COMMUNITY

goofy golfYesterday we hosted our annual neighbourhood adults-only barbecue, a delightful but boisterous group of 80 people. We welcomed our two new neighbourhood couples. One of the neighbours catered the event for cost. Another neighbour laid out a 9-hole Goofy Golf course (see map) that stretched across the hundred-acre neighbourhood (we’re virtually fence-free, and neighbours actually vie to ‘host’ one of the holes, putting out coolers of beer and inviting players to stop for a dip in their pools). Goofy golf is played with a sand wedge and a tennis ball and the ‘holes’ are a foot in diameter. We play it before the barbecue and it’s open to kids as well. Another neighbour hosted an afternoon children’s picnic and amusement fair. We also held a raffle for donated prizes, and raised $750 for a local children’s charity, and then played Euchre and 8-ball into the wee hours. The last straggler left at 3 am, and of course no one had to drive home, which was just as well.

This is what every neighbourhood should and could be like. It works because:

  • Since we’re relatively isolated here out in the exurbs, sharing our community with wolves, coyotes and other wildlife, events like blizzards and power failures (two in the past two weeks, including the Big One) force you to get along with, and stay in touch with, your neighbours. In the city, it’s just too easy to be anonymous.
  • Despite the young average age (forty) of the residents, and the long (45-minute) commute to Toronto, the neighbourhood is so physically attractive that no one ever wants to leave, so turnover is almost zero.
  • We’ve all escaped from other residential models (urban, rural, suburban) that we didn’t like, so we’re determined to make our community work.
  • We’re spread out enough and separated by protected conservation corridors (not shown on map above) that we’re not visible or audible to our neighbours, so disputes are very rare.

My purpose for describing this is to make a couple of points about neighborhoods and to describe a few concepts about community that I think are very important. My points are these:

  • I believe overpopulation and overcrowding underlie many of the problems of our world. Our neighbourhood shows that when people have room to be themselves, they tend to be peaceful, cooperative, and environmentally sensitive. They can afford to be. We need to make this luxury available to everyone. To do so we need way fewer people on the planet.
  • I believe political, legal and business problems grow and proliferate exponentially when the size of the physical area, the number of people affected, and the degree of concentration of power increases. Functional communities, like our neighbourhood, where everyone participates and everyone knows everyone else, have almost no problems. But once you get up to national, state and local governments and large, centralized corporations, there are too many players, too many people uninformed, uninvolved, unaffected, and this is where all the problems start. Small is beautiful, and the smaller the more beautiful, and the more effective and self-managing.

We each live and work in three distinctive types of communities, each of which has a different makeup and function:

  1. Neighbourhoods – those people with whom we physically share space, where we live, at various levels of aggregation from our immediate neighbours to whole nations and even the planet we share with others.
  2. Collaborators – those people with whom we make a living. As I’ve pointed out in my essays on New Collaborative Enterprises, I believe a new model is needed to replace the bankrupt and dysfunctional corporate model we developed a few centuries ago.
  3. Networks – those people with whom we share a common interest. We all belong to many networks.

Only since the advent of modern transportation and communication technologies have these three types of communities become distinct. Until a century or two ago, most people married and worked with their neighbours, and played and prayed with them. But for most of us we still have no real choices about the communities we live, work and play in. Most of us still live in unsafe, crowded neighbourhoods, surrounded by strangers. These neighbourhoods in turn comprise cities, states and nations run by despots and criminals, by the self-serving and power-hungry, unaffected by the consequences of their actions and indifferent to the suffering of those they supposedly represent.

Most of us still work in jobs where we have unequal say, or no say at all, where name and wealth always trump talent, and where those at the top neither know or care about the plight of those ‘under’ them. And most of us cannot afford, access or understand the technologies that allow people to find like minds in communities of interest: potential soulmates, playmates and workmates.

