Nicias’s rousing words to the Athenian soldiers on the beach at Syracuse:
‘You are yourselves the town, wherever you choose to settle… it is men that make the city, not the walls and ships without them….’
"Idea of a Town" - Rykwert p. 3
Nicias tells his soldiers looking to found a colony that it is the people that define community should they enter into a covenant with the land and each other.
"Loneliness can be the result of our built environment." [Photo: courtesy Schemata Workshop]
Architect Grace Kim thinks that a solution may be differently designed housing. "Loneliness can be the result of our built environment," she told an audience at TED 2017.
Are Dorms For Adults The Solution To The Loneliness Epidemic? by Adele Peters, Fast Company, April 2017
Peter's article suggests the answer for loneliness: people... Yep, that figures, but this epidemic (I argue pandemic) isn't going to be solved by our built environment. We need a diversity of issues reinforcing interdependence to gel a colony, town, or sense of community. Co-housing is a format that fosters close interaction and encourages intern-dependence. It is not a panacea for society.
To be honest, a co-housing in South Texas is a colony in a wilderness. In contracts, co-housing in Toronto is an established development pattern and membership is fluid (people move in and out like a rental apartment). Founding a co-house is different than settling into an existing co-house.
Having worked with groups in Chicago, San Antonio and now Kerrville I've noticed that groups have more success that establish an ideology that provides the glue that holds the vision of "the commons". In central Texas the typical ideology is that of individualism, and most potential groups find that they have heard of the idea, but their definition of "town" is quite different. What they can all agree on is that the current housing model is unsatisfactory.
That agreement alone is not enough glue to gel a community. A community cannot be founded on a negative principle. Inter-reliance provides a stronger glue, and loneliness is banished in the action of giving attention to each other.
The nitty-gritty is covered in the book "Creating a life together" by Diana Leafe Christian.
Joseph Rykwert's "Idea of a Town" is the seminal text on what town founding is - as a ritual and tradition.
Volunteering Does Not Need a Greater Agenda - In a Community, EVERYONE Needs Help Sometimes
Meetup is another answer to loneliness, and this community-building platform leverages the existing built fabric of our cities. I agree that our cities are not conducive to personal engagement, but their dysfunction is not stopping you from (first) finish reading this article and picking up your phone to call a friend. If we are going to talk about the isolation of individuals, it would be better to attempt to boost volunteerism rather than try and unwind 70 years of development policy all at once.
Again, single issue community engagement is not a method to build reliance and interdependence. I know it is a convenient way to organize a volunteer-fueled non-profit and get grants from corporations, but the farming isn't accomplished by "ploughers", "seeders", "harvesters". It's accomplished by "farmers". A comprehensive approach to community cultivation - one that integrates quality of life issues - is the only way to be bounteous. There is a ethos within the non-profit corporate-culture that being "on topic", "relevant", and "focused" is the path to success as a non-profit corporation. The typical community engagement approach is to create events for people to meet (addressing loneliness) and talk about addressing a social-ill.
This last step is important to community but it is not inherently community building. The exchange is labor and/or monetary from the participant who is then achieves a sense of gratification from having contributed. This kind of exchange is philanthropy but not building community inter-reliance.
2010 M*A*S*H Pot-luck party in San Antonio - We dined, watched the episode, and talked about ways we could help Haiti and committed to relief funds [Photo: Jason Winn]
Community inter-reliance isn't just a question of "how are you helping?", but "are you asking for the help you need?" For example: If you need help getting your home clean, ask two friends if they will come help for a day. Throw a small pot-luck dinner party the next day and invite six friends over. Ask two of those people to help you wash up. Everyone is fed, your quality of life has improved, and every involved spent time and energy helping each other. This is an exchange of energy with tangible results for all involved.
This is the day-to-day experience of co-housing. The close proximity of co-housing adds a social pressure to the members to foster such informal acts of community, but that proximity isn't a prerequisite. Did our development pattern create disconnection and loneliness? No, it made it more likely. Our lack of disorder, our affluence has led to a turning away from one another. Noted author Richard Sennett addresses the use of minor crisis to help gel a community in his text The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life. The sum of the modern lifestyle allows us to avoid relating to each other - so we don't. It is inter-reliance that defines a community, not the walls.
This phenomenon is becoming a pandemic around the world, and has a clinical label in Japan: "hikikomori ". Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry apply this definition to the half million residents who haven't left thier homes for at least six months. As noted in the noted in the research by Kato etal, this is a world-wide phenomenon of profound loneliness enabled by the total of the modern lifestyle, not just the built environment.
Any good non-profit would suggest I end on a call to action. So go call a friend, particularly one that seems in the doldrums. Ask for a favor.
The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life. - Richard Sennett
"Does the ‘hikikomori’ syndrome of social withdrawal exist outside Japan? A preliminary international investigation"
Takahiro A. Kato etal, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology
July 2012, Volume 47, Issue 7, pp 1061–1075
- Jason Winn is a registered architect with the State of Texas, certified planner with the American Institute of Certified Planners, and certified energy manager with the Association of Energy Engineers. He has practiced architecture and urban planning in San Antonio and Chicago for 13 years and is currently teaching design at the Eastern Mediterranean University. Read his research on storytelling and persistence in the built environment at Space Poetics