Community comes first

Former Department of Neighbourhoods director Jim Diers says Dunedin residents should set the city's priorities not bureaucrats. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Former Department of Neighbourhoods director Jim Diers says Dunedin residents should set the city's priorities not bureaucrats. Photo by Linda Robertson.
The Government could build better communities in Dunedin by getting out of the way, a community builder from Seattle says.

Former Department of Neighbourhoods director Jim Diers (59) talked to nearly 100 Dunedin residents, including staff from councils and non-governmental organisations, at Burns Hall in Dunedin this week. He worked for Seattle City Council from 1988 to 2002 to build better neighbourhoods. Although the hills and valleys of Dunedin created distinct regions for residents to build a community, they did not ensure a community, he said.

Because there were institutions designed to build a community, they actually broke community down, by placing residents in categories, like young, old, disabled or unemployed.

Everybody had gifts that were buried beneath labels but many residents had disconnected from their community because they were labelled by their needs, rather than their strengths, and become clients of the service system, rather than citizens in a community, he said.

''When we do that, all the power is with the agencies.''

Government funding cuts were not always negative for a community because it made residents engage with their community when they realised the Government lacked resources.

But the Government had an important role to play in building communities by getting out of the way, he said.

Communities should set the priorities with support from the Government.

''And that's what I did in Seattle.''

When leading the Department of Neighbourhoods in Seattle he started a programme that matched voluntary labour with council funding.

The programme supported 5000 community-initiated projects in the past 25 years, he said.

The $50 million of council investment was matched with $70 million community resources and produceda much better result than the previous funding model, that had asked the Government to provide everything, with little resources, he said.

Before this week's workshop he talked to about 20 Dunedin City Council staff and Mayor Dave Cull, and other community leaders about building a community-based economy.

''They were very receptive.''

- shawn.mcavinue@odt.co.nz

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