If there’s one thing the 20th century gave us, it’s the luxury of not needing each other. It so defines our culture that it’s physically embodied in our sprawling, disconnected landscapes.
That alone begs a classic, chicken-n-egg question: Did the leisurely lure of the suburbs kill our sense of community? Were our social ties unwittingly severed by the meandering disconnection of subdivisions and strip malls or was sprawl just a symptom of something larger? After all, for all their rewards, meaningful relationships take a lot of work. Perhaps, once the modern world elevated our prospects for personal independence, we cut those ties ourselves, willingly, lest our happy motoring be weighted down with excess baggage.
Sprawl: form following function.
Whether we’re victims or perpetrators doesn’t really matter. Either way, the land once described by Alexis de Tocqueville as a nation of associations, where people look not to government but to each other to overcome the bulk of their challenges, is now described by Robert Putnam, in his groundbreaking 2000 book Bowling Alone, like this:
“Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values–these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live.”
It’s who we are. And it’s a problem.
What? Me Worry?
I can hear it now: “What problem? Thanks to the marvels of modernity, time once spent in negotiations with difficult people can now be applied towards something I find much more tolerable: Me.”
I get it. The appeal is undeniable and it works just fine… until the party ends. And there’s increasing indicators that that’s exactly what’s happening.
Today, the breakdown of local community has robbed us of our historic safety net. One in which half the population once belonged to a fraternal organization and from it received everything from fellowship and business opportunity to health care, lost-wage insurance and burial benefits. In its wake, we find a nation where the available support structures for the average person now number exactly two. At the one end, we have personal and family resources. You against the world. At the other, we have enormous institutions like the Federal Government or BP or United Healthcare. The faceless behemoths.
And in between? Our once robust networks of interdependent social, religious, institutional and commercial resources have largely withered on the vine, leaving currently en vogue cries for “less government” ringing a bit hollow. After all, when you strip away big gubmint, our primary source of support in a nation now devoid of Tocqueville’s admired communal unity, who’s gonna pick up the slack?
Oh, I remember. We’re a nation of rugged individuals who can fend for ourselves. Right.
Of course, that’s not really true. There may always be the classic woodsman out there, living off the land but, for the majority of us, a stable economy, cheap energy, well-stocked grocery stores, big boxes filled with Chinese creature comforts, digital information at our fingertips, and endless sources of entertainment-on-demand have simply lured us into thinking we’re the masters of our own domains. As though self-reliance were actually easy.
Sadly, it’s not. As John Michael Greer says in his handy post-industrial how-to, The Long Descent, “One core concept that has to be grasped is the rule that the community, not the individual, is the basic unit of human survival. History shows that local communities can flourish while empires fall around them.”
Resilient communities are connected communities and there’s a growing body of research to back that up. Furthermore, there’s more than a little evidence indicating that the strength of those connections is fostered, in part, by the form those places take.
That’s right. I’m talking about traditional urban form. Walkable, neighborly Smart Growth. Community design designed for the complexities of community.
Given the less-than-desirable state of our economy and the national financial obligations that go with it, common sense would dictate that we invest in the strength of our community ties as a reasonable tool for reducing demands on the Fed. Yet, curiously, those most concerned with whittling down the size of government are more often than not the same ones opposing the local community visioning and smart growth planning efforts necessary to restore the social fabric that makes such reductions possible.
Add to that the off-putting tenor of sustainability discourse. Day in and day out, it’s consistently predicated on unthinkable scenarios — natural disasters, climate change, peak oil, global financial meltdown. From a rhetorical perspective, this is done to create a sense of urgency but, in terms of motivating our efforts to rebuild local social networks, it tends to have the opposite effect.
Those things are just too big, too complicated or too uncertain to wrap our heads around. Justifying the effort to meet the neighbors now requires we buy into global warming? Aw, jeeez. Just forget it then.
A New Discourse
Instead, I propose a new premise. A simple premise. Change happens. That’s it. It is, without dispute, inevitable that change will come to our communities. It may take the form of a locally unique challenge or it may be the effects of something larger trickling down upon us. Something we brought upon ourselves or something unfairly levied.
It may be change for the worse, bringing with it great tragedy, or it could equally be change for the better, revealing tremendous new opportunities.
Whatever form it takes, the reigning constant is this: The deeper our sense of community, the stronger its connections, and the more robust our web of interdependent relationships, the better positioned we’ll be to take it on and manage it effectively.
Connected communities are competitive communities. And those willing to compete are those best positioned to win.
Recognizing the practical value of strong, local community is not a difficult proposition. The more we admit that we need each other and, in turn, make ourselves available to others, the better off we’ll be. Many of us are already hard-wired to do this. Which means the role for municipalities is to simply make it easier — in the form of policy, expenditure decisions and growth planning.
One example I’m closely familiar with is right here in my hometown. Decatur, Georgia’s community-wide strategic planning effort in 2000 revealed something interesting: The surge of newcomers descending upon this revitalizing city, as well as the long-timers greeting their arrival, wanted the city to take an active role in connecting people by providing a central clearinghouse of civic-minded opportunities.
In response, the city created Volunteer! Decatur, which coordinates volunteers for city-sponsored events as well as maintaining a referral database of local, non-profit opportunities. Give ‘em a call, tell them how you might be useful, and they’ll point you in the right direction.
The city was simply responding to expressed need but, as it turns out, they were creating value as well. Not just in the terms discussed here, where a more robust community can better weather change in the future, but in the here and now.
Over the course of roughly eight city-sponsored events each year, volunteers contribute 13,000+ man-hours. Hours which, if gauged according to the skills employed, translate to over a quarter million dollars in value. Each year. And that’s not counting all of those steered towards the non-profits tirelessly taking on social imperatives that, in their absence, would fall on the shoulders of… you guessed it: government. Put a price tag on that.
But even better, in the course of all that volunteering, all those civic-minded participants met other civic-minded participants and forged the connections that have since resulted in things like community gardens which, in turn, inspired our local farmers’ market and farm-to-school initiative.
That’s how community grows. Of course, it’s not just about food. It’s a lot bigger than that.
It’s about cooking up the tasty stock of resiliency. Tocqueville style.
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