Resilience: It’s who ya know.

If there’s one thing the 20th century gave us, it’s the luxury of not needing each other. It so defines our culture that it’s physically embodied in our sprawling, disconnected landscapes.

That alone begets a classic, chicken-n-egg question: Did the leisurely lure of the suburbs kill our sense of community? Were our social ties unwittingly severed by the meandering disconnection of subdivisions and strip malls or was sprawl just a symptom of something larger? After all, for all their rewards, meaningful relationships take a lot of work. Perhaps, once the modern world elevated our prospects for personal independence, we cut those ties ourselves, willingly, and embraced the types of places that reinforce those inclinations, lest our happy motoring be weighted down with excess emotional baggage.

Free to Be You and Me

Whether we’re victims or perpetrators (or both), there’s little debate that the land once described by Alexis de Tocqueville as a nation of associations, where people look not to government but to each other to overcome the bulk of their challenges, is now described by Robert Putnam, in his groundbreaking 2000 book Bowling Alone, like this:

“Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values–these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live.”

It’s who we are. And it’s a problem.

What? Me Worry?

I can hear it now: “What problem? Thanks to the marvels of our modern world, time once spent in negotiations with difficult people can now be applied towards something I find much more tolerable: Me.”

I get it. The appeal is undeniable and it works just fine… until the party ends. And there’s increasing indicators that that sort of buzz-kill scenario may arrive sooner rather than later.

Odd Fellows, the fraternal organization that brought the mechanics of communal self-reliance to America in 1819.

Today, the breakdown of local community has robbed us of our historic safety net. One in which half the population once belonged to a fraternal organization and from it received everything from fellowship and business opportunity to health care, lost-wage insurance and burial benefits. In its wake, we find a nation where the available support structures for the average person now number exactly two. At the one end, we have personal and family resources. You against the world. At the other, we have enormous institutions like the Federal Government or BP or United Healthcare. The faceless behemoths.

And in between? Our once robust networks of interdependent social, religious, institutional and commercial resources have largely withered on the vine, leaving currently en vogue cries for “less government” ringing a bit hollow. After all, when you strip away big gubmint, our primary source of support in a nation now devoid of Tocqueville’s admired communal unity, who’s gonna pick up the slack?

Oh, I remember. We’re a nation of rugged individuals who can fend for ourselves. Right.

Better Together

"I, like every American, can fend for myself!"

Of course, that’s not really true. There may always be the classic woodsman out there, living off the land but, for the majority of us, a stable economy, cheap energy, well-stocked grocery stores, big boxes filled with Chinese creature comforts, digital information at our fingertips, and endless sources of entertainment-on-demand have simply lured us into thinking we’re the masters of our own domains. As though self-reliance were actually easy.

Sadly, it’s not. As John Michael Greer says in his handy post-industrial how-to, The Long Descent, “One core concept that has to be grasped is the rule that the community, not the individual, is the basic unit of human survival. History shows that local communities can flourish while empires fall around them.”

Resilient communities are connected communities and there’s a growing body of research to back that up. Furthermore, there’s more than a little evidence indicating that the strength of those connections is fostered, in part, by the form those places take.

That’s right. I’m talking about traditional urban form. Walkable, neighborly Smart Growth. Community design, designed for the complexities of community.

Roadblocks

Given the still tenuous state of our economy and the national financial obligations that go with it, common sense would dictate that we invest in the strength of our community ties as a reasonable tool for reducing demands on the Fed. Yet, curiously, those most concerned with whittling down the size of government are more often than not the same ones opposing the local community visioning and planning efforts necessary to restore the social fabric that makes such reductions possible.

Add to that the off-putting tenor of sustainability discourse. Day in and day out, it’s consistently predicated on unthinkable scenarios — natural disasters, climate change, peak oil, global financial meltdown. From a rhetorical perspective, this is done to create a sense of urgency but, in terms of motivating our efforts to rebuild local social networks, it tends to have the opposite effect.

Those things are just too big, too complicated or too uncertain to wrap our heads around. Justifying the effort to meet the neighbors now requires a stand on global warming? Aw, jeeez. Just forget it then.

A New Discourse

Instead, I propose a new premise. A simple premise. Change happens. That’s it. Without dispute, it’s inevitable that change will come to our communities. It may take the form of a locally unique challenge or it may be the effects of something larger trickling down upon us. Something we brought upon ourselves or something unfairly levied.

