What is a community?

.r thousands of years, communities were built around agriculture.  People settled on the land and stayed there, for generations and – in some cases – for centuries and millennia.  They worked together, worshipped together, married one another and had children who would grow up together in the same place, to do it all over again.

Villages grew into market towns; the larger towns into cities.  Industrialization brought migration, from the countryside to the pit villages and factory towns.  But in essence, the pit village was not so different from the farming or fishing village: people drank together in the pub, bought groceries in the same village shop, prayed in the same chapel, played rugby on the village pitch or cricket on the village green.  These were close communities, where the ties that bind were tight and interwoven.  Even in larger factory towns, there was soon a strong sense of place: people worked side by side, supported the same football club and took pride in their shared identity.  That strength of community could be found even in some of the suburbs of the larger cities, where villages had been subsumed by metropolitan sprawl.

And then, in a relatively short space of time, everything changed.  The primary reason for a place’s existence – farming, fishing, mining, manufacturing – ceased to exist.  Ever-greater global trade made it cheaper to import than make.  Service industries flourished.  Mass transit brought easy mobility for everyone.  Commuters increased in number and the distances they travelled grew longer.  And while people didn’t stop shopping or drinking or eating or exercising together, they did so near their workplace, which could be many miles from where they lived.  Children began to be driven to school and even to sports clubs, that were further from home than ever before.  Local shops and cinemas were usurped by out-of-town malls, leisure centres and multiplexes.

Communications technology – telephones and the internet – have, bizarrely, sealed our lives still more.  We have reached a point where many of us don’t just live at home but work there too; we socialize online, with groceries and books delivered to the door, often spending days without the need to step outside.

Within a few generations we have seen a settled pattern of community living, established over tens of thousands of years, disrupted and pulled apart.

Some read this as the death of community.  We feel that is the wrong conclusion to draw.  Our human need to feel part of a larger group remains.  It is remarkable how in so many instances we are attempting in a dispersed and virtual world to replicate the physical and real communities that seem to have been taken away.  Is it a coincidence that the average number of friends on Facebook is the same as the average size of a medieval European village?  We still value the warmth of a neighbourly chat, the sight of a friendly face in the corner of the local pub, and the support of someone who drops round supplies when we are unwell.

Although so many city-dwellers may feel disconnected, isolated and lonely, people living in established country villages and older small towns remain very much part of the community.  The local primary school, the cricket or football club, the pub, the church, the dog-friendly paths, the village store, the independent coffee shop, the craft circles and litter-picking days: these still bring people together, of all ages.  These remain places of which residents remain proud – and conscious of what they have retained.

We have spent countless hours looking for the community ‘magic’ in these places.  What is it that makes them so special, retaining their sense of place in this modern world?  We believe the answer lies in their ‘rootedness’: the sense in these places that they are so much more than a collection of houses.  These places have grown around communal spaces.  They have locally-owned shops and pubs, take pride in the state of their parks and sports facilities and create a sense of togetherness and have developed in ways that draw people together.  In fact, what is so noticeable when you look out for it, is how cities are full of houses built to maximise privacy, while villages are more open to visibility.

Ultimately, communities are about feelings, particularly a sense of belonging.  Any one of us may belong to a number of different communities, from our wider family to a political party or the fellow-supporters of the team we support.  But when it comes to feeling part of a place, there tend to be a number of common physical features that, collectively, lend themselves to that sense of belonging:

  1. they are at ease with their surroundings;
  2. they are completely connected, with homes and communal spaces easy to move between and navigate;
  3. there a number of places where people can gather – from the pub to the church, the tennis club to the coffee shop, the village hall, the seat round the tree and bench overlooking a view;
  4. from buying a loaf of bread, a pint of milk or going to the doctor – the essentials are close by; and
  5. it is easier to walk or cycle than just jump in the car.

This is not a definitive list.  However, we believe that these features are key to thriving places that people are proud to call home.  ‘Rootedness’ is, by definition, not something that can be engineered.  But by carefully preparing the ground and getting the conditions just right, we know that happy, thriving communities can establish themselves.  They simply require skill, care and love.