Let’s start at the very beginning. What is a community?
The number of definitions floating around out there seems to constitute a community itself. Some are simple: “A community is a group of likeminded people.” Others go deep: “Community is a multidimensional concept that includes durable social relations and an acknowledged interdependence with others.”
To boil it all down: communities involve people, in groups, who share things. Maybe they share a neighbourhood, or a religion. Maybe they share a garden, or a political viewpoint. Maybe they all love footy. Or maybe they all hate it. Whatever it is that they have in common, everyone, at some stage, belongs to a community.
“We are, by nature, social creatures who congregate; it’s in our cultural DNA,” writes Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay in his new book, The Art of Belonging. “We are not good at surviving in isolation. We rely on communities to support and sustain us, and if those communities are to survive and prosper, we must engage with them and nurture them.”
It’s not unusual to hear someone grumble, “There’s just no sense of community anymore!” (Especially when a senseless crime occurs close to home.) But government reports tell us there hasn’t been much change in Australia’s community connections in recent years. The proportion of people involved in community groups has not gone up or down, nor has the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who identify with a cultural or regional group.
Our communities are surviving – but where can we look for inspiration on how to make them thrive?
While there is no perfect community, countries like Denmark seem to be getting things right in a social sense. Danes are supported by something called the ‘Nordic Model of Social Democracy’ – their taxes are a whopping 50% of earnings, but they get free education, free healthcare, free childcare and 52 weeks of paid parental leave in return. In 2012, Denmark was declared the ‘happiest’ nation in the world, based on six factors, two of which (‘having someone to count on’ and ‘generosity’) related directly to community.
“We are, by nature, social creatures. We rely on communities to support and sustain us, and if those communities are to survive and prosper, we must engage with them and nurture them.”
Working on a smaller scale, but with a potentially broader reach, are a growing number of international, non-government, community- focused networks. Canada-based Project Neutral is an environmental initiative that pits neighbourhoods against each other in friendly battles to see who can shrink their carbon footprints the most. So far, while connecting thousands of neighbours, they’ve achieved greenhouse gas reductions equivalent to taking 1,000 cars off the road for a year.
The Awesome Foundation, which started in the US and now has chapters globally, hands out $1,000 grants every month to help get community projects off the ground. In Melbourne, it has funded projects as diverse as coffee training for refugees, a breastfeeding-in-public advocacy campaign and the supply of backpacks filled with personal items for children in foster care.
Communities involved with projects like these thrive. They’re positive, empowered, resourceful and dedicated. They band together, get stuff done and have fun along the way. But not all communities do so well. Some trudge along. Some fall apart. Why?
Hugh Mackay believes ‘moral integrity’ is a key factor in preventing communities from breaking down. In The Art of Belonging, he paints a scene of an immoral community corrupted by greed, vanity and selfishness. People travel everywhere by car and never meet face-to-face. Compassion, kindness, respect and patience have gone out the window. Leadership is lacking, and fear and crime are rife.
Mackay, and experts such as Dr Lynda Cheshire, a Future Fellow in Sociology at the Australian Research Council, believe that enlightened urban planning and safer public meeting spaces can help us prevent dystopian scenes like this from becoming a reality.
Cheshire also believes it may be time to overhaul our views on what makes a community successful. She says that most ‘high functioning’ neighbourhoods are characterised by being “affluent, stable and fairly homogenous”, but they also tend to shun outsiders. She suggests a new way of evaluating a neighbourhood’s social worth could be to look at it from a ‘social justice’ perspective. For example, a great neighbourhood could be one that encourages inclusion, diversity and tolerance of difference.
There’s no magic recipe for making a community thrive – but there are a number of qualities that all great communities share. These are tolerance (I’m cool, you’re cool), reciprocity (I’ll scratch yours, you scratch mine) and trust (believe me, I believe you). Throw in some regular time and energy and chances are, you’ll find yourself in the midst of something pretty special. Ideas about community might be changing, but the sense of belonging that a community provides is as relevant as ever.