Community engagement and caravan parks

caravan parkI have been reflecting on how some of the concepts I teach in community engagement courses relate to my work. In this post I think back on my work in caravan parks (2003-2008), mainly with people who were using it as housing of last resort, and how it relates to concepts such as the definition of community, social capital, levels of participation, strengths-based practice and assertive outreach.

How we conceptualise community is not just an academic question. (Click here for a short definition of community.) It raises questions about who is included in the community and who is not. On one of the caravan parks we worked on their was quite a social divide between residents living in manufactured homes (which are essentially like normal houses) who generally owned their own dwellings, and residents living in caravans who were renting their accommodation. At times the interests of residents living in manufactured homes and caravans were in opposition. On one occasion manufactured home residents helped the park managers evict a family living in a caravan who were experiencing numerous crises and were creating problems for other residents. The manufactured home residents, who mostly had no children, also supported moves by the park management to remove playground equipment used mainly by people living in caravans. In many ways it was much easier to engage the residents of manufactured homes but as community workers our focus was on supporting marginalised community members (in this case those living in caravans). We attempted to involve all the residents of the caravan park but, where needed, our priority lay with those who were the most marginalised.

One of our strategies for helping to strengthen the sense of community in caravan parks was to increase social capital in parks. According to Putnam (2000) social capital is the “social glue” that holds communities together and refers to “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (p. 19). According to Lodder (2001), who worked for the then Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services, social capital is about “the quality of social relations – how well people get on together, understand each other, trust and help each other, deal with differences, and are connected to others” (p. 3).

A number of aspects of social capital identified by Leonard and Onyx (2004) were relevant to the work of the Caravan Project. These included participation in the local community; feelings of trust and safety; connections with neighbours, family and friends; and a tolerance of diversity. Many residents faced multiple layers of disadvantage and conditions in caravan parks could be substandard and unsafe (Hunt & Wegener, 2005; Marks, 2008). At the same time caravan park communities have strengths; particularly in relation to their sense of community, the friendships they develop and their informal social networks (Stuart, 2008) all of which are reliant on social capital. In practice this meant we attempted to harness the existing social capital and to strengthen it. For example we undertook an action research project exploring ways in which caravan parks could address domestic violence. Our approach was to encourage neighbours, families and friends to respond when they were aware of domestic and family violence. (For some of our suggestions click here.) We knew that caravan park residents often appreciated the sense of community in parks and so we harnessed this social capital to reduce violence.

In 2002 the Caravan Project received funding for a two-year community leadership project in caravan parks and manufactured home villages (Stuart, 2004). During the first 12 months, the project mainly worked in mobile home villages with people who had chosen the life style and who planned to live there long-term. After 12 months, just before I started at the Caravan Project, it was decided to concentrate on more marginalised residents of caravan parks who were living there as a last resort and who generally intended to only stay short-term. 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.

Drawing on levels of child and youth participation, (Hart, 1992 and Wierenga et al., 2003, (which have similarities Spectrum of Public Participation) we identified six levels of agency involvement in community leadership (see Figure 1).

Level 6 Community leadership part of the park culture Leadership roles are shared between residents, park manager and other stakeholders and the whole park is involved in creating a shared vision for the park
Level 5 Initiated and lead by residents Park residents initiate and direct a project/program. Agency not involved or only involved in a minimal way
Level 4 Initiated by residents and developed with support of agency Park residents initiate projects/programs that are developed with the support of the agency
Level 3 Agency initiated, shared decision-making The agency initiates projects/programs and decision-making is shared with park residents
Level 2 Agency initiated, residents consulted and informed Park residents give advice on projects or programs designed and run by agency. The residents are informed about how their input will be used and the outcomes of the decisions made by agency
Level 1 Agency initiated, residents informed Park residents are assigned a specific role and informed about how and why they are being involved
Community exclusion Agency controlled, residents tokenised Park residents appear to be given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about what they do or how they participate, and there is a pretence that the causes are inspired by residents

Figure 1: Levels of agency involvement in community leadership

While our aim was to move towards level six, we also recognised each of the level could be appropriate depending on the circumstances. In marginalised parks with very transient residents (e.g., one of the parks only had a couple of residents who had been there for longer than 12 months) we need to operate, at times, at levels 1-3 in order to promote community membership (Stuart, 2004). We constantly struggled working with people living in substandard accommodation but knowing that if we advocated too strongly we could be banned from the caravan parks (because they were private property and we had no right of entry without permission) and/or residents could suffer because of our actions. It was a challenging question: was it better to stay on the park so we could support the residents or to address broader social issues which led to the existence of poverty, lack of adequate housing and so on? Our approach was to seek a balance by working in partnership with other organisations who undertook stronger advocacy, while we attempted to maintain good relationships with park managers.

