The death of community is greatly exaggerated
A new collection of thought-provoking essays challenges the idea that communities are falling apart, and puts the case for less official interference in public space.
My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary offers a number of definitions of ‘community’: a group of people living together in one place; the people of an area as a social group; a group of people with a common religion, race or profession; the holding of certain attitudes and interests in common.
However you define it, there has been an awful lot of handwringing about the idea of ‘community’ in recent years. In Britain, there has been a regular drone from government and a variety of think tanks and columnists about the loss of community and what can be done to restore it. Concerns about ‘Broken Britain’, anti-social behaviour, the inability of different cultures to mix and the loss of neighbourhoods to urban sprawl are all put forward as examples of how society is on the edge of breakdown.
While society has most certainly changed considerably in the past few decades, it is worth interrogating the notion that community has been ‘lost’ – which is precisely the aim of The Future of Community, a new book brought together by members of the Future Cities Project. The book is made up of 14 think pieces, covering a wide variety of topics, including the craze in government for promoting volunteering, the truth about public space and urban sprawl, and the rise of new forms of community, both ethnic and online. Many of the authors are architects, which influences the kind of topics that are covered. But whatever the subject, a common theme in most of these pieces is that the concern about community reveals less about what is happening in our streets, and more about the people who govern us.
In his introduction, Austin Williams notes that ‘since the turn of the new millennium, there has been a growing recognition in political and academic circles that there is a fracturing of trust and cooperation in people’s everyday interactions with one another’. What is striking is the degree to which this fracturing is exaggerated. As Williams notes, there are ‘between 500,000 and 900,000 community groups operating at all levels in the UK’; this suggests there is a continuing willingness amongst people to act together in some common cause. While there has indeed been a relative fragmentation of society in the past 20 years or so, this tends to be amplified in the minds of many, particularly in the media and government; they see society as being on the verge of collapse.
Having decided that our communities are broken, government has taken it upon itself to put this Humpty Dumpty society back together again – with about as much success as they had in the original nursery rhyme. As Dave Clements points out in his essay on civil society, the powers-that-be are desperate to involve and engage us, just so long as the engagement takes place within pre-defined limits. Dismayed with our apathy at the ballot box, citizens’ juries and consultations multiply so that our views can be taken into account; sadly, just as with elections, the options to choose from our narrowly set.
Martyn Perks notes the multifarious technical solutions that are put forward for dealing with the problem of how to connect with the public. Broadcasters incessantly try to get us to interact with their programmes and websites. Politicians try to connect through blogs, or ask whether online voting might be the answer to low electoral turnouts. But what is this kind of engagement with the public for, exactly? Perks argues it is simply the appearance of engagement: ‘It is clear that the drive for social engagement and participation via internet technologies is propelled by a clear political agenda, but one that seeks merely to secure participation in a technical sense, rather than a more genuine sense of actively shaping the political future.’
Even where commentators argue for bypassing traditional government through new forms of networking, the result is not a vibrant new political life but the reduction of politics to the most tedious process of deciding the mundane. At university, I had the pleasure of being involved with student union committees: hour-long debates about the siting of a pinball machine were typical of the inanity of the various decision-making procedures. Yet combine such discussions with the social networking glamour of Web 2.0 and many of today’s highly regarded thinkers seem to believe that this is the way to forge a new politics.
If we can’t be encouraged to engage with government, perhaps the authorities can persuade us to talk to each other. Often, this takes the form of simply engineering acquaintance through the design of housing or public space. Richard Williams effectively mocks those who think that leaving big gaps in cities for people to mingle in will somehow produce some kind of mutual engagement. In fact, he says, it is as likely to induce agoraphobia.
Williams provides a few arguments against the creation of large public spaces. Firstly, such schemes have tended to be anti-democratic in the past, like the construction of Paris’s wide boulevards to keep the oiks in their ghettos, or Trafalgar Square in London as an expression of imperial power. Secondly, the architects and policy wonks who wax lyrical about southern Europe’s piazzas are really fantasising about transplanting an entirely different model of social organisation on to Britain, not just a street layout. Thirdly, as the example of Brasilia shows, open space induces quite different feelings amongst different sections of society; it is wonderful for the middle classes to drive through, but downright threatening for the poor to negotiate on foot during the night.
