What do you need to build a community? Do you need dozens of like-minded people from the same socio-economic background, living in similar houses, doing similar jobs, with kids who do the same activities?
Or, can you build a strong community with people from a variety of backgrounds, who have different life experiences, living in different types of homes, with a variety of personal interests?
Last week Richard Florida observed that in his new Toronto neighbourhood there were a lot of families choosing urban living over the suburbs, and from a variety of backgrounds it would appear based on the range of housing choices. He was challenging an assumption in the Denver Post that somehow having children was incompatible with living in a dense, amenity-rich urban setting.
This led me to think about what makes some dense urban communities work — and a strong community is a good reason to stay and raise a family.
Looking around my own (dense, urban) community, I notice that my neighbors include several drywallers and construction workers, at least two lawyers, a graphic designer (now free lance, formerly senior at Electronic Arts), several teachers, a genetics researcher, people who work in finance, people who write for semi-communist newspapers, professional photographers, energy traders, marketing specialists, and the owners of local businesses: the gym two blocks away is owned and operated by a couple living 6 houses up the street.
Some people rent, some people own. Some owners bought in before housing prices doubled or tripled (as has happened since 2001), some bought in recently. Some occupy an entire house, but most people whether they own or rent only occupy a portion of the house. Many people have children.
And spawning out from my immediate area, the same patterns of residents repeats itself — people from a wide variety of backgrounds. What’s really intriguing is how much most people in the neighborhood support each other.
Neighbors hire each other, or swap favors. Need your wall patched, your drywaller neighbor can do it. Need a will, the lawyer down the street will give you a discount. Want some great photos taken of your kids or family, ask a local photographer. In a campaign to get a local park renovated, a professional graphic designer created some post cards and images so amusing, ironic and memorable the campaign leader received a call from the Mayor thanking us for brightening his day.
The community also supports the local businesses. In a 10 block retail strip that provides the focal point for the neighborhood, there are only two or three chain retailers (Starbucks, of course, and outlets of two local chains). Most other businesses are run by people in the community — the hardware store, the small grocery stores, the cafes and restaurants, and the ecclectic range of funky retail shops (shoe stores, clothes, childrens). Most people shop local – again supporting the community.
Last year I addressed the question of whether gentrification reduces economic diversity (not racial…economic), and tentatively concluded that no it doesn’t. In the subsequent discussion with others, I started to conclude that during the process of gentrification, economic diversity is not diminished, but perhaps that could be the end result if the neighbourhood becomes so expensive that only families with >$150K/year in income could consider buying there.
My neighborhood is definitely undergoing gentrificaiton. But it’s this dyanmic time when economic diversity can contribute to creating an intriguing community. Yes there are tensions — every community has that — but that’s also important. People need something to talk about.
Perhaps a true community is necessarily dynamic and not static — undergoing some sort of gentrification or other change process. That’s what makes it interesting.
People who live in suburban sprawl or condo sprawl often say they don’t know their neighbors. Maybe because everyone is too much alike, there is no reason to interact.