The ingredients of community
At a recent TLAP event we were asked to talk about what a strong community looks like. As often happens, people started to come up with examples from rural communities, and examples of problems from urban communities. In some - certainly not all - rural places, community just seems to happen, without the need for 'programmes'. Some of the reasons for this are fairly obvious - people tend to live for longer in rural communities where as many urban communities are more transient. You also have less choice about who you mix with in a rural community, whereas in a city there may be dozens of accessible activities, and so you are much less likely to spend lots of time getting to know the same people.
Similarly, transport services can be more remote or impractical in rural communities, which some people had examples of leading to people arranging to share cars and help each other out. A striking feature of the examples was that people tended to offer something in return for the help they received - a bag of apples in return for a lift to the hospital, for example.
How to replicate or replace some of those ingredients of community life in places where people are more transient, have more choices about what to do, more access to services (perhaps!) and where there may be many cultures and languages?
One example might be programmes supported by organisations like 20:20 Public Services Hub and others, to identify and support community connectors. Every community, even ones where lots of people live for a short time, also include people who have been there for longer and who have the potential to be the glue for that community. If a shared place does not always create a connection, finding a shared interest in that place can do, such as the residents of a block of flats who started to talk to each other when they were all affected by building work across the canal. Using social media can be one way to create connections between people around a place, which can be both shallow, but also easy to enter. The key then being to find ways to deepen those connections and to include people who are offline.
There is always a risk in any kind of community that some people are seen as 'in need' and others as the potential helpers. This dividing line in a community puts pressure on a small group of people who are in a position to help to offer lots of time and deprives the community of the skills and contributions of people who have more obvious support needs. Some of the examples of tackling this came from rural areas, such as the older man who needs help when he is poorly, but can contribute to village fairs and neighbour's gardens with his woodworking skills. Others were relevant to any area, such as the older person who has gardening skills but can't physically garden anymore, who was helped in his small garden by people who wanted to learn gardening skills. Or the involving food as an excuse to get people together, including street parties or cooking extra portions of food to trade in the food equivalent of a time bank.
Many urban areas will never feel like a village. And isolation in a rural area can be the most distressing and problematic kind. But the simple connections which in a village often gel, in time, into a community, can begin and be fostered, in all kinds of places. You can follow Alex's regular blogs (opens new window) here, he tweets at @alexsharedlives.