The Green Village Project: a university-community partnership

Author/Producer James Gray-Donald, Olya Maiboroda and Colin Trier / ESCalate
Published in ESCalate news (Autumn 2007)
Date Published 23 October 2007
Pages 3


The University of Plymouth made a successful bid to HEFCE for a Centre for Excellence in Sustainability. This report follows one significant project.



This paper reports on one significant project which aimed to meet the Centre for Sustainable Future’s mandate to build university-community partnerships, to research how such partnerships work, and to make recommendations for future partnerships in order to play an active role in promoting the sustainability of communities in the region. The Green Village project challenged a community to answer what it means for a rural community to become more sustainable.


The Centre for Sustainable Futures (CSF) is funded for five years to promote education for sustainable development within its host institution, the University of Plymouth. CSF takes a holistic view of education for sustainable development and has a model of institutional change that includes curriculum, campus, community and cultural change[i]. The Centre hosted a five day residential think-tank about university-community relations at Schumacher College beginning November 20th 2005[ii]. Representatives from community groups, charities, non-governmental organizations, HE Academy Subject Centres, and regional and local government officials interacted with the seven full-time CSF staff and many of the 22 lecturers at the University of Plymouth who work closely with CSF. One outcome of the think-tank is a community forum hosted every two months by CSF at the University to keep the dialogue about university-community relationships active.

In January 2006, Westden[iii] (one of the charities participating in the think-tank) approached CSF with a request to join a newly formed one year long Green Village initiative. Westden and the CSF formulated a partnership agreement to clarify the roles of the key players: Westden as a facilitator and coordinator of the process, the villagers as the key owners and decision-makers in the process, and the CSF monitoring and contributing to the process through providing a sound research element and, as needed, relevant academic expertise to the project.

Following a presentation by Westden a vote was taken at the Belstone Parish annual meeting, and the village of Belstone strongly agreed to be selected as the site for the Green Village project. Belstone is a picturesque village of 120 homes and on the northern edge of Dartmoor National Park, Devon, United Kingdom. Belstone was a mining and cattle farming town which has changed with the times to become a conservative, well-conserved village with high property prices and a significant number of people commuting to work in nearby cities.

The Green Village process was organised and sustained through monthly meetings of a steering group composed of eight members of Belstone village, one person representing Westden, one researcher from CSF and one senior lecturer in environmental science from the University of Plymouth.

Research agenda

A research agenda was set at the beginning of the project, though the research was iterative in the way that it adapted to the needs of the project and the knowledge gained so far. Principles of action research[iv] were closely followed and two academic papers have been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. Research included:

- Early in the project a questionnaire survey of all the households in the village.

- Two rounds of interviews with all of the members of the steering group which were transcribed.

- Focus groups with the youth, village members not in the steering group, and the steering group.

The researcher also took extensive observational notes and reflections throughout the project.

List of action projects

The research played an important role in helping identify projects to go forward during the one year long Green Village project. While all of the action projects were decided upon by the steering group, they were receptive to advice from Westden, the academic and the researcher. The list of projects includes:

- Awareness raising events. These were well attended and revolved around shared food followed by a presentation or film. Events included:

  • Talks about Recycling, Personal Sustainability, Alternative Energy Schemes, the impact of climate change on wildlife, an introduction to the Green Village Project, a low carbon footprint community project in Somerset[v].
  • A screening of the film The End of Suburbia[vi].
  • A whole day focusing on local food with demonstrations and tasting.
  • A visit to a permaculture forest garden on the Dartington Hall Estate[vii] (one hour drive from Belstone).
  • An event for representatives of nine neighbouring communities to learn first-hand about the Green Village project from its steering group

- A biodiversity study sponsored by Devon County Council.

- Household energy surveys for ten homes conducted by the Devon Association for Renewable Energy

- A sustainability survey indicated that most of the youth were going beyond the village boundaries for many of their social activities. In response a Belstone Youth Group was formed which meets regularly and has 18 members.

