Importance of community

by Anne and Dinali

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The commitment to creating strong communities has been at the heart of Sustainable Communities SA since its inception. It is easy to find support through archaeological digs that ‘community’ has been the fundamental social structure which has ensured the survival of our species – and is now even more important in the struggle for environmental survival.

Historically the group of people we lived amongst, be it a tribe, village or even town, formed the basis of our social interactions, support network and basis for communal sharing of resources. Recently with the rise of market economies and highly individualised lifestyles in the West, there has been less emphasis on the communal aspect of human life, and more emphasis on ‘me’ – my success, my income, my family, my assets, my views. These days more and more people seem to be retreating into fortified mansions not knowing their neighbours. While some people maintain a strong support network of friends and family across the globe, there are many people who suffer from extreme isolation. We have also become used to paying for services, like cleaning or takeaway food, that were once freely provided by the people we lived amongst.

Recognising the importance of community, there have been many different attempts at re-creating some form of local community from ecovillages, community gardens, men’s sheds, car pooling and other community based groups. Community, it turns out, is a tricky and difficult beast and like any relationship it requires commitment and willingness to work through the bad times. Particularly when not everyone who becomes a part of your community will have the same views as you.

It would be nice if there was a perfect recipe that could be followed to create community – a dash of shared interests, sprinkle of cooperation, shake and bake and out emerges the perfect community. Reality is not so simple of course. Dinali spoke with several Sustainable Communities SA members about their experiences in different community building ventures. From these conversations some common themes emerged about what builds and maintains strong, vibrant communities:

  • Leadership and some sort of defined structure
  • Willingness to give and receive
  • Being open to new members
  • Time and commitment
  • Regular meetings and shared activities
  • Flexibility and acceptance

Having become habituated to an individualised, privatised way of living as we have in the West, it is not easy to open up to people or to put up with the demands it can place on us. It can be a steep learning curve, but I am of course preaching to the converted when I say that the benefits of having a strong supportive community far outweigh the negative aspects. What does community mean to you and what are your experiences of community?

Anne’s experience from moving into the city, to a small street, with small, closely placed houses has been that the closeness allows for greater interaction and hence a sense of community. The effect of closely settled city living is that people walk a lot more to local shops, stand out in the street (because they have no off street parking), ride bikes more, share verge gardens and gardens of vacant houses, and generally chat to each other. They have street parties every few months, and are generally supportive of each other. They notice if something is happening or not happening as it normally would. There is care for each other, but not intrusively, with a respect for privacy. It is a considerable contrast to living in the suburbs for 30 years, where the change has been evident over the last decade, with less and less community interaction and talking or sharing with neighbours.

It seems that the nature of ‘community’ has changed over the years. It is likely that people are now members of several communities – people with dogs, a political action group, a music group or community choir, a book club, a men’s shed, a community garden, a health support group. There is cross over between groups and the ability to organize across groups for specific activities. But most importantly, membership of different groups can compensate for the changes in society which mean the local village is no longer able to meet all our needs for social interaction and support and building resilience.

What’s your experience?

 

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2 thoughts on “Importance of community

  1. Excellent summary, Anne and Dinali,You seem to have covered so much in a very succinct way!

    I’ve personally found it’s not as easy in a “normal” (whatever that is!) suburban street, such as the one in which I’ve lived for 30 years, as it would be in the inner city – I wonder if Anne’s experience when she lived in a similar old house to mine, in Unley too, was like ours? Most of the old houses in our streets are occupied by Italian or Greek families, who retain many elements of their own cultures, through many generations. Fascinating as that is, it seems to be hard to do the “community” thing if one’s lifestyle, tastes etc differ much from the established norm, which ours seem to. So the ideal camaraderie doesn’t happen – despite basic goodwill, there’s a feeling almost of rejection or disapproval, even after more than 30 years! Small talk, rather superficial friendliness, the occasional swapping of produce, seedlings and cuttings happens, but nothing more deep and meaningful. Perhaps we could be more committed, and stop being so resigned to the status quo; we’ve several times talked about having a street party, but been met with little interest; at times, over so many years, we’ve had neighbours who have been real friends as well, and with whom we still keep in touch, but people seem to move on more quickly than they used to. So I get what I need from other sources – hobbies, interest groups, all the things Anne and Dinali point out – including of course SCSA – rather than in the street/area where I live. That’s fine, but I do think we were meant to have much closer community bonds, and did in the past, before there were so many cars, couples both working, too “busy” and rushed (me too!) to do more than briefly greet neighbours etc. I really notice the benefit of DOGS by the way! A definite means of bonding, and a great pleasure to me, but I have only cats, which don’t have the social importance of dogs, although I welcome children and other passers-by taking an interest in my 3 “boys”, and even invite them inside to see any who aren’t “helping” me in the garden! I envy Anne all the cosmopolitan positives she now has, and often think I’d like to make a similar move – but we all have specific needs which can preclude such major changes in life style. I hope I can work a bit harder at communicating with others, but so far it does take more effort than one hopes it will. Technology doesn’t help sometimes – when people are so engrossed in their individual devices that they barely notice their surroundings, while walking along the street, on buses or trams. I’ve lived in several other places – ( Boston, USA, London, UK,) for up to a year or more, and for some reason (perhaps not having a car, or being in a more closely-knit community, as in Boston, in a cul de sac populated by many families with children of similar ages) and always became much more a part of the local community in those situations; just being in new surroundings seems to make it easier, and when time is limited, one makes the most of everything with renewed energy and procrastination is kept better at bay!

    Cheers and good luck to all,

    Brigid Bruer

    • I agree Brigid that when you don’t conform to the status quo it is much harder to build a sense of community and that having this with the people in the local is important. It is good to have other outlets where a sense of community can be fostered but having a local community means that you can be part of a group who work towards bettering the local area. An important thing as this is where you live. But perhaps this in some way is what Sust Communities aims to do?

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