If community can’t be engineered in the town square, the authorities will try to create it in the terraces and high rises. But the question that is never asked, as this book notes, is whether it is ‘possible or desirable to make communities’. The view of the authorities seems to be that if we are thrown together by architecture, somehow something good will take shape. As Karl Sharro puts it: ‘Socialisation is promoted as a matter for experts and officials to orchestrate, rather than something we willingly take part in.’
Yet people usually crave a space of their own and do not want to live cheek-by-jowl. In the UK, however, very close proximity is enforced for most people by the Green Belt rules, where the choices are to live out in the sticks or to be crammed into the city. In the USA, however, cities have much more freedom to expand. As Sharro points out, these suburbs are regarded by many as environmental and social disasters, portrayed in popular culture as ‘morally corrupt landscapes where people’s tendencies for depravity can flourish’ rather than the fulfilment of an ambition.
For Sharro, the concern with community, with its connotation of ‘local’, shows the narrow imagination of planners and architects today. As the comedian Frank Skinner once noted, ‘local’ is often just another word for ‘crap’: local newspaper, local poet, local band, etc. If it was any good, it wouldn’t be local.
One of the touchstones of the community discussion in Britain is the death of the old East End of London, whose people were packed off to new towns in Essex or put in modern, anonymous high-rise developments after their homes were flattened by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. The seminal work on the break-up of these communities is Family and Kinship in East London, by Michael Young and Peter Willmott. If only these communities could have been kept together, so the argument goes, there would have been fewer social problems. Yet, as Penny Lewis observes, real experience suggests otherwise. When this ‘crude determinism’, as Lewis calls it, was applied in the building of the Byker estate in Newcastle, created to ‘keep people together’, the result was pretty much the same set of social problems that are experienced in other big housing developments. Lewis is blunt: ‘The problem of community is not susceptible to the imposed solutions of urban design.’
Andrew Calcutt also looks back to Young and Willmott’s work, suggesting that it was Family and Kinship that helped to narrow the understanding of community. Calcutt shows how Young and Willmott, leading lights of the Institute of Community Studies (now rebranded as the Young Foundation), artificially partitioned off personal relations – both within the immediate family and in the neighbourhood – and labelled them as ‘community’.
Yet as workers, union members and soldiers – many in the East End would have been all three – people would have developed a whole set of important, impersonal relationships, too. But the life-changing experiences of depression and war were simply obliterated in Young and Willmott’s book. ‘In the presentation of working-class life given by the Institute of Community Studies’, Calcutt points out, ‘the generation which blew up Berlin was embedded in Bethnal Green and acting as if it had never been further afield than Barking.’
This is important because it helps to explain the crisis of community now. While personal relations, particularly in relation to the family, have certainly changed considerably in the past few decades, they remain central to most people’s lives. Even the changing mix of different nationalities and cultures is generally well-negotiated when people are allowed to get on with it, as Suzy Dean illustrates in the book with the heartwarming tale of how a sudden influx of Brazilians brought new life to a dying Irish town.
The real break from the past is the collapse of many of the impersonal relations Calcutt describes: unions, religion, patriotism. These relations cohered not just neighbourhoods but whole sections of society. In turn, they provided a way for the ruling class to interact with the rest of society. The unions were the enemy within; the Church of England was the Conservative Party at prayer; Queen and Country provided a unifying purpose that sought to transcend class. Without these things, the ruling classes have nothing to define themselves against, no sense of community of their own.
So, community is not dead. But to return to those dictionary definitions, there is a real anxiety at the top of society about a lack of ‘attitudes and interests in common’. In the absence of the now-defunct forms of interaction between state and citizen, we’re seeing a tendency to more authoritarian solutions. Unless this controlling impulse can be opposed, it may well represent the future of community.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated, edited by Dave Clements, Alastair Donald, Martin Earnshaw and Austin Williams is published by Pluto Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)