What Does a Community Need?

Suppose, just for a moment, that you’ve reached that magic moment when “growth, Growth, GROWTH!” is no longer your mantra.

What replaces it?

The short answer is “something sustainable” — since the opposite of growth, decline, is probably not what you want.

So how do we find a place where sustaining a level of prosperity is possible?

Well, we probably have to build it out of what’s around us.

We’ll build a community we can live in and prosper in.

So what are its attributes?

Firstly, it’s probably a place unto itself. That doesn’t mean it’s out in the wilderness somewhere (not that there’s that much of that, left, anyways). It means it has its own centre — its own “point of gravity”.

That could be a business street in the middle of a big urban area, just as easily as a stand-alone town or village.

There’s a classic model for this you find in Western Europe, in North America, in Australia … “Main Street”. Shops and restaurants on the street level, professional offices and workplaces one floor up, residential above that. (The offices insulate the residences from the restaurant trade in the evening.) Some storefronts may be for light industrial purposes, or these may be just off the main street on side streets. The mix of workplaces, residences (including houses on side streets) and shops & cafés support each other: the street has activity taking place throughout the day. They are therefore safe.

It’s walkable, too, which needs less energy, and doesn’t tie up space finding homes for temporarily not-in-use vehicles. The fewer vehicles, the safer for children, the elderly: it becomes a mixed community of ages.

Almost all the shops are locally owned: they are not parts of chains. Their owners live close by — probably not upstairs (that was always a myth), but close enough to look after things. They’re tailored to local needs, from delivery services to merchandise mix. Their profits remain in the community.

That’s an important part about sustainability: you can’t have the proceeds of commerce “leaking out” in great volumes, back to distant head offices, and you can’t have great concentrations of power forcing the community to accept second-rate offerings simply because it can underprice until it destroys competitors. (This is why Totnes in Devon, England, is fighting so hard to keep chain coffee shops out.)

There are also community spaces and places: small green areas, playgrounds, churches and schools, etc. They are sized to the community’s needs, as opposed to being “collectors” for a larger region. They are resolutely public in nature, not private spaces the public is “allowed to use”. The community, in turn, keeps them in good order, much like the citizens in the area cleaned up East Lynn Park on the Danforth in Toronto fifteen years or so ago. (It’s a delightful space today, filled with children playing, people sitting and talking, a farmer’s market once/week, art exhibits, etc. — hard to believe that in the 1990s it was filled with drug needles, broken glass and other signs of deep decay.)

Work is intermixed with residential on the side streets, too: people run service businesses from their homes, the occasional small manufactory is intermixed. As one moves even a few streets away from the centre, new services start to pop up: neighbourhood dépanneurs (convenience stores), a pub, etc. One point in the community will be set aside for those elements that don’t intermix: few people want to live next to a metal-working mill (of any size), for instance.

“Main Street”, in turn, connects to other communities using transit systems for the region, scaled for this community’s distance from others as to type and frequency. That way, facilities that not every community can support — a university, for instance — can be reached.

Politically, such a small entity could easily be managed by direct democracy: town square style, as in Swiss cantons, or town meeting style, as in New England.

Investments? (We still have to deal with saving for the future, retiring, etc.) These would far more likely go into keeping the common functions running, or into local businesses, than into paper assets somewhere else. This keeps the community’s capital at work in the community. This also allows for the community to pay for its community assets without depending on the largesse of distant authorities deciding that “this year we’re finally going to do your school” or the like.

For thousands of years, this was our living pattern. Start a business to replace something that’s paid for from outside with something made here. Ship a little out, but only the excess. Improve quality year by year rather than driving for quality and cheapness. This provides a steady stream of opportunities for young people starting out.

Does it sound like a pipe dream? It beats the hell out of decline and fall to me.

The choice is in our hands.

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One Comment

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  1. William F. Spaulding 28/05/2012 — 14:22

    You know Bruce that I have always supported such endeavors and believe whole kindheartedly in them. Bill

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