- Funding was provided to conduct a feasibility study to install a local small-scale hydro-electricity scheme which indicated a high potential. The study is ongoing.

- Though not a project in itself, there was clear evidence of behaviour change of those active in the Green Village process to reduce their individual and collective ecological footprints and also to increase the social networks and resiliency especially for the youth.

Partnership lessons

The research clearly pointed out that the process of university-community involvement proved to be deeply meaningful and rewarding for all. Perhaps, the main reason why this partnership worked well was that it was not dominated by any single partner. Westden initiated the process, but entered into it with openness, flexibility and an attitude of seeing the villagers as owners of the process and therefore enabling them to create their own process. When after several months into the project, it became clear that the original timetable drawn by Westden was not reflecting the process that was emerging there was no doubt about following the process and not the timetable.

Another reason for the partnership working well is that all knowledge brought into the process was considered of equal value. Although Westden and the University had specific expertise to offer, those were not viewed above the local knowledge possessed by the villagers. There was a shared understanding that everybody was an expert in his or her own right and, at the same time, a learner. It must be noted, however, that all the villagers on the steering group were erudite and articulate, and in most cases, came from a professional background following university education.

Personal qualities of openness, candour, good humour, positive spiritedness and a can-do attitude that people brought into this partnership were just as important as their professional credentials. Perhaps, the Green Village was ‘lucky’ in that the people on the steering group possessed qualities that were largely complementary. There was a real sense of commitment from all partners involved, which was the basis for developing trust:

I drew up our partnership agreement, so that there are no misunderstandings what the objectives are. We haven’t referred to it yet, and I am not sure that we’ll need to. I think that so much comes down to personal trust. I think that we just happen to be fellow human beings working for different organisations, motivated towards very similar ends. - Oz Osborne, Westden.

An interesting and valuable reflection on the roles of the “external” partners was offered by one of the villagers on the steering group, who wrote:

One of the most significant things about the ‘partnership’ is that the involvement of the CSF and Westden has provided (along with many other things) an element of independent arbitration and moderation. I get the feeling that this latter role may have been played at least partly unwittingly. While at the outset there was some emphasis on how the Green Village initiative was to be owned by Belstone etc etc., the simple fact is that in many respects it is the “external” partners who have effectively played the role to be expected from a beneficent Chair. - Richard[viii]

In the case of the University (CSF), the level of its involvement is atypical in these kinds of projects, and was only possible because of additional external (to the university) funding. Most UK universities are under increasing pressure to account for all staff time and cannot easily afford to participate in community projects, other than student research. The Green Village project demonstrates the value of university engagement to the local community. At the same time, the university benefited through a student placement on the project offered by Westden[ix], a seminar given by members of the Green Village steering group at the university, the likelihood of two or three publications and helping to build a reputation for not being an isolated ivory tower in the Southwest.

For further information please contact Colin Trier ( who can give a presentation to your university of community group; also see


[i] Dyer, A., Selby, D. and Chalkley, B. 2006. A centre for excellence in education

for sustainable development. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 30, pp. 307-312.

[ii] The think-tank lasted three weeks in total, with the last week focusing on regional partnerships. The think-tank is currently being written into a book and should be published late 2007.

[iii] Westden are the West Devon Environmental Network. They have been a charity since 1994 with the vision “to create sustainable rural communities in Devon.”

[iv] as described in Greenwood, D.J., and Levin, M. (1998). Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change. London: SAGE Publications.

[v] The project is called Go Zero. “Go Zero is a community project based in Chew Magna that raises awareness of the environmental and social impact of our everyday actions and provides suggestions for change towards a zero waste society.”

[vi] The full title is “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream” and is written and directed by Greg Greene and Gregory Greene. It was released in 2004 by The Electric Wallpaper Co.

[vii] Dartington Hall Estate is managed by the Dartington Hall Trust which is “a charitable company based near Totnes in South Devon”

[viii] Name changed to protect anonymity.

[ix] The student stated that she gained a lot from the experience and that she used her report to help gain access to further education.