At one time, before the three types of communities became distinct, people used terms like nation (literally, those of common birth, referring to a cooperative group of tribes), and company (literally, friends and intimates together for common cause). These words have now been debased beyond recognition, but their original meanings tell us what we must strive again to build — communities of small numbers of people who for whatever reason (desire to make a living together, desire to live in the same physical setting, or desire to share a common interest) want to commune — to do things in common. Communities, in other words, that work.

(The author is writing a book about a peaceful, utopian world, with a prescription for making it a reality. This is the second of a series of articles designed to develop the precepts for the book).

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14 Responses to COMMUNITY

  1. mrG says:

    I have witnessed the exact community spirit you describe among those who live in the Kensington Market area of Toronto, a place where there is poverty, density and other factors you are citing as causes of community. That leads me to believe the ingredients for successful community are something more than you describe.In Kensington, part of the community is a shared voice that is championed by their own newspaper, but clearly there are places where that fails to anneal coopertive community spirit.Perhaps it has something to do with the moon …

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: Poverty makes it more difficult, but not impossible. High density makes it really difficult — we weren’t meant to live in cities, or in such close proximity to each other. I’m sure there are pockets of community everywhere, but I’m talking about sustained (twenty years), ubiquitous (everyone included, everyone participating) community. That’s a lot more than live-and-let-live, and requires, I think, continuity, lots of room to breathe, and determination to make it work. Even in communes and gated communities, where people to some extent self-select, there seems to be a lot more conflict and a lot less cohesion than we have. One of our neighbours lived in an ‘exclusive’ American community (new residents had to be approved by existing ones in a vote) and they found it fiercely political, and most residents were intolerant of any activity that was even vaguely out of the ‘mainstream’. I know people in Kensington and other mostly-trendy, mostly youth-oriented communities in Toronto, and they say that most (more than half) of the residents are tolerant, but those that aren’t are vocal, interfere in the rights of others, and tend to outlast the young and tolerant, who finally give up and move out to where there’s more physical space between them and their neighbours. We’re the only species on the planet that isn’t smart enough to automatically reduce our numbers to give every one of our species a biologically determined ‘right’ amount of space (in the case of humans, for 3 million years that was somewhere between one and five acres per person depending on the quality of the space).And we don’t need a newspaper — word spreads by person to person and telephone contact to everyone in the community in less time than it takes to print and distribute a paper.

  3. Adrian says:

    Dave, have you read William Leach’s book “Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life”? Some of his arguments, I think, resonate with yours. One thing that he talks about is the need to balance “centripetal” and “centrifugal” forces; he believes the equilibrium has been thrown out of balance. He talks at great length about the need to restore the idea of community, although if I remember correctly, he doesn’t offer many concrete proposals. The book’s more of a cri de coeur. Worth checking out.I agree with much of what you’re saying here, but I also have some questions. Most importantly, how can the idea of community — an idea which has its roots in a prior era, really a feudal era if you look into it deeply — be revived without also reviving the exclusionary practices that often go along with it? Communities have tended to maintain their integrity by putting up barriers. Isn’t there a danger of inadvertently advocating separatism? In recent history, attempts to return to the community of “common birth” have led to travesties like the Republika Srpska, the culturally and economically stagnant backwater in the Balkans. And, closer to home, suburbia has often tried to recreate a sense of community — by redlining minorities and other “undesirables.” One of the major driving forces in the development of the suburb was the wish to live simpler lives in more spacious surroundings among familiars, escaping the grit and noise of the city. In what ways does your utopian vision differ?So it seems to me a complicated question. John Cage once wrote something (I don’t have the exact quote in front of me) about “making the earth whole again…but with technology too”. Is it possible to accomplish something similar with communities?

