Blog by Paul Ede, Project Manager for the Sustaining Choices project.

Sustaining Choices is a pilot project designed to support and train local communities to develop their own sustainable and active travel action plans. Through lockdown, our minds have been focused like never before on the need for change in how we get about our local neighbourhoods. Linked to an upsurge of community connection and solidarity, a tentative new trust in local authorities [link], the energy descent agenda and a national drive for ‘post-pandemic recovery’, suddenly new opportunity spaces are opening up…along with a local appetite for getting on with it. Sustaining Choices is about grabbing that moment.

Yes, barriers and constraints remain structurally, relationally and in terms of resource, like annoying cul-de sacs that force us to walk 20 minutes further past the industrial estate just to get our messages. But joining the dots in different ways with our neighbours, local politicians and councils just now could well see new paths opening up…literally.

One of those barriers is language. Out with multi-surface bi-direction nodal connectors: active and sustainable travel just means getting about by electric buss, walking, cycling…and wheeling, as Jon Barron one of our community facilitators has helpfully added. Let’s not leave scooters in the ditch! But it can also make us ask about how we can design places that make it easier to switch between and to these forms of transport. Or how we can create local infrastructure to better enable the postie to deliver our packages (‘last mile delivery’) in sustainable ways. Technical language has its place, but not when folks are collaborating in citizen space to bring the gift of their wisdom to shape the conversation.

Enabling those collaborative spaces, and establishing that baseline understanding of what nine communities across Scotland say is needed, is at the heart of what Sustaining Choices is all about. Funded by Smarter Choices, Smarter Places (SCSP), the Paths for All pot, groups are collaborating in Anstruther, Bishopbriggs, Cumnock, Garve, Kinning Park, Peterhead, Rattray, West Fife Villages and Westerhailes to figure out what needs to change. Links are being made to elected members and local authority departments, and as the process continues priorities will emerge that will be articulated in Action Plans for each place.  These can then be used for advocacy, to enrich local place and community plans, or developed, refined and voted on to start new projects (either by the communities themselves, or with local authority support). First port of call for this may be a return to the SCSP team and an application for funds to support feasibility studies or even a development worker. Then perhaps move on to access the £1.6bn for rail and bus services and £100.5m for active travel announced in the recent Scottish Budget, designed to consolidate changes to healthy, green travel options seen during the pandemic.

While PAS are helping each community by initially delivering a bespoke digital online engagement session in a format and to an audience decided on by the community themselves, a group of around 30 local community facilitators have stepped forward and undergone PAS training on how to facilitate their own additional online sessions. These will be framed around relevant questions from the Place Standard, largely by using small Zoom break-out groups as a key approach. PAS sees growing the confidence of citizens to take part in and run their own consultations as critical for expanding the capacity of our communities to bring about change for themselves. In one community, this has presented an opportunity for citizens to co-produce an engagement alongside local authority community development workers from the very start, for the first time.

Of course, we are all learning together. And from my perspective as Project Manager, it has been a special privilege to learn from the significant wisdom in the room as the project has progressed…not least during our dedicated coaching sessions for each project, where we chew over sometimes thorny but always engaging questions like actually delivering a zoom session well, or how best to adapt available software tools to local contexts. How do we implement citizen-led consultation across diverse communities during Covid while our WiFi cuts in and out, kids hover in the background, and we all scramble to get used to new software? But it’s being in the thick of it together is what makes it so rewarding.

PAS, as an educational charity focused on placemaking and communities, increasingly wants to add its energy to encourage the environmental step-change required in Scotland. Sustaining Choices is one of the ways we are seeking to grow, learn and influence this agenda pragmatically, at the local level.

For updates follow @sustchoices on Twitter, find out more on the project web page, or contact project manager, Paul Ede (paul@pas.org.uk) to find out more.