Communities in the City

Ronan Paddison. Handbook of Urban Studies. Editor: Ronan Paddison. SAGE Publications. 2001.

In the analysis of urban social life the notion of the community has had a long, if somewhat chequered, history. Intuitively, its appeal is not difficult to identify: as a means of counteracting the size and potential alienation of the city, community has typically been interpreted as the means by which the individual is able to develop a sense of belonging and identity with at least part of it. Further, as researchers from the Chicago School sought to trace out so carefully, social interaction within the city frequently takes on a spatial expression; it was not just that the city could be divided into areas which were more or less distinguished by the patterning of residential segregation, but that this could be linked often to patterns of social interaction and bonding (Park, 1929/1952). Community, then, became intricately involved with how social behaviour within the city was organized, and indeed could be understood.

The intuitive understanding that urban communities exist belies the epistemological problems that have arisen both in their definition, and empirically in their identification (Bennett, 1989; Burns et al., 1994); Johnston, et al., 1994). Definitionally, community is among a number of ‘slippery’ social science terms, alongside others such as integration and development, which have proved sufficiently difficult to define to the point that the validity of the term has been questioned by some social scientists (Stacey, 1969). Yet, if as part of its chequered history, the study of communities has been in the past all but abandoned by urban sociologists and others, more recently since the 1980s it has enjoyed something of a renaissance, not only because of its seeming importance as a local counter to the socially erosive effects of globalization, and its ideological handmaiden, neo-liberalism, but also to its common appeal to politicians and policy-makers. This renaissance does not mean that the epistemological problems of definition and identification have been overcome; indeed, not only do they remain, but they have been added to by new concerns with the ways in which community can be used as a totalizing construct, obscuring the differences which characterize individuals and groups within the city, its very diversity (Young, 1990).

It is the very ubiquity with which the term has been and is used, stemming no doubt from its intuitive appeal, that is at least in some measure the source of such problems (Hoggett, 1997). It is not only academics who have used the term so commonly; from public policy-makers, and particularly by politicians, its usage has gained widespread currency. In the contemporary British city community policing along with community health care, community development and community schools are among the numerous public policies which have invoked the term, paralleling similar trends in the United States and elsewhere. It is not hard to see why the term community is being used adjectivally to qualify public policy: not only does it convey connotations of empathy and localness, themselves implied values of community, but it also harnesses new relationships between the state and civil society, notably of partnership and shared responsibility, itself one of the increasingly distinctive trends of the shift towards governance in post-Fordism. By the 1990s, then, notions of community empowerment had become central to the methods of regenerating the city in the advanced economies, as they had in the goal of fostering the upgrading of squatter settlements in cities in less developed countries. But multiple usage conceals the multiple meanings which can be attached to the term, not to mention the rhetorical uses (as in its linking to empowerment and partnership) to which community can be directed, particularly by politicians and government agencies.

Part of the reason why the notion of community has become such common currency is that it has served two ends—as a means of describing social life and behaviour (within the city) and also a normative tool by which to legitimize relationships and processes designed to meet political ends. Any critical understanding of the place of the community needs to draw out an appreciation of both. Nor are these two aspects unrelated. Indeed, where the ‘benefits’ of community have become harnessed by political debate, through in particular the recent resurgence in interest in communitarianism (Etzioni, 1995), its advocacy may be seen in part a reaction to the multiple social dislocations within the city resulting from global and local restructuring. Its proclamation, too, serves as a rebuttal to the claim that in late capitalism urban communities no longer exist.

Such a loss has become expressed in the doubts held that in the present-day city the notion of community in the traditional sense of attachment to neighbourhood, to place, has any meaning, or at least as much meaning as it had in the past. Urban social life, it is argued, has become increasingly atomistic, in which, spurred on by neo-liberalist ideas, individualism has gained currency over collectivist solutions (Walzer, 1995). Neither argument is accurate in any universal sense. Spatially defined communities, characterized by neighbouring and supportive social networks, persist in the city. Yet, few would argue that they are universal, that the city is comprehensively divided into a network of territorial communities in which place, social interaction and identity are strongly fused to give common social purpose. But such communities do persist, perhaps most visibly in the class and/or ethnically based enclaves which form distinctive zones in virtually all cities.