It may be change for the worse, bringing with it great tragedy, or it could equally be change for the better, revealing tremendous new opportunities.

Whatever form it takes, the reigning constant is this: The deeper our sense of community, the stronger its connections, and the more robust our web of interdependent relationships, the better positioned we’ll be to take it on and manage it effectively.

Connected communities are competitive communities. And those willing to compete are those best positioned to win.

In Practice

Recognizing the practical value of strong, local community is not a difficult proposition. The more we admit that we need each other and, in turn, make ourselves available to others, the better off we’ll be. Many of us are already hard-wired to do this. Which means the role for municipalities is to simply make it easier — in the form of policy, expenditure decisions and growth planning.

One example I’m closely familiar with is right here in my hometown. Decatur, Georgia’s community-wide strategic planning effort in 2000 revealed something interesting: The surge of newcomers descending upon this revitalizing city, as well as the long-timers greeting their arrival, wanted the city to take an active role in connecting people by providing a central clearinghouse of civic-minded opportunities.

In response, the city created Volunteer! Decatur, which coordinates volunteers for city-sponsored events as well as maintaining a referral database of local, non-profit opportunities. Give ‘em a call, tell them how you might be useful, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

The city was simply responding to expressed need but, as it turns out, they were creating value as well. Not just in the terms discussed here, where a more robust community can better weather change in the future, but in the here and now.

Over the course of roughly eight city-sponsored events each year, volunteers contribute 13,000+ man-hours. Hours which, if gauged according to the skills employed, translate to over a quarter million dollars in value. Each year. And that’s not counting all of the volunteers steered towards the non-profits tirelessly taking on social imperatives that, in their absence, would fall on the shoulders of… you guessed it: government. Put a price tag on that.

But even better, in the course of all that volunteering, all those civic-minded participants met other civic-minded participants and forged the connections that have since resulted in things like community gardens which, in turn, inspired our local farmers’ market and farm-to-school initiative.

That’s how community grows. Of course, it’s not just about food. It’s a lot bigger than that.

It’s about cooking up the tasty stock of resilience. Tocqueville style.

Scott Doyon

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

Comments

  1. Excellent post. Very insightful and eye opening. Just hope even one mind can be turned towards these (in retrospect obvious) truths.

  2. Scott, such great timing. I would say that this inter-connectivity not only applies to communities, but business and teams within organizations. I will be sharing this article with my co-workers to emphasize the critical need for networking and how it develops a safety net when change occurs. You’re right about change being the certainty. How we survive/succeed is determined by our community. Thanks.

  3. I read Putnam’s book several years ago and have been interested in strategies fo building and expanding social capital ever since. I live in Chicago where economic and racial segregation make connections between different classes, demographics, and people with different work and education backgrounds more pronounced. The people living in the most segregated networks have fewer ties, the “who you know”, than those living in more economically diverse neighborhoods. Thus, I support organized, non-school volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs because of their potential to connect inner city youth with a network of adults from beyond poverty, while also expanding the network for volunteers from diverse business and economic backgrounds to include youth living in high poverty, as well as peer volunteers from many different backgrounds.

    If cities and businesses supported the growth of these programs more strategically over a decade or two the bridging social capital in such cities might grow and have a positive impact on more than youth living in poverty.

  4. Very insightful and well written article, Scott.

    A few years ago PBS aired a program about “the new urbanism.” They sited the made-from-scratch Florida town of Celebration as an example of human nature at work. Celebration was one of the early towns built on a formulation that was to put people back in touch with each other using tried and true notions such as front porches, small front lawns, sidewalks, etc. The designers found that, when they drove around Celebration on any given summer evening, what they noticed was the blue glow of TV sets emanating from the inside. It was just too hot to walk, or sit on the porch, or otherwise interact with people. They did not say what it was like in the other seasons. My point is that you can lead a horse to water, but… Interestingly, that same group of designers, looking at conventional modern suburban homes, sardonically observed from the size and frontal position of their giant garages that “cars lived there.”

