Community leadership: A tale of two residential parks

This is a slightly extended version of a paper that appeared in Stuart, G. (2004) ‘Community leadership: A tale of two residential parks’, in Education and Social Action Conference Proceedings, (ed.) R Flowers, Sydney: University of Technology of Sydney.

If community leadership is to truMtl Park entrancely promote grassroots democracy in residential parks (e.g. caravan parks and mobile home villages), there are implications for who is included in community leadership strategies, and how we conceptualise and promote community leadership. As a community worker with the Caravan Project, I will discuss these issues based on our on two very different residential parks (“The Hollow” and “The Gardens”).

In general, people who live permanently on residential parks either:

  • Choose to live in a park as a lifestyle choice;
  • Are itinerant or seasonal workers choosing to live long-term or permanently in parks; or
  • Have few, or no, other options: they may have been blacklisted from other housing, they may not be able to afford the bond and rent in advance, or they may be homeless (Wensing, Holloway & Wood 2003).

Parks can vary across a number of dimensions including:

  • The mix of tourist and permanent residents: ranging from ones that are just for tourists through to ones that are just for permanent residents.
  • The permanent residency arrangements: for example residents can own their own dwelling and rent the site (owner-renters) or rent both (renter-renters); stay for a few weeks or months, through to many years; and live in a three bedroom relocatable home through to a small caravan with no annex.
  • The geographical location: there is a great variation in the locations of parks although many are poorly located in terms of their accessibility to local services and facilities.
  • The park standards: parks vary from very successful parks with a high standard of facilities to derelict, poorly maintained caravan parks. The less well-managed and maintained parks are more likely to cater for people who are living there as a last resort.
  • The perception of park residents: some residents see parks as a positive housing choice while others see them as a negative option over which they have little control.
  • The park management: some parks are very well managed and there are good relations between residents and park managers or owners, while others are poorly managed and there is a history of conflict between residents and managers (Wensing, Holloway & Wood 2003).

 The Two Parks

The Hollow and The Gardens highlight some of the dilemmas the Caravan Project encountered in facilitating a two year community leadership projected funded by the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services. The Hollow is a small, poorly maintained park renting caravans to residents who have limited accommodation options. Most people stay for under 12 months. The Gardens is a well maintained, larger park with good facilities catering for both tourists and permanents; mobile homes and caravans; people who own their dwelling and rent the site, and those who rent both; and people living there by choice and those with limited options.

According to a recent Caravan Project survey, residents from The Hollow were more likely than residents from The Gardens to have experienced mental health problems, homelessness, unemployment, and sickness or disability. People living at The Hollow were more likely to say they felt unsafe on the park, to have experienced physical or verbal abuse in the past year, to be seeking alternate accommodation and to be affected by the drinking of people close to them. Caravan Project staff also report The Hollow has higher rates of domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse than The Gardens. There is frequent tension between residents at The Hollow and much of the socialising is based on alcohol and other drug use. At the same time, some residents of The Hollow appreciate a sense of community on the park. The Hollow will be closing soon following the lodgement of a development application, which has increased the sense of insecurity amongst the residents. There are no formal community leadership structures on The Hollow although a park resident is the caretaker, receiving free rent in exchange for caretaker duties.

The Gardens has an active elected Park Liaison Committee, the managers hold meetings for all residents at the end of their meetings and there is an active Park Residents Association. In some ways there is strong, active community leadership on the park but the social divide between the mobile home and caravan residents has a large impact on this leadership. The residents who would traditionally be identified as community leaders (e.g. the Park Liaison Committee) are mobile home residents and largely represent the interests of other mobile home residents. The caravan dwellers, who are more likely to experience some of the social problems experienced at The Hollow, may even have their interests undermined by the “community leaders”.

 Who is Included in Community Leadership Strategies

Through our work on these parks and other parks the Caravan Project has identified a number of key questions in relation to community leadership. The first is: who is included in community leadership strategies? People living in residential parks as a last resort often experience social isolation which can be compounded because they may be overlooked by community education programs, may have difficulties accessing outreach services and may not even receive local newspaper and/or hand delivered postal items (Wittich 1999). There is a danger that community leadership strategies focusing solely on residential parks could increase the social isolation. It is important that strategies assist park communities become integrated with the broader community rather than addressing park residents in isolation.

Park communities are not homogeneous entities: there are different and/or competing interests and priorities. For example, the Resident Liaison Committee at The Gardens recently assisted the managers to evict a family in crisis who were creating problems for other residents. The Resident Liaison Committee, none of whom have young children, also supported the decision to remove play equipment due to insurance concerns. There is no doubt that the Liaison Committee was acting in the interests of some of the park residents, but at the expense of more marginalised residents. Grassroots democracy is clearly more than majority rules, and community leadership strategies need to promote the inclusion of people who are often voiceless (Carson 2003).

