Importance of community

by Anne and Dinali

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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