  4. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi DaveJane Jacobs would disagree with you on density. Her findings have been that high density with “eyes on the street” = low rise are benficial for community. EOS is a design where everyone knows that what they do is observed and where responsible adults will intervene when things get out of hand. Maybe your community has lots of Eyes on the Street? What also helps are social nodes such as small stores/bars etc where news and gossip are spread What is the worst type of design would be the type of appartment blocks that have been built in low income areas with large open spaces and few shops. Second worst are burbs where no one looks out for anyone else. Your place sounds lovely

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Adrian: Easy issues first: Hadn’t read “Country of Exiles” and was intrigued enough by Salon’s review to order it already — thanks for the recommendation. Also, I do embrace technology as a key part of the solution to current problems, even though technology has created a lot of these problems. You can read more about this in my signature essay (left sidebar link) entitled “Prescription for Business Innovation”. And I appreciate the ideal of the suburb, especially if it’s able to adopt Smart development principles (i.e. adequate local industry to cut commuting, mix of different housing types, preference for locally-owned versus other businesses). But I don’t think that ideal has worked, partly because Smart development principles have not been followed and partly because it’s speculator and developer greed that determines the layout and rate and type of growth in the suburb, not the design of the people that live in it (and local politicians constantly claim they have no control over the important decisions either). I read Utne’s list of the top 10 ‘communities that work’, and the one I know best (Markham, Ontario) doesn’t work well at all according to the people I know that live there.Now the hard issue: Yes, tribes are exclusionary, segregated, and homogeneous. There is a strong Darwinian argument in favour of communities being permitted to self-select their members. The argument, which I realize is contentious, since it can breed racism, can be found in Daniel Quinn’s “Story of B”. I’m uncomfortable with it, as a liberal, but he makes a compelling argument. A self-selecting community could just as easily refuse to allow bigots, or neocons (to some extent the Salon community subtly does that), as it could racial minorities. The issue is whether the benefits of community self-selection (people that like each other are more likely to get along, and also do other things together which could reduce the amount of driving/pollution to visit people of like minds) outweigh the disadvantages (discrimination, reinforcement of bigotry, lack of exposure to people with different ideas and viewpoints). It’s a tough issue, and as I described in the post, elitist self-selecting communities can be tyrannical nightmares. It’s undoubtedly naive to believe that if we could get past the overpopulation and overcrowding issues, the economic issues that often lead to bigotry would be quickly overcome and hence bigotry itself would cease. But how can you permit communities to self-select their members and at the same time ensure there is enough cross-pollination of cultures and ideas to prevent ideological and racial hatred from brewing? I have no idea, and I suspect that’s one of the big issues that I’m going to have to address in my book.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Rob: Don’t know Jane, and maybe I’m an idealist, but EOS sounds to me like self-policing, which is a component of, but just a small part of, a fully self-managed community. We do generally police ourselves, and the two incidents in the last decade I know about were solved by our vigilance rather than outside ‘eyes’. We also know each other so well, and visit each other so often, that it would be very hard to conceal any wrongdoing despite the natural buffers between houses. At the same time I think the very fact there is lots of space and lots of communication involving everyone in the community both contribute to lowering the likelihood of criminal and immoral behaviour in the first place, so ironically we have lots of EOS but usually don’t need them. I agree that small stores and pubs are very useful gathering places, though communication is so good here we don’t really need them for that. I’d love a local pub just as another destination to walk to with the neighbours (lovely as the area is) and as an excuse not to worry about dinner every night (we’re too far out to get stuff delivered).

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that this area isn’t perfect (yet ;-) We have a slaughterhouse next door that we’ve been fighting to get closed down for years (because it’s a bad corporate citizen, not because of what it is). We also have some real estate speculators who own land in the area and are constantly pushing to change zoning and land use in the area, which is a challenge because the provincial government has ultimate say on all zoning and is fiercely pro-development.

  8. O RLY YA RLY says:

    When reading this, the word that came to my mind was ‘Japan’…

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Hey, Harald, where’ve you been? We’ve been looking for stuff for the next VO from you, and your blog is strangely silent. Do you want to elaborate on ‘Japan’ — are you saying it’s an example (re: WW2 etc.) or a counter-example of the challenges of high density?

