 300 people attended a town meeting and some 15 self-appointed groups devised strategies for blocking the development. A self-appointed coordinating core held these semi-autonomous groups together. “Maleny Voice” became the legal entity, which then created a website to broadcast general information about the campaign. In spite of this solidarity, divisions between some groups within the community were also revealed. There were newcomers – young families, some of which commuted to larger urban centres for employment with consequent time restrictions, and retirees, some of whom were attracted to the sense of community, but did not actively engage with that community – who had been attracted to Maleny as a vibrant social community with a beautiful environment. Yet, it is because of these new population influxes that the development interest occurred in the first instance. Ironically, through their attraction to the sense of local community, but their inability to become involved in that community, these new groups were wearing down existing social bonds and destroying the basic social fabric to which they were first attracted.

The associated development of infrastructure, which is required to support an expanding population also placed new stresses on the environment, increasing the size of the town and altering its character. Government plans failed to account for the social impact of development, which exacerbated this situation – the state government targeted the area as a potential growth area without any consideration of the communities’ vision about what made their community sustainable. The Obi Obi campaign was a primary reaction to this. Such disconnects seem to smoulder beneath the surface of everyday community life until a major development issue arises as a spark, or a common outside threat. As development of the Obi Obi site progressed and tensions began to surface, the fabric of the community began to tear. Through the gathering of the diverse groups in the town hall, it became apparent some groups were not involved.  Political divisions occurred between those of differing political affiliations -- the more right-wing, conservative-aligned individuals who tended to believe that commercial development is favourable, and those of the more liberal, left persuasion who tended to align with what they see as a progressive vision of the local community. In addition, there were divisions between newcomers and long-term residents. The Obi Obi development became a lightening rod highlighting these fundamental divisions in Maleny, and their resolution will determine their subsequent social capital.

There is also continuing strong resistance to the Obi Obi development from the cooperative movement and local business owners. Underlying this is a desire to create as near as possible self-sufficient communities based upon local cooperation and place-bound networks.

Strategic Questions

  1. Are there other communities facing the same kind of development pressures from big-box  stores and how have they reacted and adapted?
  2. Are there any studies describing the economic impacts of big-box developments on local retailers and the community at large?  
  3. Are there comparisons to be made between Canadian and Australian communities concerning development and scale? 
  4. Why is there often such a disconnect between the plans of the developers and the local community visions and aspirations? 
  5. Why is there often such a disconnect between the characteristics of place and development? 
  6. Why is there such a reluctance by political leaders and planners to consider limits to growth as the viable option in the development of their communities? 
  7. How can the value of ecological services and the natural benefits of a particular landscape be included in the development equation so that the integrated consequences of a development decision is taken into account, that is, the ecological and economic?

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