A strengths approach is at the heart of our work and so we attempted to build on the strengths of caravan park communities (as indicated by the domestic violence project above). Asset-based community-driven development (ABCD) underpinned much of our community work. Kretzman and McKnight (1993) and Kretzman (2010) argue that all communities, no matter how marginalised, have skills, assets and resources. In ABCD the focus is on these aspects of the community rather than the problems. This doesn’t mean that we ignore the problems, rather it means that we address the problems by focussing on the strengths. As Mathie and Cunningham (2002) suggest

Seeing the glass half-full as well as half empty is not to deny the real problems that a community faces, but to focus energy on how each and every member has contributed, and can continue to contribute, in meaningful ways to community development. Focusing on uncovering the merits of all members encourages a spirit of egalitarianism, even in societies that are hierarchical in structure and differentiated by culture, educational background and gender (pp. 5-6).

We found that people were much more likely to be engaged when we focused on what they were passionate about, what motivated them or what they enjoyed doing rather what they (or us) believed should be done. We needed to make sure that our community engagement strategies were attractive, interesting and relevant to the people we worked with.

Central to our approach to community engagement was assertive outreach. Assertive outreach has been used in a variety of settings, particularly in working with homeless people and people with a mental illness, and we found that it was also a useful tool for community engagement. In mental health, assertive outreach is an approach to care that  “engages high-risk severely mentally ill service users with complex needs who are resistant to contacting services [and] proactively reaches out to people in their own ‘territory’ in the community” (Ryan & Morgan, 2004, p. 12). For the Caravan Project, assertive outreach meant that nearly all of our work with park residents was done out of the office, in their “backyards”. We actively attempted to engage residents through a range of strategies including door knocking within caravan parks, being highly visible, asking park managers about people needing extra support, providing health clinics or other services that attract residents, using children’s activities in the park and organising park fun days or other social events.

The Caravan Project found that to successfully engage with caravan parks residents it helped when we:

  1. Developed strong relationships with park residents
  2. Were flexible and creative in our approach
  3. Built on the existing strengths of caravan park communities
  4. Went to their space (i.e. caravan parks)
  5. Worked in cooperation with park managers
  6. Developed strong partnerships and networks (read more).

Having the opportunity to integrate literature and practice is important. Practice without being grounded in theory and theory not grounded in practice are little use. Hopefully this demonstrated the way in which they relate to each other.

I’d love to hear of other examples where you have been able to integrate theory and practice.

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to read:

  1. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. What is social capital?
  4. Supporting residents of caravan parks
  5. Ethics and community engagement


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

Hunt, J., & Wegener, J. (2005). “Let’s find another place” The experiences of homeless families using caravan parks as crisis housing. Melbourne: HomeGround Services.

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: a path toward finding and mobilizing a community’s assets. Evanston, Ill.: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwestern University.

Kretzmann, J. P. (2010). Asset-based strategies for building resilient communities. In J. W. Reich, A. Zautra & J. S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience. New York: Guilford Press.

Leonard, R., & Onyx, J. (2004). Social capital & community building: Spinning straw into gold. London: Janus Publishing.

Lodder, S. (2001). Investing in social capital: The Wadeye Story. Paper presented at the Generating Service Delivery Outcomes for Aboriginal Communities.

Marks, A. (2008). Residents at risk: Stories of ‘last resort’ caravan park residency in NSW. Sydney: St Vincent de Paul Society NSW.

Mathie, A., & Cunningham, G. (2002). From Clients to Citizens: Asset-Based Community Development as a Strategy For Community-Driven Development. Antigonish, Nova Scotia: Coady International Institute. Available from

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ryan, P., & Morgan, S. (2004). Assertive outreach: A strengths approach to policy and practice London: Churchill Livingstone.

Stuart, G. (2004). Community leadership: A tale of two residential parks. In R. Flowers (Ed.), Eduation and Social Action Conference Proceedings. Sydney: University of Technology of Sydney. Available from

Stuart, G. (2007). Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice. Newcastle: Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle.

Stuart, G. (2008). “I try and make it feel more like a home” – Families living in caravan parks. 10th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference  Available from

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

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Working with communities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

I'd love to hear what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s