  10. Kevin says:

    EOS definitely brings up images of Japan.I am always amused to see signs on the trains saying “If you use your mobile phone, other people will be watching you disapprovingly”. In many places garbage bags are made clear so your neighbors will know if you throw out non-burnable garbage on the burnable garbage day, or if there are recyclable items in your regular garbage.Being “watched” by the neighbors is a big part of what drives people’s behavior here. But it’s also very stifling, and it seems to be working less and less as young people seem to be becoming a little more independent. Many of them also look at the sign on the train and laugh. They could care less if their “neighbor” is looking at them disapprovingly. On any given trash day, I can’t walk a block without seeing garbage bags filled with a mixture of plastics, papers, bottles, and cans.Of course, the majority of my experience is in Tokyo, or other large cities. I would suspect that people in smaller, more rural communities care more about what their neighbors will say. It is however, far from utopia to have a community full of busy-bodies watching and waiting for you to do something wrong. And it innevitable doesn’t stop there. The eyes on the street are also watching you personal life, so that it can be difficult to even have a house guest “the community” disapproves of.The result of all of this, seems to me to be very artificial communities. Peace based on lies, and building anxiety as we never really know when the community will decide that it no longer likes us for some aspect of our private life. given a choice to live in a community like that, or in an anonymous apartment building, it’s no wonder people prefer anonymity.I really don’t think that EOS can play a part in the utopian community. The real utopian community would be built by screening members, allowing only those who don’t use their phone on the train because they are educated in and understand and agree on thereason not to (although I can’t figure it out*), and have respect for the other people around them and respect for the environment, not because they are afraid of confrontation and what their neighbor thinks. *Off Topic, but the best reason I have ever heard anyone give for not using a phone on the train, is that it is annoying to the people around you if they can only hear one side of your conversation…

  11. O RLY YA RLY says:

    When thinking about the results of density, Japan is the perfect laboratory. Though our little country is quite dense as well. I was born in a small village (called Escharen – pronounce at your own peril) and now live in a big city (Rotterdam). When thinking of utopian societies people often think of rural societies. That’s such a cliché. I was glad to get out of there. Nothing ever happens there. History passes it by. I recently went back home for my uncle’s birthday. The conversation was about death, disease and car accidents. Nothing else happens there. I recently moved from one student house to another. When moving the local flowerman told me I was mad to want to live in a city. He said he would love to live in a village. He didn’t know what he was talking about. He had never been there. He was just repeating the cliché.In student houses you live very close to each other, in one building. This has the strange result that you don’t know the neigbours in the house next to you, but you know the people above and in front of you very well. You form a small community. Maybe the solution would be to turn the floors of skyscrapers into collective living units, with shared facilities.Maybe this is a good time to drop the word ‘commune’.I think different people work best in different places. Some people like peace and quiet, other people get bored there. Some people are big city people, others are rural village types. The problem is matching supply and demand.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Kevin: Thanks for the insight on Japan. I agree that my ‘utopian’ community doesn’t really lend itself to EOS ‘policing’ to make it work, but rather a combination of earned mutual trust, respect, and enough space to allow personal eccentricities (motorcycles, loud music) without infringing on others. Mind you, in a utopian community the train wouldn’t be needed for commuting, but for irregular visiting and sightseeing, the kind of ‘adventure’ that for most people is a social event, where, because it’s irregular, you’d likely be more tolerant of noise and distraction anyway.

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Harald: The utopian community I’m describing is definitely not rural or sleepy, nor is it a ‘village’. Our neighbourhood is what I call ‘exurban’, professional people living in a largely natural setting sharing their environment with other species. We’re working on a project to build a windmill that we all agreed will go on the lot(s) with the most wind, with no ‘compensation’ to the person who ‘owns’ that land. I think you and Gary make a good point about the fact some people like living in close physical proximity to others, and some people like to be ‘anonymous’. We don’t pry and gossip in our neighbourhood, but no one is anonymous, and we look out for each other, all of us. I’m going to have to give this some thought for the book — it seems to me that crowded spaces and anonymity are unnatural and unhealthy, but I respect that others don’t see it that way at all.

  14. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Your description sounds like an environmentally friendly kind of sprawl. Here in Holland we have a lot of sprawl, know as ‘Vinex-locaties’. Some of them experiment with sustainability and such.

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