What is community?

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What is meant by ‘community’ and whether ‘community’ does it have any real meaning in the twenty-first century? 

The Oxford English Dictionary[i] describes ‘community’ as: ‘a body of people living in one place, district or country’, and, ‘a body of people having religion, ethnic origin, profession etc in common’.

In planning, we tend to regard community in geographical terms, which is perhaps inevitable as a new development has a physical impact on a specific location.  Furthermore, a local authority’s consultation will generally be aimed at the residents of that specific geographic jurisdiction.   The OED’s second definition, however, should not be overlooked, as we will discuss later.

Doak and Parker (in their excellent, book Key Concepts in Planning – SAGE, 2012) offer a thought-provoking consideration of the term:

‘Community is a well-worn term that has been used and misused in public discourse and broadly across the political and social sciences. In planning terms much of the activity of planners is justified as being in the public interest but more and more the notion of community is attached to variety of planning processes, policies and actions. This common association of planning activity to and for community as both an end and a stakeholder group justifies an exploration of the term and its relevance for planners and in planning practice.

‘Community was seen as a political ideal in the ancient world, where citizens could participate in public affairs as part of the community. The concept has developed such that ‘community as belonging’ has come to be viewed both as a past state and as a desirable aspiration. Hobsbawm (writing in The Age of Extremes – Pantheon Books 1994) pointedly observes that, ‘Never was the term community used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decade when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life.’   Even more pessimistically, Bauman (in Community – Polity 2001) indicates that predilections towards recovering or developing community ignore the likelihood that it never existed in the first place.’

Doak and Parker’s sentiment eloquently voices the widely-held view that the term ‘community’ can all too often be used nostalgically, euphemistically and even patronisingly and that in some cases it is an artificial concept.   To an extent, this is true in community involvement: there is also a tendency for those running consultations to use ‘community’ as a convenient catch-all for the streets neighbouring the proposed new development, or a mile, five or ten mile radius from the site.  There are clear practical reasons for doing so, but it would be quite wrong to assume that a line drawn on a map by someone with little knowledge of the neighbourhood constitutes a community. Furthermore, it is equally inaccurate to assume that the supposed ‘community’ is a single body and likely to respond with a single view: as we know from our own neighbourhoods, rarely does everyone on one street, let alone wider neighbourhood, have an identical view on any one matter.

Changing geographic communities

Diversification is, in fact, one of the most significant changes in the concept of community.

The recent hey-day of the community was perhaps at a time between the end of the Second World War and the fragmentation which took place during the 1980s. Picture a scene from the 1950s or 60s: a street of terraced houses in a city previously damaged by war but still united by the blitz spirit, where the majority of occupants came from a similar social background, spoke regularly over the garden wall, read the local newspaper and attended the same local schools, social clubs and churches.  They literally sang from the same hymn sheet:  experiences were shared and there was an element of mutual trust, understanding and support. 

Half a century later, it is extremely unlikely that the same residents, or indeed their families, still reside on that street.  Increased multiculturalism will have led to greater diversity.  Increased property prices and greater fluidity in the property market will have resulted in some houses having been extended, with others converted into flats, leading to a wider demographic.  Attendance at the churches has probably declined, while initiatives to allow greater parental choice will mean that not all of the children attend the local school.  Few residents will work within walking distance of their homes, with many commuting to the city centre or to a different town or city entirely.  Furthermore, the community support officers who were employed to establish community relations post-war and the community arts projects which were popular during the 1960s and 70s are no more, as the case with many local newspapers.

The twentieth century community was by no means a utopia, but from a community involvement point of view, a geographically defined community was certainly a convenient starting point.  There is significantly less homogeneity in local communities today. Global communication increasingly takes the place of local communication – whether in politics, business or leisure time. Increased car ownership, the availability of cheap flights and the ease with which travel plans can be made online has vastly increased the size of the communities within which people operate.   Today it is easier to send an email to someone on a different continent than to visit a next door neighbour.

Changing communities of interest

It follows that the dissipation, and perhaps decline, of geographic communities results in the rise in communities of interest.  This is perhaps best illustrated in the context of our leisure time.  Previously, individuals’ experience of music would have been though participation, or attending live music in concert halls, pubs and social clubs.  Today, much of the music that we listen to is online, or through electronic means.  Live music is still popular today of course, but it is frequently consumed from across the Atlantic via the internet.  Social media has enabled people to take part in live discussions in relation to a band or performance, and increasingly the internet provides opportunities for collaboration online.  In sports too, participation and support of local clubs has declined partly due to the wide availability of sports coverage from across the world, while fan clubs, Facebook groups and to-the-minute discussions on Twitter are increasing levels of interaction irrespective of geographical boundaries.

It follows that in development, the community of interest is potentially global.  Bicester Village, a designer outlet centre in Oxfordshire, attracts 14,000 Chinese visitors each year.  Even for a single, specialist shop, the community of interest may be world-wide.  The same is true of opposition to a development proposal:  the community of interest, where a development involves building on open countryside, the demolition of a building of historical interest or the destruction of an important natural habitat, will be considerable and may come from across the country, or perhaps the world.

So communities certainly exist in the twenty-first century, but on a very different basis to those that went before them:  communities are more likely to be linked by interest than by geography, than they were previously, and membership may be more passive, virtual and transient. 

Of course, planning is usually with reference to a geographical feature and the immediate neighbours will remain a priority.  But developers should also invest time in understanding the communities of interest that may put forward their point of view, whether in supporting a planning application or opposing it.

Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

Find out more about our community relations and consultation services.

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