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April 13, 2021

Community cannot be ‘constructed’

Over the years I’ve had discussions with two housing developers, both of whom harboured dreams of building a ‘model community’ with collective ownership at its heart. Their plans were clearly to make a lot of money while at the same time delivering some kind of utopian dream. Needless to say neither came to anything. The idea of building community from the top down is a complete non-starter. Mike Cowley in the Sceptical Scot offers some thoughts on the matter. George Orwell’s ideal pub sounds like not a bad starting point  – darts, piano and staff who know your name.

Mike Cowley, Sceptical Scot

The ebbs and flows of the struggle for autonomy and power between communities and capital can be observed by stepping outside our homes and taking a long look at our immediate surroundings. Walk the streets of your neighbourhoods and city centres. Our horizons tell a tale. They also paint a picture of conflict, political priorities, power and agency.

In the 1950s, Chicago School academics undertook an experiment into what they called a ‘socially disorganised zone’ of inner-city Chicago. Crime rates increase, they argued, when communities become ethnically heterogeneous and shared values fracture. The experiment did not meet with success. The imposition of community from above, particularly at the hands of social scientists mostly unfamiliar with the eco-systems they were attempting to remake, seldom finds traction. In fact, as studies in the US and Europe have shown, ethnically mixed communities often boast the highest levels of tolerance between widely differing groups. Interaction begets empathy. On contact with proximity, former suspicions evaporate like street puddles on a summer’s afternoon. From that moment on, social bonds take root.

The broadcaster and journalist Paul Mason has described his ’10 things a perfect city needs.’ Amongst his ergonomic wish-list is a ‘democratic political culture the inhabitants are proud of, that calls them regularly to the streets, to loud arguments in small squares, keeps their police demilitarised and in check, and allows them to assimilate the migrants that will inevitably flow inwards.’ They ‘must be ethnically mixed and tolerant and hospitable to women.’ As with George Orwell’s favourite pub – darts, piano and staff who know your name – no one city can capture every quality necessary to the building of cityscapes reflective of the inevitable and welcome diversity of modern life. What appears key is autonomy. As the post-Covid reckoning approaches, who is going to ‘own’ the rebuilding of services, community capacity and employment to which both UK and Scottish governments are formally committed?