Losing Touch With the Changing Definition of "Community"


Mathew Taunton opens his review of “The Future of Community – Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated” (Note 1) with the observation that:

“Community is one of the most powerful words in the language, and perhaps because of this it is frequently misused. A profoundly emotive word, it is also a coercive one, and a key political buzzword in modern times. That community is being eroded in modern Britain is a matter of cross-party consensus, and it is also widely agreed that one of the state’s roles is to devise means of counteracting the decline of communities.”

It is refreshing to see a writer prepared to use ‘community’ and ‘coercive’ in the same sentence. Taunton reminds us that practically all urban architecture now attempts to force social solidarity into existence, and, by definition, condemns those who do not conform for daring to exercise their choice.

Unfortunately many of these attempts to coerce community into existence tend to repress or subvert the informal processes through which people interact of their own free will.

So why do so many influential people in the UK, the United States, and other countries of the New World, hold this ‘consensus’ that communities, like morality, are in decline, requiring government interventions to restore them to good health, within some reborn urban village?

In the past, communities were primarily place-based, if only because people could not travel very far or communicate over any great distance. But as civilizations have developed, this interaction between transport and communication has reshaped the prevailing structure and meaning of communities, as each reacts with each other. The printing presses of Renaissance Europe enabled the development of scientific and religious communities, as well as a host of “communities of ideas” both conservative and revolutionary.

Last century the establishment of national broadcast networks and television helped constitute national communities of listeners or viewers, which in turn reinforced the communities of “us” and “them” through the great global conflicts of that century.

The Internet has now created a whole new class of virtual communities or tribes. Many wage their tribal wars with considerable venom.

However, these internet tribes, too, simply build on the superior transportation technologies that have enabled us to physically flee to find more friendly groupings of associates, or to avoid the ‘neighbours from hell’. Of course, place remains important to communities based on activity – people continue to visit their golf course, football field, church, beach, or shopping mall. Modern transport has gifted us with ready access to them all.

Similarly, communications technology plays an important role in communities of shared interests or ideas – the blog site, the book club, talk-back radio, and the specialist channels on cable TV or YouTube.

However, rigidly place-based communities can also be coercive traps.

In the late sixties I wrote a paper at U.C Berkeley drawing on surveys that showed that “neighboring” was more intensive in mobile-home parks than in most suburbs or inner city areas, precisely because the residents felt that if they fell out with their neighbors they could always move on. Neighboring is not without risk.

Similarly, people in camping grounds felt free to share coffee, drinks and dinners around the barbecue, precisely because they know they need not meet again.

Many retirees have discovered the pleasures of the summer nomadic lifestyle spent driving from location to location in a well-appointed motor-home.

One retired couple (my American god-parents) were keen “rock-hounds” during the seventies and spent their summers driving their motor-home from one rock-rich territory to another, attending gatherings of rock-hounds along the way. They combined technological mobility, with place-based communities, and communities of common interests within the one retirement experience.

However, these contemporary communities, no matter how plentiful and rewarding, fail to meet the expectations of urban planners trapped within their general theory of architectural or spatial determinism. They remain convinced that urban form and places determine our behaviour. Yet in reality, our behaviour and preferences actually determine how and where we chose to live, work and play.

They may also be responding, in their reflexive way, to a genuine loss of sense of political community, a loss that may be more deeply felt that we think.

For the last forty or fifty years, through most of the New World jurisdictions, ‘reform’ of Local Government has meant ‘amalgamation’ on the presumption that ‘bigger is better’, probably because this coincided with the management theories of the sixties, which presumed conglomerates were the way of the future, and that all corporate mergers would benefit the shareholders and customers alike.

The track record of such local government ‘reform’ has given scant support to the theory. Forced amalgamations in particular have proved to be disastrous. And many of the voluntary ones – i.e. those driven from the bottom up – have fared little better.

These reform programs have generally been prepared to dilute or even ignore the traditional emphasis on ‘community of interest’ in favor of ‘economies of scale’ or the benefits of ‘regional integrated planning.’ In the end citizens have generally, and genuinely, lost contact with their Mayors and Councilors. They used to meet the Mayor in the street and have a chat about their concerns. Now they have to phone, leave voice messages and wait for the return call that never comes.

Political authority, now often housed in some distant place, is more remote than ever. You can’t meet it, let alone beat it.

Citizens may know their ward councilor but their ward councilors explain they are always outvoted by a majority who has no interest in any ward but their own. This is why large councils are actually less effective at delivering satisfaction than small ones. A small council is likely to be serving a single community of interest. But if one neighborhood wants to build a municipal swimming pool, all those who live more than an hour’s drive away understandably wonder why they should pay for a pool they will never use.

This bias towards larger and larger local bodies – enhanced by the rapid population growth in many peripheral areas and regional towns – has been given a massive boost in recent times by ‘Smart Growth’ planning theory. This approach necessitates large areas of regional governance so that people cannot escape from the planned densification that most independent areas would likely reject.

The Metro planners also often seek to extend their boundaries into the rural areas so as to prevent people and businesses locating where they prefer. Instead it is all determined by where the planners say people and business should go – for their own good, of course.

It may well be that when the central planners try to create “place-based communities” they are responding to a genuine problem, but have chosen the wrong tool-box to fix it. Community can not be imposed from above and large government is clearly the wrong way to nurture it.

A better approach may be to create a new system of local governance controlled by smaller, truly local councils, based on identifiable communities of interest, which are able to freely associate with other organizations if they believe it will provide services and infrastructure beyond their financial means.

We should learn to define the services we need, and then match them to the appropriate organization, rather than trying to find the one or two magic sizes that can cope with all our needs.

We no longer need to accept being re-organized from above; the internet allows even smaller units access to sophisticated information. We have a wonderful opportunity to take control of our destiny through a new world of local government in which the people themselves decide on their common communities of interest and set up novel and innovative joint-management entities where economic efficiency and common sense demand such arrangements.

Note 1: The Times Literary Supplement, July 31, Mathew Taunton’s review of a collection of essays “The Future of Community – Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated”, by Clements, Donald, Earnshaw and Williams, Editors.

Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, New Zealand.

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Humans are social animals

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