A Placemaking Journal

Stayin’ Alive: The life and death prospects of community ties

“We had better get together on this or we’re going to die.”

People talk a lot about community these days. How we’ve lost whatever sense of it we might have once had. How we don’t really know each other much anymore. How we yearn for more intimacy, with connection that transcends the typically weak ties of social media.

We talk about it in the abstract, not fully understanding the whole of what it really means, as though we were recalling some endearing product feature lost to time. Like we’re asking, “Remember that little bongk sound from Pong, the original home video game? Boy. You just don’t experience sounds like that anymore.

Oh, well. Back to life in the now.”

What’s the big deal?

As urbanists, we know that our innate desire to feel connected is nothing trivial. In fact, it’s so important that it’s actually embedded in the built form of the traditional city. Not to say or even imply that such town-building patterns create community but, rather, that they foster it. They make community easier.

But so what? Is community in our present age so important that these patterns of city-making are worth restoring? Why not just lump it in with petticoats and Edsels and all manner of other old-timey things of no modern relevance and move on to the ever-pending promise of isolated splendor?

The answer can be found in the opening of this post. In short, that warm, fuzzy feeling we get when connected to our neighbors is nice, but it’s not the real point. It’s just a by-product of what community is really about: Staying alive.

Or, as John Michael Greer says more bluntly 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.

That ain’t abstract.

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

Sooner or later, the crap hits the fan

Today, the breakdown of local community experienced over the past century or so 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 communal unity, who’s gonna pick up the slack?

For cities and towns, the bottom line is this: If you’re not making it easy for people to connect in meaningful ways, you’re limiting your community’s resilience. Especially in times when the crap hits the fan. That’s the long-term result.

And if you find that the speculative prospect of long-term ramifications lacks the urgency to inspire meaningful change, think of it this way instead: You’re actually putting lives at risk. Right now.

For example

In July of 1995, more than 700 Chicago residents died in one of the worst heat waves on record. But two adjacent, nearly identical neighborhoods had very different rates of survival.

This NPR exchange between interviewer Steve Inskeep and New York University professor of sociology, Eric Klinenberg, explains:

KLINENBERG: One is called Englewood, the other is called Auburn Gresham and they’re literally next to each other. They have the same microclimate; both very poor, both lots of older people living alone. In Englewood, the death rate was about 33 per 100,000 residents.

INSKEEP: Really bad.

KLINENBERG: One of the highest in Chicago. In Auburn Gresham, it was three per 100,000 residents. It was safer than many places on the far more affluent and white north sides of Chicago.

INSKEEP: Auburn Gresham was safer in the heat wave?

KLINENBERG: Auburn Gresham is a neighborhood that has poverty, yes; and it’s segregated, yes. But it has small commercial establishments that draw older people who are vulnerable to heat waves out of their homes and into public life. It has a viable social infrastructure.

INSKEEP: OK. So you’re telling me that if I were to live in an old-style urban neighborhood, where there’s a coffee shop down the street, where there’s a corner store, where there’s a corner dry cleaner, where people walk around and they may know the neighbors, and kids play on the street, that I am more likely to survive in a disaster because of the kind of community that I’m in?

KLINENBERG: For many disasters, that is absolutely true [..] When a real disaster strikes, it’s the social stuff that might make the difference between life and death.

See there? Facilitating the “social stuff” through traditional urban development patterns and community-minded endeavor doesn’t just equal quality of life. It also equals avoidance of death. And whether you’re dealing with a dearth of top-down social services, searching for economic opportunity in stronger social capital, trying to balance the competing factors of gentrification, or simply ensuring the elderly don’t find themselves trapped in isolation, that’s no trivial thing.

Scott Doyon

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