“The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth – that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community – and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.” – Wendell Berry
What is community?
A community is a group of people who interact – usually tied to a geographical place, but not necessarily (e.g. nomadic communities; and now online communities). Humans (and in fact all primates) are social animals that have always lived in groups, from hunter-gatherer tribes and medieval villages to city neighbourhoods and business communities.
We’re focusing here on communities of place, but not just on intentional communities or ecovillages, where people come together deliberately to form community. It’s the spirit of community that’s important – people living near to each other don’t automatically make a strong community. There can be several communities in one geographical area – based on interests (music, sport, etc.), on religion, culture, age, profession etc. Individuals could be part of one or more of them, and all will contribute to the overall community of place.
Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve lived in strong communities. It’s only recently that community has deteriorated. All humans lived in hunter-gatherer bands pre-agriculture, and some hunter-gatherer tribes survive today, with extremely strong kinship ties and sharing of resources. Agriculture allowed tribes to settle in one place, after which resources could be stored, and accumulated in the hands of a few (usually an alliance between the warrior and priestly class). Wealth concentrated, empires grew, but community remained for ordinary people.
Communities were largely rural until the end of feudalism, when enclosure of common land pushed peasants into the cities to work in the new factories, and vital skills were lost. Local economies had always been about producing useful things for some sort of exchange medium, which was then used to purchase things that other people had produced. Now the aim of the economy was to make money from money, through investments, lending money at interest, and charging rent on property. The industrial revolution brought trains, then roads, then commuting, and both local economies and community began to break down.
Friendly (or mutual) societies grew up as a response to these developments. They were essentially social security organisations, providing insurance for sickness, accident, old age etc. for a subscription; but they provided community cohesion too, in the form of social clubs, lectures, ceremonies, emotional support for the bereaved or sick etc. They’re still strong in many poorer countries. Mutual societies provided health care in the UK before the NHS. The state caused the demise of the friendly societies in the UK by introducing mandatory national insurance in 1911 – when there were around 9 million members of registered and unregistered societies.
Communities are now being weakened further by the ‘sharing economy’ (companies like Über and Airbnb), and by corporate supermarkets and chains in every community, sucking out wealth to pay shareholders. Worse, local people drive to supermarkets and back without meeting local traders, there’s no feeling of ownership, there are fewer (and more boring) jobs than in economies of small, local businesses. We’re becoming a nation of ‘clone towns’.
Streetbank – a charity enabling people to share things in their communities.
But glimmers of hope are appearing. There’s renewed interest in local food and craft produce, and many local authorities are looking into ‘community wealth building’. In Preston, the council give contracts to local businesses to provide services for hospitals, education, police etc. and if no local business exists to provide those services, they’ll help set up and provide training for a co-op to do it.
What are the benefits of community?
Community is essential to human well-being. ‘You need a village to raise a child’, but you need a village (or at least a community – which could be urban) to support adults too. Well-being depends on meaningful interactions – to feel that you mean something to others; that you belong; that you have emotional connections; that you’d be missed if you left the community. Loss of community has caused a loneliness epidemic in the West – especially among the elderly.
Strong communities instill moral accountability, which results in less crime. Social interaction means that neighbourhoods become safer, friendlier and more interesting. It also helps us meet our practical needs (in a cost-effective way) – sharing tools or equipment, finding babysitters or people to feed your pet while you’re away etc. Online communities can’t meet our requirements for human contact in the same way.
Community often becomes stronger in times of crisis, and will be vital in case of future crashes – economic or ecological – to provide security, plus the essentials of life where long-distance transport becomes prohibitively expensive or impossible.
Economy: community-embedded local economies provide more, and more interesting, jobs. The scale of businesses (small) is important too in building community. This isn’t an ideological position – people of every political persuasion likes and benefits from living in a strong, resilient community.
Environment: a good local social life and economy reduces the need to travel and therefore burn fossil fuels. ‘Stuff’ doesn’t have to travel so much either, and its amount can be reduced in communities where there’s lots of sharing. Plus strong communities can come together to fight the removal of or damage to natural capital such as forests or rivers.
What can I do?
Real community can’t be designed from above. We have to do it ourselves. It’s about taking responsibility for doing things in your local area to build and sustain community. The instinct to be social animals can’t really be stifled – community will always try to return. We need to counter the trends that are killing it. Decentralisation and the principle of subsidiarity are key to a vibrant community, community-based economy and potentially, governance.
Get to know your neighbours. Smile at people – what’s the worst that can happen? Talk to an old person – offer to dig their garden, take their dog for a walk, anything they might find difficult. Join things – a drama group, Transition group, choir, sports club, supper club, book club, any club that takes your fancy. Get an allotment, start a local seed club, invite people to a picnic, volunteer, build a front porch (seriously). Ceremonies, parties and festivals are good for building community. So throw a party! Here are 300 ways to share more in communities, from Shareable.
Stand for local office – but not in a divisive, party-political way. Stand as an independent instead. That’s what they did in Frome, Somerset – and they won every seat on the council!
‘Flatpack democracy’ in Frome, where independents have taken over the council and rejected the usual divisive party politics. Inspiring stuff.
