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Sustainability report card

Identifying ‘what’s strong, not what’s wrong,’ in rural N.L.

By Melanie Callahan

A New Orleans, La., researcher has come to Corner Brook, N.L., to understand what small, rural communities need to thrive.

Brennan Lowery, originally from New Orleans, La., is a newcomer to Grenfell Campus’s Environmental Policy Institute, and the province as a whole. He is an interdisciplinary researcher, working in the institute and the departments of Geography and Economics at Memorial.

Mr. Lowery investigates the role of sustainability indicator initiatives in supporting more participatory governance for sustainable development in rural and natural resource-dependent regions.

He asks the question: How can people in rural regions collaborate for sustainable outcomes in their communities using sustainability indicators and similar approaches in regional planning and decision-making?

Changing the conversation

“I plan to conduct community-based research in rural regions of the province with the aim of developing participatory tools for rural residents and leaders to define and implement sustainability in their own way,” he said.

“We need to start with what’s strong, not what’s wrong. Communities that get labelled as “in need” can be debilitated by that labelling, but when communities find a way to use their strengths, assets and abilities, that focus can change the conversation and make the conversation more empowering.”

Mr. Lowery began his work in Newfoundland and Labrador by building on research previously conducted with the former Rural Secretariat in the Clarenville-Bonavista area. He has since focused on regional sustainability monitoring and governance in the area, and continues to work collaboratively with community stakeholders in the Bonavista region.

Bonavista, N.L.
Bonavista, N.L.

Photo: Submitted

Mr. Lowery is part of a research team that includes Dr. Kelly Vodden at Grenfell Campus; Dr. Ratana Chuenpagdee, Department of Geography; Dr. Doug May, Department of Economics, and Dr. John Dagevos, an adjunct professor based in the Netherlands.

Resilience and sustainability

Mr. Lowery’s research is part of a concentrated effort called Rural Resilience, a research cluster led by Dr. Vodden that consists of an engaged community of research and practice that is dedicated to advancing the resilience and sustainability of rural communities and regions in Newfoundland and Labrador, and beyond.

In 2013, Dr. Vodden began her research to better understand the factors that contribute to regional sustainability in the Clarenville-Bonavista isthmus region. She and her team worked to identify priorities, goals and barriers to achieving these goals. When Mr. Lowery joined the team in 2016, he worked to develop a regional sustainability report card that outlined the region’s sustainability indicators and allowed for the dissemination of information to encourage more informed decision-making.

Edith Samson, a resident of Port Union and a community leader, began working with Mr. Lowery when she was on the regional council of the Rural Secretariat.

“We basically developed a snapshot of the communities in that period of time, but one that would give us a future reference point.” — Edith Samson

Together, they worked on the sustainability report card project.

“We basically developed a snapshot of the communities in that period of time, but one that would give us a future reference point to see the growth in the region by comparing data during another point in time,” Ms. Samson said.

“The piece of work that we were trying to put together for that was a vision for a sustainable region that included health, education, and people living in a safe community that would be inclusive.”

Ms. Samson and Mr. Lowery continue to work together on projects, including the planning of a built heritage forum in the Bonavista region that aims to connect built heritage to today’s community development aspirations and regional needs.

This forum, which Mr. Lowery is assisting regional leaders to plan and carry out this spring, will follow an asset-based approach that will encourage residents to think how the region’s unique assets, such as its built heritage, enhance their communities’ sustainability.

Bonavista, N.L.
Bonavista, N.L.

Photo: Submitted

Place-based development

Now, Mr. Lowery has turned his attention to another part of the province: the Great Northern Peninsula.

A new partnership between Grenfell and that region is seeing regional leaders searching for ways to highlight and draw on the peninsula’s strengths and capacities to spark place-based development in collaboration with Memorial researchers.

In initial conversations, Mr. Brennan identified several assets of the region, including diversity, social networks and sense of community; natural resources, including water, wildlife and recreation; and institutional assets, like public and recreation facilities.

As well, Mr. Lowery hopes to work in participatory research on Fogo Island, and has had discussions with leaders in that community during a number of visits.