Much as territory and place continue to be important bases for community in the contemporary city, to limit the meaning of community to its territorially-based form is to deny the diversity of forms it can assume. Interest-based groups reflecting the social diversity of the city’s population, the elderly, disabled, gay and lesbian groups, the homeless, represent a different order of urban communities functioning often at a city-wide level, as well as, in many cases, identified with particular parts of it. Further, as Webber (1963) identified more than a generation ago, the increased mobility of the more affluent resulted in much social interaction taking place extra-locally within the ‘non space urban realm’.

These introductory remarks imply that community is problematic as a concept, and that its mapping out needs to take account of the different forms it can assume, and the different purposes it can serve as giving meaning to urban social life as well as to its employment as a mobilizing agent for social change. This chapter looks at the different meanings of community, but before doing so examines how it is located within the wider study of urban social analysis, as it has been developed by urban sociologists, in particular. Here a paradox is readily identifiable, between the existence of communities and the alienating effects of city living. Communities, it is frequently argued, are important precisely because they act as a cushion to the otherwise alienating nature of city life. The argument presumes community to be ‘local’, either encompassing a small territory of the city or a well-defined subset of its population. Whatever its precise nature, it leaves open the question of whether the city is (or can be) an imagined community.

Community Studies

One of the paradoxes of urban sociological analysis is that while empirical studies have claimed to identify the existence of communities within the city, orthodox social theories of the city have emphasized the negative attributes of social life in the city (Flanagan, 1995). In the classic work of Tönnies (1883/1995), Simmel (1905/1950) and others the over-riding image of the city was that it was alienating, corrosive of pre-urban forms of community, centring on interaction where, if there was greater interdependence between individuals, contact was instrumental and, as for Simmel, based on calculative reasoning. This tradition of thought, so much a product of nineteenth century urban-industrialization, was to continue to have a major influence on attitudes towards the city, and the interpretation of urban social life and behaviour, in the following century. As much as it was a product of the development of urban-industrialism in the nineteenth century, the speed of social change helps explain why theorists grappled to come to terms with its meaning and were drawn to make comparisons with pre-urban social conditions.

This is nowhere clearer than in Tönnies’s still frequently quoted distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, mapped out in a work written in the 1880s. If the distinction was not explicitly devised to counterpose rural social life with that of the urban, typically this is how the argument has become interpreted. In the pre-urban/pre-industrial world Gemeinschaft mapped out a social order in which interaction was intense, personal and based on primary social relations. It was marked by strong social solidarity—effectively the individual was part of an integrated social collectivity. By contrast in the city Gesellschaft conditions predominated, characterized by transitory, fleeting social relationships. Individuals had become more interdependent on one another (because of the division of labour), but (inter) action was founded on its calculated exchange value (because of the deepening effects of capitalism). Neither word, Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft, is directly translatable into English, though usually they are equated with ‘community’ and ‘society’.

Tönnies’s analysis represents an important tradition within urban social theory, that the twin processes of urbanization and industrialization were in one way or another dystopian, and that a sense of community was lost. Within this depiction community was linked to a world which had been and as belonging to an idealized past. Even if it is possible to interpret Tönnies’s dualistic analysis too literally—actual societies would be located along a spectrum whose end points were represented by the ideal images of Gemeinschaften or Gesellschaften—the location of these within the continuum was largely fixed by the nature of place, rural or urban.

One of the more obvious ways in which urban society was to differ from pre-urban societies arose from the sheer numbers of people that constituted the city. Inevitably, this would depersonalize social relations. For Simmel, interested in explaining the experience of urban life, the scale of the city and the intensity of the city, meant inevitably that the individual would need to become insensitive to the myriad changes and people which are part of the daily encounter. Alienation too was fostered by the money economy which provided the framework for so much of the interpersonal relations which took place, and which by definition meant that relationships were both based on calculation and potentially conflictual.

Some of these negative qualities of urban life were to be expanded upon by Wirth (1938), to whom the distinctiveness of social life in the city was the product of three main factors, size, density and heterogeneity. As for Tönnies, Wirth’s methodological approach was to posit the ways in which the urban differed from the non (or pre-) urban, though in Wirth’s formulation the latter was left implicit. Size was critical, and was linked to the rapid growth of the city through immigrant groups from different cultural backgrounds. For Wirth, as for Tönnies, Simmel and Weber, the sheer massing of people within the city meant that social relations were likely to be superficial, competitive rather than solidaristic and instrumental. These relationships were buttressed by the effects of density and heterogeneity, in which case Wirth emphasized how diverse was the network of interaction between individuals but how superficial they were. In short, living in the city was disorganizing, depersonalizing, alienating, and competitive.

