Communities in your life
This page explores the concept of 'community' in more detail using examples of videos created from participants in this project about the way they see and understand their communities.
Traditionally, a ‘community’ is defined by the people located within the place where you live or work. A fundamental assumption exists that ‘communities’ are homogenous, spatially fixed social groups that share cultural understandings distinct from others. In essence, communities are often characterised as having unique cultures, high levels of cohesion, consensus and solidarity. There is also an assumption that local community members have an attachment and commitment to their local surroundings, and that they bring high levels of motivation and local knowledge to managing local challenges. Communities are thus often seen as willing to take charge of complex problems. But a locality may be characterised by a highly mobile and transient population, made up of diverse cultures, with differing levels of understanding and motivation with regards to addressing local challenges. How would we be able to identify a ‘community’ in these conditions? Is ‘community-based action’ even possible here?
With increasing mobility and digital methods of social interaction, membership of a community is increasingly less determined by distinct geographical boundaries. Some communities can have clearly defined boundaries like memberships, for example, or be more fluid. Perhaps being part of your community food growing initiative’s Facebook group is what being a member means, perhaps it’s a more formal arrangement as a garden volunteer.
You can also see the different types and meanings of the word ‘community’ in the films produced for this project. Charlotte Allchin’s story talks about the community of people with ‘Green Hearts’ in Reading. They include organisations and individuals maintaining community food growing spaces, museums, urban gardens and the nature reserve team:
In contrast, Anne Gray’s story about the Wolves Lane Centre depicts its diverse activities, together generating interdependent sub-communities which may rarely meet each other. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted their activities and stimulated new ways to gain income:
Rather than seek a static homogeneity in order to define communities, another way is a focus on relationships, whereby people belong to a range of diverse communities, actively connecting with each other. These individuals making connections may very well live in different places, have different identities and/or interests, but come together in coordinated action, such as supporting a food growing initiative. In this sense, a community of people may be formed quite quickly, and it doesn’t necessarily need a large or stable membership to have impact.
Some have described these types of communities as ‘networks’. This concept highlights the idea of relationships and interdependencies between different people that make up a ‘community’, through collaboration, sharing and coordinated collective action. This marks a shift in focus from a prior ‘what’ (community as place-centeredness, social and cultural homogeneity, and commitment to a cause) towards the ‘how’ (new interconnections and activities for reciprocal benefit).
As a network of relationships, a community needs regular conversations, which requires ‘infrastructure’, which can be both physical and social. These infrastructures are places where people can exchange ideas: the pub, mosque, village Facebook page, hairdressers, the post office, school gates, the local corner shop, sports clubs, and, fundamental to us, a communal growing space. These places create opportunities for dialogue, the generation of shared histories, understandings and trust. It is these social relations that generate information sharing and commit people to collective action. Collective action can enrich, re-create or even generate ‘community’ in new forms, opening up future possibilities for societal change, as illustrated by some food-growing initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Suzanne Geoff’s video about their neighbourhood garden share shows a very different example of a community garden much more resembling a network than the traditional view we have of a community perhaps:
Fundamentally, a community is a clearly identified group of individuals that together, identify themselves as a community – regardless of whether they live near each other, have similar ethnicity or beliefs or have similar interests. A community is formed when people have a sense of belonging to each other and have a shared understanding. For example, when the Calthorpe Community Garden screened films about other community gardens, the discussion featured many Calthorpe volunteers saying ‘We feel at home here’, expressing diverse kinds of belonging. See the article at https://cobracollective.org/news/calthorpe-community-garden
However, as we just tried to demonstrate, the concept of a community is also somewhat fluid: any person can be part of multiple communities at the same time. For example, you might belong to a community based on your geographic location or as part of a specific growing initiative, but at the same time you could be part of another community based on your ethnicity.
Activity (10 min): "Exploring the communities in your life"
What comes to your mind when you hear the word community? Who are the communities you belong to? Try to think about which of these are relevant in the context of community food growing and write those down in your learning journal. Think about what stories you connect to each of those communities and the role they’ve played in your life.