Support your local economy
Patronise local businesses and alternatives to the corporate giants. To make it easy, we’ve collated the different ways you can obtain the essentials of life from non-corporate sources on NonCorporate.org. It’s a modern take on the ‘friendly society’ approach, which includes various community-based initiatives like:
- community energy
- community-supported agriculture / veg boxes / local food
- credit unions
- local currencies
- mutual credit
- various ‘commons’ sources
- co-operatives of all kinds
We all have to make a decision. Do we want to get our food, energy, clothes and consumer goods from low-quality corporate sources, probably produced by virtual slave labour, unsustainably, with tax deftly avoided, to the detriment of your community, or do you want to consume sustainably, giving your money to people who care about good food, the environment, craft skills, quality produce and their communities? Then you have to do a bit of work to find those sources and be prepared to pay a fair price.
Become part of your local economy
You might even take it further and start or join a local initiative, so that you don’t have to work for an organisation that sucks wealth out of your (or someone else’s) community. You might work for a local business, a co-op or not-for-profit, or become a sole trader. That could mean skilling yourself up to produce something useful for your community. But be sure to support others who are doing the same. You might find the prices of artisanal goods / organic food etc. high, but you’ll be producing the same kinds of things, so you’ll be both a consumer and a producer.
You could take it further still, and become a mover and a shaker in the local economy – there’s an awful lot you could do, from helping start community land trusts, housing co-ops, cohousing projects, hosting a REconomy event, getting your council to look at the Preston Model etc.
Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other 25+ day-to-day living topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.
The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.
Paul Bragman has 30 years’ experience as a community & economic regeneration practitioner in the community, voluntary and statutory sectors in the UK and developing countries. He runs Community and Economic Regeneration Consultants Ltd., offering community & economic development and organisational management services to housing associations, local authorities, voluntary and non governmental organisations.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Simon Lennane March 3rd, 2018
The town I work in has a closed facebook page where lots of good things are going on, offers for help, especially in the snow (“anyone need a prescription picking up?”) & offers of lifts, but the single platform is an exclusive and very closed source / corporate model. Are there ways of tapping into resources within the community that are more inclusive?
2Dave Darby March 3rd, 2018
It has to be face-to-face, surely? But I’ll ask around for non-corporate messaging / social media.
3homeminderuk January 9th, 2020
It’s all very well hitting those of us stuck to our sofas by inertia over the head with inspiring videos, but how EXACTLY does one ‘…helping start community land trusts, housing co-ops, cohousing projects, hosting a REconomy event, getting your council to look at the Preston Model etc…’
4Dave Darby January 9th, 2020
homeminderuk – each one of those terms in the main article has a link to a topic introduction that explains more about how to do those things, or to organisations that will help you do it. Plus each topic has a links page with various organisations that offer practical help, including funding, plus documents on their websites, and they’ll pick up the phone too. From the ‘housing co-ops’ topic, for example, there’s a link to a page called ‘how to set up a housing co-op’, which contains links to organisations such as Radical Routes, who have a guide that explains exactly how to do it, in quite some detail. All of our topics include basic info on what to do, plus a range of books, links to specialists who can help you, courses you can go on etc. All those existing institutions were started by somebody, at some point.
5Georgina Murray February 5th, 2022
People’s land bank CIC is a growing community of people who want to find land and live low impact. We have a Slack to share information and meet. We’re researching building DAU land bank, a decentralised,
digital community collectively incentivised to bank land for social and ecological purposes.
Join us 👉 https://peopleslandbank.co.uk/
6Leigh Tugwood February 8th, 2022
I-Can : Ivers Community Action NetworksLtd
We are a small UK based FCA regustered not-for-profit Mutual Benefit Society which kicked off a number of
community based projects in 2020.
One of these supports young adults to start up their own community based social enterpises.
We call this project I-Can: Young Entrepreneurs
Two of our members Heidi and Dan have created a new website as a Creative Commons based
educational resource platform. The subject of this resource is a the prototype of a Low Impact
As traffic to the site increases we hope to attract further supporters, donors and sponsors to
create the necessary revenue for this and other I-Can projects
Given the subject matter we are keen to direct our users and other constributors to other
sources of information and research to inform their own projects.
Hence this note here
Its a new projects, with a recently launched website with Heidi and Dan very much learning
as they go along
As such they’d very much welcome offers of help, feedback and contributions from other
Renererative Community Creatives
Needless to say we’re happy to answer any questions you may have.
With thanks in advance, and
I-Can Co-founder and Projects Manager
7Ivor Scott April 7th, 2022
Hello, my wife and I are directors of a CIC, that was formed a few years ago, never achieved its aims and we plan to shut down in near future as we still have to pay accountancy fees each year. It is not trading, I have returned to sole trader status. My question here is, before its closed would anyone be interested in joining us to regenerate it? I would give up sole trader status and trade through the CIC as tried before, with the aim of also providing training/community benefit as originally planned. I am a dry stone waller. The CIC was set up to operate an outdoor living business, making stone firepits and wood fired ovens in stone and brick. There is growing demand for this, mainly in SE England, not in Northumberland where we are. We service the market by producing in kit form for self assembly although some customers do pay for me to travel as far as Kent. I am 65 this year, so open to any ideas, would consider working with people to transfer the business to new owners in the future, anything is on the table as it will simply be closed down anyway. Any suggestions welcome, thank you.