As well as involving marginalised or voiceless residents in community leadership, it is important to involve park managers. The managers of caravan parks play a much greater role in the lives of residents than in traditional tenancy arrangements such as renting a flat or house. In caravan parks, dwellings (whether owned or rented) are situated on private property, and onsite managers are usually present: thus residents, and their visitors, are under greater scrutiny and control. Because parks are private property, visitors do not have automatic right of entry, they can be banned or refused entry, workers from community and health services can be required to report to the office before they enter the park (raising issues of confidentiality) and they may not be allowed to take their vehicle on to the park (a problem for people like community nurses with bulky equipment or heavy equipment).

Managers have a major impact on the lives of residents. A couple of years ago, The Gardens had a change of owners and, not only have park standards improved, but the new managers are friendly, approachable and understanding and residents report being much happier since the change. Managers can also facilitate or obstruct resident involvement in decision making about issues affecting the park. The NSW Residents Park Act requires parks with more than 20 sites occupied by permanent residents to have a park liaison committee. The Gardens is unusual in that many of the residents (including members of the residents association) believe their liaison committee works effectively. Residents of many other parks believe liaison committees are ineffective.

Despite difficulties in engaging some park managers, we believe it is important to build partnerships with them and assist them to see the benefits promoting processes that encourage community leadership rather than seeing them as opponents (as occasionally happens). At times there is a tension between building strong relationships with managers and a need to address park standards or specific issues on parks. At The Gardens we have a good relationship with the managers, they are open to our involvement and some advocacy can occur through the park residents association or the Park Liaison Committee. We have even been able to raise concerns affecting more marginalised residents. Our relationship with the managers at The Hollow is more problematic. Although they are happy for us to be on the park, we have not found them very approachable. At present there is a likelihood that the park will close and if we became active in protecting residents’ rights and helping residents organise, we could run the risk of being banned from the park. There is already tension because we sent in a response to the development application.

The threat of being banned is a real possibility. In the past we have been banned from parks, or threatened with banning, and were recently refused permission to commence work on a park with numerous problems. Earlier this year Affiliated Residential Parks Residents Association took some park owners to the tenancy tribunal after they were banned from using community facilities on parks to organise meetings. They won on the grounds that the Residential Park Act specifically prevents managers from interfering with the rights of residents to belong to any organisation of park residents (s67). The Caravan Project does not have this protection and there is no legal impediment to managers banning us from the parks – although individual residents could have the right to invite us to visit them as long as we did not “unduly disturb the peace or quiet of the park” or fail to “observe reasonable rules of conduct established by the park owner” (s69).

In building relationship with park managers we have found it important to consider their needs, which they say include:

  • Running a profitable business
  • Regular payment of rent and accounts
  • Knowing if there are unsafe or potentially violent people on the park
  • Quiet tenants
  • Being able to control who lives on a park
  • Parents having control over children
  • Knowing how to contact local health and community services
  • After hours support (see for example Wittich 1999).

 Meaning of Community Leadership

The second question we have identified is: what do we mean by community leadership? In order to minimise the possibility that community leadership results in individuals or sections of the park community creating power blocs or protecting their interests at the expense of others, promoting community leadership needs to focus on the whole park community, not just on individuals within the park. Barker (1997) identifies three main theoretical views of leadership:

  1. Leadership as an ability, or a set of traits or behaviours that can be learnt. Community leadership strategies derived from this perspective focus on individual “leaders” and enhance their ability to lead. Barker argues that this perspective confuses leadership (which is about change) with management (which is about creating stability).
  2. Leadership as a relationship between leaders and collaborators. They work together to create change by bringing resources to the relationship that assist in achieving their aims. Strategies derived from this perspective seek to improve the collaboration between leaders and collaborators, improve the functioning of community groups and assist leaders to use power resources to exercise greater influence.
  3. Leadership as a dynamic process of interaction and collaboration that creates change. Leadership is “a democratic process where no one person does an inordinate amount of leading, and every group member performs some leadership function at some point in time” (p. 352). Community leadership strategies derived from this perspective are likely to focus on community development and assisting in the development of a shared vision based on collective wants and needs.

Through the project we have begun to operate more from the third paradigm. At the start of the project our approach was based on understanding leadership as an ability and attempted to build relationships between identified leaders on the parks and other residents. We thus supported individual leaders and helped established “leadership groups” to work on issues of interest to residents. We mainly worked on mobile home villages with people who had chosen the life style. After 12 months we decided to concentrate on more marginalised residents of caravan parks who were living there as a last resort. With the change of focus we realised we could not promote community leadership without first promoting community membership. We thus began to focus on community leadership as a process and our work increasingly involved community development strategies and building social capital.

