Blog 09.09.21

Regenerating communities with art and lavender

Social entrepreneurs are key to repurposing blighted economies.

Regenerating communities in West Virginia with a project growing lavender.
Secateurs for shovels: lavender offers jobs and hope for former miners in West Virginia.

In Appalachia it’s lavender instead of coal, in Cornwall it’s art instead of china clay.  Oceans apart, two gritty former mining communities are gently repurposing themselves for a new era without the minerals that sustained them in the past.

And as they venture into their uncertain futures, the communities demonstrate what others will need as societies around the world are forced to adapt to often cruel changes imposed by a shifting climate as well as economic and technology cycles.  

Besides money, the essential attributes of effective regenerators include: ingenuity, lateral thinking, local engagement, and committed, positive leaders.  But the must-have attitude is the confidence to give the finger to the terror of change.

Turning coal into lavender

As the Wall Street Journal reports, the people of West Virginia must find alternatives to coal mining which sustained them in the past.  Strip mining has destroyed vast tracts of Appalachia, including the removal of whole mountains with the spoil simply dumped into valleys.  

But the good news is that the destruction has left a lot of flat land and a network of roads, access to water and availability of power lines.  Local businesses are beginning to exploit what they have left. One of them is Appalachian Botanical Company led by the inspirational Jocelyn Sheppard.  She has pivoted from library science to run a company that is already providing jobs in the blighted Boone County by growing lavender to process into essential oils.  

While generating revenue from a commercial crop, the company is also tapping into state and federal grants to ease the exit from coal and provide employment to a dwindling population devastated by opioid dependency.  The former mine owners welcome the lavender growers because it negates their legal obligation to return the land to productive use.

The former mines and the existing infrastructure are attracting other industries too, including aquaponics which produces salad crops and fish.  And the ultimate irony is the suitability of the now flattened land to create solar farms, producing carbon free electricity.

Regenerating communities in Cornwall: China clay mining (pictured) is being replaced by art projects.
Mining china clay near St Austell, Cornwall. UK

From slag heaps to sculpture

Nearly 4,000 miles from the former Appalachian coal mines lies the once prosperous town of St Austell in Cornwall in the west of England.  This used to be the centre of the china clay (kaolin) industry developed in the 18th and 19th Century and used in the making of paper, paint and rubber.  The giant white slag heaps give the area its name of the Cornish Alps.     

While there are still commercial deposits of clay, it is now cheaper to produce koalin in the developing world, leaving Cornwall’s china clay industry effectively dead.  St Austell declined and tourists who flock to Cornwall in the summer until recently avoided the blighted town.

This continued even with the acclaimed and highly popular Eden Project nearby.  Built in the late 1980s in a disused clay pit, the Project consists of two giant geodesic domes housing two biomes: Mediterranean and rainforest.  Surrounding the domes is a biome of local flora.  

The unlikely idea was the brainchild of a social entrepreneur, Tim Smit, who had previously rehabilitated a nearby 19th century garden which he renamed the Lost Gardens of Heligan, turning it into a popular tourist attraction.  

While these and other attractions bring crowds to the area, visitors studiously avoided the drab, blighted town of St Austell.  Until now, thanks to an ambitious and well-funded local initiative called The Austell Project which aims to reposition “St Austell Bay and its clay country as a leading Cornish destination for local people, business and tourism.“

Supported by Tim Smit and other dignitaries, the project is led by local individuals, businesses, public bodies and community organisations.  It has already made a difference by using striking public art – inspired by china clay – to put the town on the tourist map. But the Project’s ambitions are much bigger than tourism, with plans to create a sustainable local economy.

Generating emotions

It’s easy to get swept up by the emotional promises of regeneration efforts and inspired by those successful examples that attract publicity. Unfortunately, attempts to replace spent economic engines often splutter and fail.  

Other than looking to emulate the essential habits of people who create winning projects, guidance can come from the principles of sustainability and its holistic focus on inclusiveness and engagement with local people.

While public and philanthropic money is essential, successful projects most of all need the egos of risk-taking social entrepreneurs, such as Tim Smit and Jocelyn Sheppard, who have the vision and tenacity to succeed.  

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