The Significance of Community in Modern Planning Theory

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Reflections on: "Sense of Community in the Urban Environment: A Catalyst for Participation and Community Development," by David M. Chavis

David Chavis’ 1990 article, “Sense of Community in the Urban Environment: A Catalyst for Participation and Community Development," highlights the effects that perception of environment, social networks, and how residents’ sentiments about their communities can further influence the behaviors and perspectives of others. The article further emphasizes the importance of citizen participation in community organizing and explains why it has been regarded as key to improving the quality of the physical environment, enhancing services, preventing crime, and improving social conditions. 

I view the institution of a locally-driven planning process as being essential to the establishment of a general sense of community. The maintenance and enlargement of self-sufficient, self-governing bodies (community organizations), further signify the additional role that empowerment has in local development. According to Chavis, a working definition of the term “sense of community”, suggests local processes of development that create opportunities for membership, influence, mutual needs to be met, and shared emotional ties and support. Essentially, a sense of community points to the strength and shared benefits of social capital. The more invested we are in community, the more power and ownership we feel we have in the communal environment. It is through this process that a sense of community contributes to individual thought for collective development.

I find it immensely intriguing, that when we compare communities that seem to be thriving, both socially and politically, to low-income communities, plagued with the accompanying concerns of crime, disinvestment and unemployment concentrated in a single area of poverty, one tends to wonder if there is a specific criterion of that qualifies it. Trends in both these specific communal types seem to possess a constant, regardless of country, city, location, ethnic makeup, etc. However one might evaluate the success of a community, the residents of perceivably well to do communities possess a notably stronger sense of community, than do residents of less socio-politically affluent communities. This sense of community therefore compels residents to develop and maintain social networks, in addition to in social capital. This investment in social capital is yet again, another product of that sense of community. A sense of community can have a great influence on one’s desire to control or contribute to the environment, often helping to address problematic concerns that may be regarded as problematic. For instance, I view the formulation of this ‘sense of community’ as being instrumental to the effectiveness of the Occupy Movement. A collective effort, with one voice, and a common goal. The control or occupying of space is but a means by which to establish an improvised locale for a “quartered” community. The resolve to maintain these claimed spaces was clear in the emergence of riotous protest as Occupiers clashed with law enforcement (in their attempts to divide the urban community, before conquering the social community). Another example of this can be seen in 1957’s, Little Rock’s Nine during the integration of Central High School. The local community viewed academic integration as problematic. When the National Guard intervened, (an additional group of “outsiders”) to enforce the law, the resistance became unpredictably explosive.

Although the concepts of Social Capital and Networks could quite easily take us into totally separate discussion altogether, in this context, I view social capital and social networks as being interdependent. Social capital deals with the product, the talent, skill or unique ability one contributes to the greater community with which he holds membership. Social networking speaks to the ways in which members of that community bargain to benefit one from another by the utilization of this collection of gifts and talents. All these are major players in the establishment and maintenance of a sense of community.

Apart from physical features, one of the key distinctions between these community types is the length to which residents will collectively go to protect “their” society. Examples of this are seen in high-price residential communities like Pleasanton, CA. for example. A highly expensive neighborhood where the rent you pay for a 2-3 bedroom condo, could match that of the cost of a home mortgage in parts of a city like Oakland. The economic support or disinvestment in local businesses is another way communities might protect their neighborhood. According to Chavis, perceived control relates to the beliefs an individual has about the relationship between actions (behavior) and outcomes.

The protection of a society further suggests that there are boundaries involved. These boundaries could be physical barriers such as gated communities, rivers, railroad tracks; or even socioeconomic barriers such as highly priced property, educational requirements, and other forms of exclusive criteria. These boundaries form due to society’s perception of “the other”. Therefore, in order to retain some sense of emotional security—to live without fears—communities tend to form boundaries in which to maintain, occupy, and repel others from entering.

Working to help establish a sense of community in modern planning today should be held as a vitally important aspect of the planning process. The mural below depicts this perfectly. It was designed by a youth empowerment program in Oakland CA, Youth UpRising. The youth of Castlemont were included directly in the planning process. This mural is a reflection of what the young people view as the areas of concern in their community and what they actually want their community to evolve into. Considering the impact that community and developmental endeavors can have on the outcomes of specific regions, in order to further eliminate the formation and spreading of concentrated despair, community building must become a more integral part of the planning process.

Julian Collins is interested in topics of housing, community and economic development. He received his Bachelors from the University of Illinois, Chicago in Urban and Public Affairs and is now pursuing a Masters at the UC Berkeley in City and Regional Planning.