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A multi-dimensional assessment of the environmental and socioeconomic performance of community-based sustainability initiatives in Europe

Filippo Celata, Venere Stefania Sanna
Regional environmental change 2019 v.19 no.4 pp. 939-952
community gardens, cooperatives, economic impact, energy, environmental impact, human capital, local food systems, purchasing, recycling, social capital, social impact, Europe
The contribution of community-based initiatives towards sustainability transitions is of growing interest. However, systematic, quantitative, and comparative assessments of their potential impact across different environmental, social, and economic dimensions are scarce. In this paper, we present a multi-dimensional assessment of 37 initiatives grouped in the following typologies: community gardens, solidarity purchasing groups, food cooperatives, community energy, recycling, and mobility initiatives. We provide evidence of the capacity of community-based sustainability initiatives to promote effective and efficient low-carbon solutions, social capital and inclusion, human capital, economic impact, and innovation. We show that, thanks in particular to their environmental effects, community energy initiatives are the best performing, although their social impact is weak. The opposite is true for community gardens. Mobility and recycling initiatives rank lower but can obtain meaningful impacts if they engage intensively within their communities. Food cooperatives and purchasing groups have the weakest effects. However, we show that results for individual initiatives are variable—indicating that the specific activities undertaken are less important than how they are conducted. Moreover, the best-performing initiatives are usually active in more than one typology, showing that diversification is an asset. We also show some interesting correlations between the degree of diversity of participants that initiatives can attract, their propensity to diffuse knowledge, and their creativity in finding carbon-efficient solutions. Finally, top-ranked initiatives overall rarely appear at the top of any separate assessment criterion: the possibility of a community-led transition rests on their performance across several dimensions combined.