How can we build sense of community?

Several studies have discussed the mental, emotional, and societal benefits of having a strong sense of community.  But, what can we do to strengthen sense of community?  Is just something you either naturally have or don’t have?  Is it a product of our past experience?  Is it influenced by where and how we live?  Can the design of a neighbourhood influence the sense of community of its residents?  We could sum up all of these questions by asking, “What factors influence people’s sense of community?”  Several researchers have tried to find out.  Here are some of the relationships they’ve found—some positive, some negative, some a bit of both.

1)            Genetic

Are some people just born to have a stronger sense of community than others?  Actually, no one seems to have taken up this question, so feel free to speculate.

2)            Personality (disposition/preferences/interests)

Several personality-related factors may influence people’s sense of community, including

  • how satisfied they are with their community,
  • how empowered they feel to influence their community,
  • how responsible they feel toward their community,
  • how attached they feel to their community,
  • how satisfied they feel with their community,
  • how confidence they feel in their community,
  • how interested they are in community issues,
  • how much privacy they expect from their communities, and
  • how long they expect to live in (or associate with) their community.

3)            Experience

People’s past experience with their neighbourhood community may influence their sense of community, for example

  • how many of their neighbours they know by name, and
  • how long they’ve been in their neighbourhood.

4)            Behavior

Researchers have found connections between sense of community and certain behaviors, including

  • participation in neighbourhood events,
  • ‘neighbouring’ activities,
  • participation in neighbourhood associations, and
  • television watching.

5)            Environmental control

People’s ability to control their environment may relate to their sense of community.  Examples include

  • ability to control one’s separation from others,
  • social control of the neighborhood, and
  • public ownership of neighborhood facilities.

6)            Demographic factors

Demographic factors that may affect sense of community include

  • ethnic/cultural background,
  • age,
  • education,
  • home ownership,
  • social status,
  • number of children,
  • income level, and
  • financial pressures.

7)            Cultural environment

One’s cultural environment can include several factors that relate to sense of community, such as

  • how culturally/ethnically diverse a population is,
  • city size,
  • city density,
  • neighbourhood density,
  • how much privacy residents have, and
  • how safe residents feel.

8)            Social infrastructure

Components of social infrastructure that may affect sense of community may include

  • presence of a neighbourhood association,
  • local events, and
  • the availability of local special interest and hobby groups.

9)            Transportation

Some transportation influences that researchers have linked to sense of community include

  • levels and nature of auto traffic,
  • pedestrian-friendly environments, and
  • transit-oriented development.

10)          Built environment

Aspects of the built environment that researchers have investigated in relation to sense of community include

  • availability and quality of local recreational/public/open spaces,
  • local grocery or other shopping places,
  • integration of private and public spaces,
  • clear neighborhood boundaries, and
  • mixed land use.

Although we haven’t really answered our initial questions, at least we’ve seen some of the factors that researchers have studied.  Understanding what kinds of influences researchers have tried to relate to sense of community—both positively and negatively—can help us think about what we can do to strengthen sense of community in our own neighbourhoods and groups.

So, what can we do?  Well, we can’t change people’s past experience, but maybe we can start a local hobby group that taps into their experience.  We may not live in a pedestrian-friendly area, but maybe we can spend a little more time walking through the neighbourhood—and maybe say hi to at least one person from the neighbourhood while we’re out.  We may not feel up to the task of leading a neighbourhood association, but could we support one by showing up to the meetings once a month, or maybe supporting a local event?  Once we have an idea of what factors influence sense of community, we can start to look for applications locally.

Building sense of community is not easy.  Like anything of value, it takes work.  But getting an idea of what factors influence sense of community is a good place to start.  What do you think the researchers have overlooked?  What else can we do to build sense of community?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments.  Let’s come up with more ideas for making great neighbourhoods with a strong sense of community!

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Want to learn more?  See “Maintaining a sense of community in high-density neighborhoods” and “How does residential density relate to residents’ sense of community?” by Eric Douglas.

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