Set against these visions of city life empirical studies in both the United States and Britain, conducted mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, were to show how the city comprised a mosaic of social worlds characterized more by social cohesion and organization than by alienation and disorganization. Indeed, many of these studies were not only to refute the classical theorists but were to celebrate the persistence of communities, some of which were to lend support to the idea that Gemeinschaft-type relations were persistent within the city. A territorial definition of what constituted the community, together with a shared sense of belonging were important markers, within which, as empirical analysis was able to demonstrate, social cohesion would be reflected in the sense of neighbourliness and in the patterning of friendship and kinship networks. A precursor of the trend was Whyte’s (1943) study, Street Corner Society, following which there was a plethora of analyses in US cities demonstrating the viability of community as the setting of convivial relations, and, variously, as the territorial base on which the support and defence of (local) collective values could be founded.

Whyte’s study became a classic in showing how social life, far from being disorganized, was ordered in ways that gave meaning to its residents. The argument was all the more striking because of the type of neighbourhood in which he was working, a poor working class area within Boston, one which to the outsider would be more likely to be ‘read’ as socially dysfunctional. To the outsider, then, the prevalence of street gangs and racketeers, characteristic of the neighbourhood, was likely to be interpreted in terms of its moral disorder. But in a tightly-knit community which had its own codes of behaviour, what appeared dysfunctional could actually be supportive, as where, given the difficulties of entry into the formal labour market, informal (albeit often illegal), activities provided the means of access to income generation.

It was within poor neighbourhoods that the research indicated there was a strong sense of community. Suttles’s (1968) work in Chicago, in the Addams Area’, a multi-ethnic area in which growing numbers of blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were displacing an older Italian community, argued for the importance of territorial identification. Conflict was restricted to involving groups considered to be outsiders, such was the strength of identification with the Addams area that it transcended ethnic differences. In fact, such an identification was necessary, as being the only effective means by which to defend the area from external threat. Community became a coping strategy.

In Britain, too, empirical studies in the 1950s and 1960s were to emphasize the importance of Communities in the City community life within cities and towns. Detailed case studies, drawing methodologically from anthropology, were conducted in a variety of different environments, in Featherstone, a mining town in Yorkshire, Swansea, Gosforth, and perhaps most famously in the East End of London in Young and Wilmott’s classic work, Family and Kinship in East London. To a generation of (British) urbanists, Young and Wilmott’s work was to emphasize how Gemeinschaft conditions remained in the inner city, in which the supportive roles of kinship and extended family were to underwrite a strong sense of community, although they were to prove vulnerable when confronted by urban renewal.

Though the geographical locations analysed in these studies varied, in fact there were strong similarities between them. Attention was focused on the working-class community, sometimes in areas threatened with industrial decline or the onset of urban renewal. In other words they were areas which were characterized by social change, sometimes rapid, which threatened the traditional communities which had been built with the spread of urban-industrialism. Such communities were portrayed as relatively stable, in spite of the conflictual environment against which they were set; in South Yorkshire Featherstone was depicted as a community in which the traditions of social life—the strong sense of solidarity, the marked sexual division of labour, and the penetrating influence of trade unionism in daily life and in basic values—were of long establishment (Dennis et al., 1956).

Yet the tightly knit world of the working-class community of the inner city would not be able to resist the progress of urban renewal, as Young and Wilmott were to demonstrate graphically in London. In the East End (of London) redevelopment was to sever the ties of community through the breakup of kinship and extended family networks. Once displaced to the newly-constructed peripheral suburbs, supportive social networks frequently became severed, an observation which was to be made elsewhere in British cities as relocation to peripheral estates accompanied the process of inner city renewal. What was lost was the sense of community which had pervaded the old working-class areas, in spite of the conscious attempt to rebuild communities in the mass housing estates and, particularly in the neighbourhoods of the New Towns.

