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Friday, August 1, 2014

Re-inspiring communities

Posted by steve on September 3, 2012

It was great to meet so many people interested in joining in the dialogue around community development at Future Perfect festival held recently in Vaxholm, just outside the Swedish capital, Stockholm. So much arose out of that dialogue that I felt it was worth recording a summary from memory here it is:

Trends are to go away from community

Some statistics: while people talk of the massive flight to the cities in developing countries, the trends are clear in Sweden too.  Although the population of Sweden has grown, about half of all municipalities have stagnated. The trend is that more and more are moving to one of the 50 largest municipalities where 60% already live. This has brought a devastating negative spiral on rural areas where the more people move out, the less service the area gets. The less service the area gets, the more people move away.Many move away to find work. In fact, a recent report by the consulting firm Vinnova states that most of the Swedish population will live in the area of one of the three largest cities by 2030.  In their report, Vinnova state that corporations locate to cities and they are the ones hiring, so the natural trend is to drift towards the city.

Why are we packing ourselves into cities?

The whole trend to move to cities, at the behest of corporations at that, begs the question of what living on a human scale is. Is draining the countryside of people and packing them into cities best for them? Surely with all the research being carried out we must have identified a human scale for most things, like the size of community we can live in, the optimum time to work and commute, the kind of living space we need? And not just physical space, but mental space. Can we design and construct environments, including physical spaces, organizations, relationships, that are on a human scale? These are questions that are driving the dialogue around re-inspiring community.

Why do we work actually?

If I were to interview people on the underground in the morning about where they were going they would probably say“I’m going to work”“WHY are you going to work” I might ask.“I have to, or I won’t get paid!“WHY do you need the money” I might reply.“I need to put food on the table and roof over my head and that of my family”If you ask people if they would stop going to work if they didn’t get paid, many  - not all – would say they would immediately.
In the evening you might get a similar reply:“I’m going to the shops.”“WHY are you going to the shops?”“I need to get the food for my family.”

We have developed a closer relationship to corporations than to our community

This illustrates how we our relationship with the corporation has developed:  we work for corporations for money as employees and we purchase food from them as consumers.But there is a downside: where do we get the supportive, developing relationships we need as human beings?  Travelling to and from work there is little time to form networks of relationships . The modern two-adult family unit requires you to take on many roles: partner, business partner, co-parent, lover, best friend, etc., and your work supports you with personal development only if it suites the development of the corporation.


Community can be the stabilising point in your life

A third element in your life could be community.  Belonging to a strong community could provide the support and development you need, take the pressure of family life, and make you less dependent on your work.
Community helps because it help you define you. Today, we are often enticed into defining ourselves by the position in society we have or the lifestyle we lead. Belonging to a supportive community can allow you to feel socially secure without the need to define yourself via your job.One aspect important to development of community is abundance. In the corporate world, what steers is not abundance but competition and scarcity. But this is not a desirable permanent human environment.
When there is abundance it brings out generosity. If you have more than you need, you give. Rather like the feeling you get when someone asks the way n your town, you give them directions and you feel good afterwards, It is a mechanism that is built in to humans.
What can bring out competitiveness and unwillingness to help others is the stress of feeling you of having too little for yourself.

The town of Todmorden; the kindness center of Britain

One place that demonstrates the power of abundance  is the town of Todmorden in Britain. Residents feared rising food prices, shortages of deliveries and the general miserable feeling resulting from the high number of low income inhabitants. They decided to reverse the trend by growing food everywhere and offering people to just take it – for free. It worked. People take what they need, and the town is known for being place where people are kind to each other. In fact, many have moved there just for that.
I like to say they promoted the idea of kindness as being a new technology. It’s as if we have forgotten kindness, it blinded by the corporate paradigm we have grown up with.
Many have asked why I stress the importance of community as being the collection of people that ensures food and food security for each other. There are two reasons:The first is that food security should be a community thing because it is so fundamental to human beings, you need to feel food secure.  The corporation as an organization is not suitable to provide food security as it is run to produce profit for its owners. As the people of Todmorden probably feared, if they could not make a profit they would simply not deliver. And anyway, the feeling of abundance that fosters kindness is not part of the corporate DNA: surplus can be sold to make even more profit.

Finding the right scale

I am often asked about the optimum size of a community. The optimum size of a settlement which can provide housing and food is about 150 -180 inhabitants.
The question of scale here is fascinating and could take up a whole blog article. Take as a starting point how far you can walk to get your food, how much house space you need, how many toilets are needed, and how many can gather in a circle without having to shout. How many people need to gather to ensure enough skills and human power? How large are native tribes before they split up?
All this leads me to the dimension pf 150 – 180 inhabitants with land that includes about 50 hectare to grow food on.

Finding the right focus

We are not here to be on each other’s backs for sure. But food and shelter are so basic that cooperating to provide these necessities, in smaller units seems to satisfy the need to form tribe-like constellations. This brings social cohesion too, as we all know the special feeling that comes from breaking bread together.

The other reason has to do with sustainability: human impact on the Earth has much to do with food if you take a soil to soil perspective – from seed to plate to waste back to soil. If a community has control over soil to soil it can control its impact on the eco-system. And that will give community members a good ecological conscience. That is also why land stewardship is involved. If I am member of a  community that is stewarding the land ecologically I can act with good conscience. I cannot leave the stewardship of the land to a corporation that I have no ownership or democratic control over.

What about other community types?

Some wondered why the focus is on community providing food and stewarding land and not on, for example, a community of practice or interest. I agree these are great communities and of course one benefits from belonging to them. But for us as individuals to break free from consumerism and to be resilient to what may well be mass job losses as the economy fades, a community that frees us from food insecurity and preferably housing insecurity is the basis for us creating lives with dignity and lives that lay the foundations for peace and prosperity.

Read more

The importance of community, briefing paper.

More briefing papers on community finance.

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