    In one sense, suburbanism and its inherent benefits and foibles is the result of a mix of organic and inorganic mechanisms at work: urban white flight, post-war housing shortages, modern household conveniences, G.I .housing bill, highways, decline of rail. But I just read that for the first time since post WWII urban centers are growing in population faster than suburban centers. I have personally seen Decatur transformed from a town absolutely dead after 6:00 PM into the thriving reborn town it is today. It may very well be the future rule rather than the exception. Will America’s suburbs, learning by example and using similar civic-minded connections and volunteering, follow suit? Or will the loss of community continue unabated? Were he with us today witnessing these societal transformations, Tocquevile, for the first time might very well be at a loss for words.

  5. Very well-written, thoughtful article. I do agree with the overall premise, however I don’t think it’s fair to simply generalize that suburban sprawl automatically turns its inhabitants into unthinking, anti-social materialists with no sense of the greater community. I can give several examples of the typical sprawling suburb in the Tampa Bay area where neighbors actually do know everyone else on the street, participate in neighborhood cook-outs, sporting events, etc. In fact I can give an example of a very civic-minded resident of one of these neighborhoods who actually took in a neighbor for over a year after their house burned down. And if I had to guess I would say this is the rule, not the exception.

    I love the New Urbanism and am certainly no big fan of status-quo suburbia, however it’s important to remember that it’s difficult to win over those whom you attack. A lot of New Urbanists, quite wrongly, are accused of advocating social engineering. And while I disagree with that narrow-minded criticism I understand why it happens. There is a textbook example of this in Suburban Nation, where the authors ridicule suburban dwellers for having a “spiritual void” in their lives. While the authors of this book are obviously extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, that statement is arrogant and self-righteous.

    I think it’s best to focus on the positive in our advocacy of community-based principles. Those messages will always be better received.

  6. Scott – I think what you describe is also why the sharing economy is thriving. People are desperately seeking connection and community, despite the individualistic rhetoric. And, the new tools of social networking actually serve to help with the trust aspect in ways that weren’t possible earlier. It’s pretty exciting stuff, actually.

  7. Michael Huye says:

    You can’t have community without some underpinning of shared values. “Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.” ― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

    We have simply lost or moral underpinnings. We have replaced it with the word tolerance that describes the amount of stress an object may take before it gives way, breaking beyond repair. Tolerance is not a good thing.

    “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”
    ― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. The American dream has become a toxic pursuit of fiat capital supporting a materialistic mindset that is fed constantly by media, peer pressure and the lie that it was always the American dream.

    The original American dream wasn’t and either, or, proposition. It was assumed that each man, family would be self reliant and out of that reliance on self and Savior would come the necessary need for fellowship that creates community.

    There have been three great awakenings in American history. Before the Revolution, before 1812, and before the war between the states. These awakenings fostered the faith necessary in American men and women to weather the storm set before them. It would be doomed to fail if any community did not have at its core the spiritual element necessary to create and solidify the fellowship you mention in your article. Be it buddhist, Christian, or other, tolerance will never create a lasting community, only a people with an overriding faith are able to do this. World history proves this time and again.

    So we can design the prettiest streets and town squares and line them with cherry trees that bloom to our hearts delight. Until we return to the understanding that we are a creation, and that our Creator has need of our fellowship first, any work with others is doomed to fail, as we will never recognize their value, we’ll be too busy chasing tolerance.

  8. Robert Cremeans says:

    Hello Placemakers!
    just discovered your site. it is true that all good things come in time.

    I have spent a decade planning how to kickstart an opportunity for placemaking and community development.
    I have recently attracted a high level investor who can pull together the resources to move forward.
    I have many heroes from American history, three of which are pertinent to this blog I have just read.
    William Penn, Benjamin Franklin and P.T.Barnum.
    Penn for recognizing the value of tolerance and Freedom to believe.
    Franklin for recognizing the value of community association.
    Barnum for understanding the value of resilience to sustainability.

    if all goes well, we will soon open The Center for GoodWorks.
    a center for community and social growth.

    if you all would be interested in adding Pennsylvania to the family of Placemaker centers, I would love to talk.

    if you would like to learn more about what I am trying to accomplish, please feel free to check out my profile and connect on LinkedIn and Facebook.
    I also have a video accessible on Youtube. key “Ivyland master”. its about 4 1/2 minutes long.
    The connection between Placemaking and the video requires some indepth explanation to understand the full impact opportunity available.
    shareholder/stakeholders welcome.

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