The Loss of Compelled Community

Over the last few years, I've been interested in the concept of community.

Even though "Community Development" is common in urban planning, the field seems to rarely address actual human-to-human friendships and relationships. Sometimes, I see studies that reference social capital or increased feelings of "isolation" due to lack of human-to-human interaction, but that is usually a small part of a larger discussion about COVID, mental health, sprawl, or some other topic.

It appears to me that we have already been living in a crisis of community for a number of years and the future appears even bleaker. I recently read a book about the Mews Homes of London. These were row houses with horse stables on the bottom floor and residences for carriage drivers and horse caretakers above. The book noted that historically, the streets in front of these homes would be loud and bustling in the mornings, as the residents cleaned, fed, and otherwise readied their horses for the day. Conversations would happen from the windows above to the people below and community was built between neighbors.

This arrangement is what I think of as "compelled community". For these folks, being a part of this morning street community wasn't optional. They had to be there and interact in order to make their living.

Over the years, technological and societal advances have made our lives better. We have come a long way from needing a tribe of hunters and gatherers to survive. As a result, many people in developed countries have achieved higher levels of independence. However, an increase in independence also means a decrease in interdependence. If we don't need others for our physical daily survival, then we don't create bonds and we lose out when it comes our needs for human interaction. We don't have people in our everyday lives that we can count on and are less resilient during downturns (whether that be as personal as losing a job or a as global as a pandemic).

In more recent history, this trend towards isolation has sped up. In the United States, we used to have closer connections with our neighbors (or so older generations always tell me). Since the advent of the nuclear family and the car, it has been easier to go from a single family home, through a garage, into a car and off to work, school, or errands. We don't have to actually see our neighbors. The car also led to sprawl, which means we could have bigger home lots, further apart. Streets became more and more dangerous to pedestrians, so it made sense to stay indoors or in your back yard, again, apart from neighbors.

But I don't think this spatial change completely accounts for the trend towards less community. When I lived in NYC, I always had a small apartment in a building with plenty of other apartments. I rarely knew my neighbors. The common thread between NYC and in Durham (both the urban and suburban parts) is that there is no NEED to interact with your neighbors. You don't need to borrow a cup of sugar when the store is always open. You don't need someone to take care of your dog while you are away if you can hire someone on You don't need neighbors to watch out for roaming kids if they are inside playing video games, or at organized after school sports and activities.

For years, we haven't "needed" our neighbors. However, we have had access to other communities. There is a possibility, though, that we may not need those other communities in the future. We used to feel compelled to attend religious services, which created a community. However, the number of people who view themselves as religiously unaffiliated is on the rise.

We have been compelled to go to an office or other work place to make a living. We created communities of coworkers. In the time of COVID, many jobs are still remote and may lead to a larger cultural shift to more remote working and remote retail. What are we left with?

I have had many thoughts on how we might address this crisis of community, including increased neighborhood co-working spaces (post-COVID), a rise in social clubs, more third places, etc. However, unlike the morning streets in front of the London Mews, all of these potential communities are elective. Focusing on social lives, interpersonal bonds and social capital becomes similar to going to the gym. There will always be an excuse to "skip, just this one time".

I have also written about co-housing, co-living/boarding, and have thought a lot about multi-generational households. However, I don't believe enough people will opt into these models to create a significant cultural shift.

As a result, we may be looking at a future where we are less resilient and have even lower social capital than ever. On an individual level, I plan on trying my best to build community, but on a macro level, I am fairly pessimistic.

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