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Communities Are Much More Than Localities

September 9, 2010

The new agenda in regeneration is emerging, and with it will emerge also a new lexicon. Each of us will have their own priorities for terminological redefinition. Mine is to re-examine the meaning/s of ‘community’. Communities are not just localities; but this is rarely reflected in thinking on regeneration or social policy.

Community as locality
In perceiving comunities only as localities, we are likely also to see them as static, and not as vital elements in the quest for sustainability in our complex world. Nonethelss, when asked, most people will describe ‘community’ as in terms of local area – the sorts of housing, the distance to the shops or school, how to get to work (or not), tradition and heritage, or perhaps the level of affluence or disadvantage.

Some commentators will add to this a comment on particular eco-environmental factors, and a few will perhaps offer information on local politics or issues such as diversity or faith.

Community as complexity
But hardly anyone seems to perceive ‘community’ clearly as a living and changing phenomenon, a sort of ‘social organism’. But that to my mind is exactly what each person’s community is – something fluid and ever-evolving which is different for each one of us at different times in our lives.

Our ‘communities’ grow as we grow, extending into new areas of experience as we develop socially and in our formal, adult environments. Seen in this light, probably every reader has dozens of different communities – and very likely too, their ‘locality community’ generally features quite low on the list of important reference points.

Higher up this list, for most of us as adults, are our extended families, our professional / work connections, our friendships across many interests, our leisure and voluntary memberships / associates and, of course, our virtual ‘friends’ on websites such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

If by the word ‘community’ we are referring to significant social and other connections with personal meaning, it soon becomes apparent that in adulthood actual physical home location may be far less important to most (?) of us than some other aspects of individual experience.

Ages, stages and influence
People do not, however, simply continue to add layer upon layer to their personal communities as time goes by.

There is a stage in life (or more probably a series of stages) in which, although experience continues to be gained, influence does not. Learning and new ways to make sense of our world may well continue, but capacity to travel and make further connections across it usually diminish.

Similar considerations apply also, for instance, to those, often women, who must stay at home because they care for very young or elderly family members.

Our personal ‘communities’ expand or shrink at different points in the journey through life, even if (as is increasingly unlikely) we remain domestically in the same place all the time.

Communities as diverse experience
This is not however just a matter of academic note. National and local policies seem frequently to be predicated on an understanding of ‘community’ which fits the notions of the policy-maker – more often stereotypically a white, middle class, older middle aged male? – rather better than that of those on whom the policy has most impact.

Ideas for the ‘Big Society’ perhaps illustrate how this critique applies. Its emphasis on local ‘platoons’ of volunteers carries the implicit assumption that physical locality equals community – an assumption which overlays many other regeneration and social policy proposals as well.

And in some ways it’s as if ‘communities’ exist in policy terms only where there is disadvantage or challenge. This perspective puts aside, for instance, those for whom the world (rather than their postcode) is their oyster, and the opportunities which a wider concept of communities might offer others who are more constrained but seek to broaden or raise their horizons.

Flexibility and resilience
Of course there are aspects of socio-economic development and renewal which are rightly and very expressly embedded in physical location; but this is not often the whole story. And it is why physical regeneration cannot alone make for sustainability over time.

People with different experiences, of different ages and backgrounds, all have their own notions of what constitutes community. In a complex and constantly changing world this is generally a strength on which to build, rather than a problem to be confronted.

But it is unlikely that this opportunity to achieve flexibility – and thus resilience – will taken, if policy notions of community continue to be based simply on locality as though it’s a given.

A version of this article was first posted as a New Start blog on 9 September 2010.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010 09:02

    Hi Hilary,
    Just came across your site and I’m looking forward to reading your posts


  2. October 18, 2010 08:17

    Hi Hilary,
    Enjoy you website. This is an intersting theme and one which is very pertinent to the future of local economic development. Given your thoughts, do you think there needs to be a more sophisticated appraoch to compiling evindece about the communities we look to get involved with, to help. Baseline evidence about areas typicvally throws up the same indicators, statistics, area maps (we all know and love!); but seriously would you say we nned to be more sophisticated about mapping the social networks within places, or indeed should we be really focussing on units of one, i.e. the individual rather than a place? I’m not suggesting what is right, just wondered what your views are on this.
    Kind regards

  3. hilary permalink*
    October 28, 2010 21:12

    Many thanks for this Rupert.

    I’d certainly agree that we need to know about social networks etc, as well as the basic demographics.

    I think some recent research* suggests that, as you suggest, identifying local activists / movers and shakers is a good place to start? – tho obviously we always need to be careful that we don’t listen exclusively to the noisiest folk on the block; the postman or woman may be as central in this as the priest or pastor.

    [* e.g. Community engagement and community cohesion, Rowntree (2008): ]

    Having said that however, and as you will know, Super Output Areas (SOAs) do offer a lot of scope for mapping need and potential; they just take a lot of patience to work through, and of course the stats very rightly close off if the data becomes too specific / identifiable.

    So you have a very good point about looking to individuals rather than place. We need to recognise however that those who might do this from the ‘official’ side of the fence require a very wide range of skills, if they are to deliver something positive and broadly acceptable in local communities.

    There has been quite a lot of comment about the role of ‘community anchor’ organisations (e.g. bassac) and more recently of community-based individuals who perhaps perform this function – but I guess the real challenge is to mix the requirement for influential, experienced local residents (to offer stability) with the equally critical need (for sustainability) of a degree of flexibility; and I’d think that not many of us as individuals alone can meet both these requirements. So maybe it’s the mix which is essential?

    Would you agree? Look forward to your thoughts.
    Thanks again,

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