Of communities and things in common

I’ve read two posts in the last few days which have got me thinking about the c-word.

The first was by the always thought-provoking Tessy Britton on collaboration versus conflict in the shaping of community outcomes.  She talks about her own early experience in community activism, and raises the perennial question about who really represents a local community – the Council or the local interest groups.

I for one feel the need to balance and season my own experience in local government with the insight of people like Tessy, who have brought some rigour and discipline to the question of how we make decisions in society.  Tessy’s post offers a great deal of food for thought, including some very scary things about radical activism (the Alinsky conflict-based model; she’s just this morning posted her alternative to Alinsky); it deserves to be read extremely carefully by – well, by anyone with an interest in what is happening outside their own front door.  In fact, stop reading this now, click the link, read her original post, read today’s post, and then come back here.

Right, done that?

I’m not going to re-hash any of Tessy’s points, nor hijack her discussion.  (Discuss it on her blog if you want.)  I am, however, going to pose the question:  what is a community?

It is easy enough to define a geographic community – a village or town, a neighbourhood within a large city, a district or borough.  In some respects these are all communities, relying on the same public services, the same GP surgeries and schools and supermarkets and pubs and postmen.  But they no longer define us, and they haven’t for decades.

My town is a case in point.  A small-to-medium market town in southern England, where I can walk to the post office and the shops, and nine times out of ten meet someone I know on the way.  Along with all the usual conveniences, we even boast a stately home, which plays host to any number of community events and activities in its grounds.  More importantly to me, the grounds are across the road from my bedroom window and I listen to His Lordship’s owls every night as I fall asleep.

Not a bad life, and one of which I feel very much a part.  If they decided to close the Post Office or demolish the statue in the Market Square or concrete over the War Memorial Park, there I’d be, waving angry placards with the rest of them.  (And don’t, O linguistic purist friends of mine, quibble at the phrase ‘angry placards’.  If any of these things were to be threatened, you may be damn sure that my placard would be as angry as I would be myself.)

But between work, the kids’ school and everything else in life, there are at least four other towns spread over a 30-mile radius where I spend a lot of my time, where I use the facilities and contribute to the local economy, and where I could reasonably claim to be part of “the community”.  The other week I went back to the Surrey suburb where I grew up, and was forcefully – though not unpleasantly – reminded that I am still a part of that community too.

And that is as it should be.  We should be part of multiple, overlapping, diverse communities – not dependent on one small place for work, family, friends and leisure.  (That was called feudalism, or something very much like it; it was fun to watch on a Sunday evening when Lark Rise was still on, but I wouldn’t want to live there.)

Equally, there are things happening in “my” community of which I am not and will never be part.  Whilst I will walk the half-mile to the agricultural show  in September and to the farmers’ market every first Sunday, I have no desire to attend the “Collectors’ Fair” which is regularly advertised (usually properly punctuated, I’m pleased to say) in the hall a few yards from my front door.  (I don’t know what these people collect, but my only collection of any value is my children, and I have all I need of those.)  This weekend I observe signs up around the town, big fluorescent yellow arrows saying “Race Route” – there is presumably a road race sometime soon, and I am anxious to know when, but far more anxious to know whether I’ll be able to get out of our road for the duration of the thing.   When the race is on, I won’t be out there cheering – it’s nothing personal, chaps – but am far more likely to be planning the Power of Language event in Manchester in September, an event which has come about because of an unexpected online discussion with people I haven’t yet met.

So we have a new model of communities – and they are communities of interest as well as of place.  Indeed, are not all communities in fact communities of interest?  Tessy’s example of the traffic in Richmond Park was ostensibly about a place, but was in fact about the shared interest of the people around that place.  And each of those people will have had other, completely unconnected,  interests – whether in international trade from a City office, or the local school or library or church or book group, or an online community with members around the world.

As a society, we seem obsessed with debating and even regulating our “communities”.  Tessy mentioned her Parish Plan, which in the best tradition of political mindlessness is going to be “truly community owned [and] independent of the [elected] Parish Council”.  When it comes to essential publicly-funded services, fair enough, we need to be able to debate and influence them, both at election time and between elections; and we need to be confident that they’re being run fairly and competently.

But the rules of engagement for influencing and regulating communities of place simply don’t transpose to communities of interest.  I can’t vote for my local train company, or even for their bosses, though they provide a public service and there is a strong community of shared interest around reliable train services – a community of interest extending 130 miles from London to Dorset.  And I can’t vote for – or against – the BBC or any other media outlet, though they have a colossal and disproportionate impact on the society in which I live.  (Stand by for a comment some time soon on Sam Leith’s recent piece in the RSA Journal about the media class, sadly not available online.)

In fact, there is no democratic structure (that I can think of) for any “community” that is not geographic.  We seem to have accepted that as a society; we seem to cope.  So do we perhaps have ways of managing our collective behaviour in these non-geographic communities, which could teach us something in the local geographical situations?

Non-geographic communities are no substitute for face-to-face interaction (ask anyone who’s watched a family of four out at dinner together, each focusing intently on their smartphone and the latest text message), but they are a force for good in many ways, and they certainly aren’t going away.  So it was mildly disappointing to read a piece on the Big Think website which suggested that the web was, and should be, increasingly about geographic location.  Now, I usually access the web from home – my not-very-smart-phone doesn’t much like the check-in phenomenon (and nor do I) – so much of the article was irrelevant to me.  But then the author started talking about skyscrapers and the way they foster social capital.  And I thought, you’re kidding, right?

I don’t buy it.  Skyscrapers may work in New York, or even in Mumbai or Shanghai as the author insists, but high-rise living in the UK has been a disaster.  It hasn’t fostered social capital; it’s destroyed it.  Maybe this is because we have such a strong culture in the UK of individual property rights, maybe it’s just about the catastrophic design failures of the 1950s, but large-scale high-rise living quite simply does not work in Britain.  Nor can I see any good reason to try to force us into it.

So I read on.  And I discovered that this author seems to believe that skyscrapers – high-rise, high-density living – are the only places that social or technological innovation can occur.  He almost suggests that the whole world should live in skyscrapers; that those who don’t will be left behind; and that this is somehow a good thing.

I don’t buy that either.  There’s a definition of an economist as “someone who can tell you how the world would function if it were populated entirely with economists”; this skyscraper nonsense is someone trying to tell us how the world would work if everyone lived in downtown New York.  Does not compute.

I am wondering, for example, where the supplies for skyscraper-living will come from – the food, the other raw materials, the energy.  Someone needs to be living out there in the hinterland, growing and manufacturing the fuel and food for city living.  Are they to be excluded from progress as the author implies, to become an underclass in this urban-focused society?  Because I thought that was the model we had in the early years of the industrial revolution or in parts of the modern-day developing world – the model of rural peasants living in grinding poverty, left behind by an urban elite.  No, I wouldn’t want to live there either.

Instead I shall cheer quietly for the person who left this comment on that article:  “The city only triumphs when good men do nothing.”  I shall fall asleep listening to owls.  I shall walk round to the farmers’ market next Sunday, and buy some food you can actually taste from the people who grew it.  And I shall do what I can to engage with every community that resonates with me, in all their magnificent, overlapping variety.

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