 Community Leadership Strategies

Given our changing focus, the final question to be considered here is: what strategies should we use to promote community leadership? We realise that we have to do much more than increasing the leadership skills of individuals or improving the relationship between leaders and collaborators. These strategies can play a role, but they are insufficient to promote real community leadership. According to Falk and Kilpatrick (2001), “social capital is the product of social interactions that may contribute to the social, civic or economic wellbeing of a community-of-common-purpose. The interactions draw on knowledge and identify resources and simultaneously use and build stores of social capital” (p. 103). Social capital is an important ingredient in community leadership processes (Falk & Mulford 2001) and, along with community development, provides a frame work for strategies that move beyond a focus on traits and relationships. On The Hollow, the main focus of our work is low key, informal activities that provide residents with the opportunity to mix and to develop connections. The aim is not to train community leaders, but to help create an environment in which community leadership can occur. For example, when residents first heard of the development application affecting the park, there was discussion about at one of our groups. We suggested that it might be worth talking to the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service and, when we returned the next week, we learnt that some of the residents had organised for someone from the tenancy service to come and talk to them about their rights.

In addition to focusing on social capital and community development, we have found it helpful to think of our involvement in community leadership in terms of levels. Drawing on Hart (1992) and Wierenga et al. (2003) we have identified six levels of agency involvement in community leadership (see Figure 1).

Community leadership

Figure 1: Levels of agency involvement in community leadership

While our aim is to create a park culture which values and relies on community leadership, each of the levels can be appropriate and strategies from multiple levels will be employed on the same park. As a starting point we need to recognise the extent and value of community leadership already existing on parks. There are many examples of residents supporting each other, initiating activities, challenging decisions or actions of park owners, and improving life on the park. There are examples of park managers working in partnership with residents, involving them in decision making and creating cooperative working relationships. Many of these occur without our knowledge or involvement, some involve a partnership between residents and us, and others are initiated and led by us. We try to build on existing strengths of residents, managers and the park, to capitalise on the numerous opportunities for residents to adopt leadership roles and to help create structures and processes promoting community leadership. Strategies can range from holding informal coffee mornings or BBQs, informing residents about their rights or how to advocate on their own behalf, supporting residents respond to inquiries or policy issues, encouraging managers to involve residents in decision making, promoting links between the park and the broader community, and providing support when requested by resident associations. At times we need to get out of the way and allow residents to do it for themselves.

If we see leadership as a process, we also need to address some of the structural and cultural impediments to meaningful community leadership, not just within the context of a park, which moves us into the realm of social change. Moyer (2001) identifies four approaches to social change (see Figure 2), which indicate ways in which we can contribute to a broad social agenda. Community workers are well placed to undertake a variety of roles and need to be willing to address broad social issues to create an inclusive, just society.

Roles of social changeFigure 2: Four roles of social activism

Residential parks provide both opportunities and challenges in promoting community leadership. The social isolation experienced by many residents mean that they are not used to adopting community leadership roles and the private ownership of the parks can also create barriers. At the same time, many residents see parks as a “community,” the communal nature of the life style means that community leadership does occur on a daily basis, and community leadership processes can make a significant difference to park life. Rather than focusing on some individual “leaders”

If you like this post, you might also like:

  1. Supporting residents of caravan parks
  2. Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families
  3. “I try and make it feel more like a home” – families living in caravan parks
  4. Building relationship between caravan park (trailer park) residents and school
  5. Families with children living in caravan parks
  6. It beats living in a tent (a survey of caravan park residents in 2005)


Barker, R 1997, ‘How Can We Train Leaders if We Do Not Know What Leadership Is?’ Human Relations, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 343-62.

Carson, L 2003, ‘Building sustainable democracies’, paper presented at the Now We the People Conference, Sydney, 24 August 2003. Available from <>.

Falk, I & Kilpatrick, S 2001, ‘What is social capital? A study of interaction in a rural community’, Sociologia Ruralis, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 87-110.

Falk, I & Mulford, B 2001, ‘Enabling Leadership: A new community leadership model’, in Learning to manage change: Developing regional communities for a local-global millennium, National Centre for Vocational Education Research Ltd, Kensington Park. Available from <>.

Hart, R 1992, Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship, UNICEF, Inocenti Research Centre, Florence.

Moyer, B (ed.) 2001, Doing democracy: The MAP model for organizing social movements, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island.

Wensing, E; Holloway, D & Wood, M 2003, On the Margins? Housing risk among caravan park residents, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Sydney. Available from <>.

Wierenga, A; Wood, A; Trenbath, G; Kelly, J & Vidakovic, O 2003, Sharing a new story: Young people in decision-making, Australian Youth Research Centre, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Wittich, L-A 1999, A support plan for caravan park residents at risk of homelessness, National Dissemination Program, Family Action Centre, Newcastle.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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