Whose job is it to build sense of community?

In past posts, we’ve considered such topics as ‘What is community?’, ‘What is sense of community?’, ‘What is the value of sense of community?’, ‘How can we measure sense of community?’, and ‘What factors influence sense of community?’  What we have not yet discussed is ‘Who should build sense of community?’  We may want to have a stronger sense of community in our group or neighbourhood, but who is responsible for actually making this happen?  Whose job is it to build sense of community?

It’s unrealistic to discuss responsibility without first considering capacity.  So, let’s first consider who might be able to build a sense of community in a group or a neighbourhood.

Community leaders

This seems like an obvious place to start.  Most groups that form for some purpose have either a person (or people) in charge or someone who acts as a representative.  Places of employment, religious groups, sports teams, military companies, schools—any member of these groups can tell you who the official person in charge is.  Informal interest groups may not have an official person in charge, but often have some person (or subgroup) who acts as a representative, either by stature or personality.  These community leaders, whether formal or informal, are vested in the continuity of the group.  Important components in group longevity are cohesion, camaraderie, and mutual support.  A work group gets more done–a religious group has stronger faith, a sports team plays harder, a military unit fights better, and students learn more–when members support each other than when they are isolated or in conflict.  An effective leader realizes this and finds ways to build unity.

A similar dynamic applies to a neighbourhood, but with a couple of important differences.  With few exceptions (such as a dormitory or company town), people do not gather in a neighbourhood to accomplish some task or to pursue some common objective.  Also, while neighbours will likely have a common political representative, it is unlikely that there will be any elected representative at the neighbourhood level.  An exception may be the council of a strata or a neighbourhood association, but even in these situations, the council plays a much different role from a boss leading a work team.  Still, such informal community leaders may be interested in building a sense of unity—a sense of community among the neighbours, and may have some means to do so.  In some cases, a neighbourhood may have a cultural center or even paid staff who are responsible for arranging events and programs.  In such cases, building a sense of community may be an explicit mandate.

Community members

While a group or neighbourhood leader may have a wider motive to enhance feelings of unity, team spirit, solidarity, fellowship, or sense of community among members, generally speaking, these members would like this for its own sake.  For example, an employer may want to have an amiable work environment both because it makes the workers more productive and because it makes them happier, but the workers would also wish to have the amiable environment, even if they don’t directly benefit from the added productivity.  Members of a neighbourhood may wish to have a stronger sense of community in their neighbourhood because they feel that it enhances their quality of life.  While community members may not feel as empowered as community leaders to bring about change, still, as stakeholders, they have every right to try to influence their group or neighbourhood for the better, including efforts to build a sense of community.

Non-profit groups

Sometimes there are organizations with mandates that include strengthening community ties.  One example is the Vancouver Foundation.  Such organizations may offer direct involvement, or they may offer support, direction, or even funding.  The Vancouver Foundation offers grants of up to $500 to support “ideas to help connect and engage residents in their neighbourhood.”

Government officials

 Local governments may produce mandates that relate to strengthening communities, forming community connections, or building sense of community.  These mandates may be initiated, formed, or fulfilled by city planners, social workers, or other paid city staff.  An example of such a mandate is Vancouver’s Healthy City Strategy.  One of its goals is that, ‘Vancouverites are connected and engaged in the places and spaces that matter to them.’  To further this goal, the city has produced several initiatives, including “Building community” (which includes a Neighbourhood planning component), “Community grants” (including several specialized grants for improving social services), and the “Hey Neighbour!” program, which “highlights the impact that increased sociability can have on mental and physical health of the residents, and the role that municipalities, residents, and the housing industry can play in cultivating these connections.”  Other cities likely have similar programs; this is just a sampling from Vancouver.

Urban designers

Urban designers can influence the ‘hard’ infrastructure of a neighbourhood—the physical layout—where the housing and streets and shops and parks go.  Urban designers and architects interested in influencing sense of community will think carefully about how both private and public spaces will be used by neighbourhood residents, and will include the physical spaces (parks, community centres, and other public spaces) where neighbours can interact and get to know each other.

Developers

Like architects and urban designers, developers can influence whether their projects have functional spaces for neighbour interaction.  In fact, developers may have the greatest control of anyone over this because they are making the final decisions about what will be built.  Here is where developers can be, not just influential, but strategic with their decisions.  Public space in a new development is often kept to a minimum, because it does not directly result in profit—no one buys it.  However, public space in a development is usually a prime selling point.  Think of any advertisement for a new development and what do you see?  Usually the most prominent image features the public space (an amenity) rather than a private space (which tends to get second billing).  Since developers will provide some public space as an amenity (or as a city requirement), shouldn’t it be a high-quality space that residents can use as a venue for events and informal socializing?  Public spaces that are only useful for pretty pictures on brochures are wasted as soon as the lots are all sold.

Property managers

After a neighbourhood is constructed and occupied, some properties may be centrally managed.  Property managers may care for many aspects of a property (for example, if it is a rental property), or only a few (if units are privately owned but include some public spaces not cared for by a city).  While such management is typically concerned with the property, it may also present opportunities for building sense of community.  For example, the property management for the student family housing neighbourhood on the University of British Columbia campus provides, in addition to property maintenance, a wide range of community-building events and opportunities.

Us

So, whose job is it to build a sense of community?  We’ve thought about who might be able to.  We’ve also considered who might want to.  But, who’s going to?  The Great Neighbourhood Research Lab is trying to lead the way.  Will you join us?

Yes?  Great!  Let’s get busy!  Ah, but how?  What shall we do?  That will be the topic of future posts.  Stay tuned.

Did you notice a category or an important point missing?  Please let us know in the comments!

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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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