It has become commonplace to criticize these studies—that they were overly-empirical, that they tended to emphasize the consensual nature of community over the fact that communities are often conflictual, and that they romanticized the community (Hoggett, 1997). Many of the so-called communities which were to fall victim to the bulldozer of post-war urban renewal were characterized by poor housing conditions and poverty, far from the romanticized image subsequent analysis may have given them. Perhaps most critical was their not infrequent failure to define adequately the meaning of community. As Stacey (1969) was to argue, the ‘community studies’ literature had been predicated on identification with a geographical area and social coherence, yet on neither count did they achieve sufficient rigour. The territorial extent of the community was under-specified as was the construct of social coherence, who precisely was ‘inside’ the group, and what constituted a ‘sense of community’. Paradoxically, a generation later, by which time the term community was being rehabilitated, concepts such as social coherence and a sense of community were to become even more commonplace, yet still contested over as to their definition and empirical interpretation.

If anything such continuing difficulties serve to emphasize the slippery nature of community, rather than denying that, however they are defined, empirical analysis would not be able to identify individuals living within cities claiming a sense of belonging to a community. Nor is this to deny the different forms community can assume, where for some citizens this is deeply rooted in territory and a sense of place, while for others it can be expressed more in terms of interests and lifestyles emphasizing social interaction which extends beyond their immediate locality.

In differing ways, then, a sense of community helps give social meaning to urban life in spite of those urban social theorists who have emphasized the alienating nature of city life. What needs to be emphasized here is that most of these urban social theorists are concerned with accounting for the nature of social interaction and behaviour within the city as a whole. Yet, typically, for the individual, everyday experience does not involve negotiating the city as a whole, but rather occurs within particular, often relatively small parts of it. Indeed, such a recognition was to be given a direct expression in the rapidly developing urban-industrial cities of the nineteenth century through the development of the suburb. Above all the suburb provided the means of withdrawing into the more private spheres of home and the local community as coping strategies to the alienation of the city.

Such an argument is not gender-neutral (Wilson, 1991). In the distinction between space and place, the one transactional and instrumental, the other associated with home and its immediate environs, the emotive, more personal, needs of the individual and households, how men and women relate to the city varies. The stereotype of women’s attachment to place is married to the suburb, and to home, while men are the more likely to have to negotiate space, both predicated fundamentally on the sexual division of labour. Of course, such a stereotype bears only partial testimony to reality, not least in the more developed economies because of the feminization of the labour force, and of the gains made by feminist movements in challenging patriarchical practices. Yet, the negotiation of space by women has (re)affirmed the dangers of urban life, of the unexpected, not least through apprehension over personal safety. At the same time, for both women and men coping with urban space is addressed by their interaction with only a limited part of it, with large parts of the city being typically ‘unexplored territory’.

Outside the geography of mundane routines, for the citizen much of the rest of the city, then, is imagined space, certainly infrequently encountered, perhaps, even for long-term residents of the city, there are areas which have never been visited. But, some parts of the city which are habitually negotiated, which are not part of the local area, such as the city centre, are encountered in everyday experience. Even where the citizens feel affinities towards such spaces, the city centre is above all where the stranger is encountered, where the massing of people in the city has its most obvious effects on the alienating of the individual. Indeed, where in modernity the nature of urban social life has tended to steadily corrode the meaning of public space, more recent interpretations of it have emphasized the threats it poses for the individual. Benefits, it is suggested, follow from the privatization and increased surveillance of spaces where by necessity citizens, strangers to one another, are brought into close proximity. Apart, then, from the commercial reasons which help explain the development of shopping malls and out-of- or edge-of-town centres, the sanitized spaces which they offer the individual are a counter to the potentially more dangerous environments of the city centre, an argument which again has gender implications.

The distinction between the imagined city and the everyday experience of the individual focusing on only a small part of it is suggestive of the scalar qualities of urban life, and of how they give meaning to urban living. This is particularly the case for communities defined by a strong sense of place in which the local area is both familiar and supportive. Little wonder, then, that such communities will be defended should they be threatened with redevelopment or some other change which is perceived as resulting in the erosion, or worse, loss of community. The paradox of communities within the city which is otherwise alienating and dysfunctional in social terms reflects the different scales at which we live in cities.

Yet, if in this sense community becomes a means by which to overcome the scale of the city, as Fischer (1975) has suggested it is the very size of the city which renders the potential for subcultural communities, not necessarily tied to the local neighbourhood, to emerge. Cities offer critical mass within which individuals are able to express their interests collectively, in which the heterogeneity of the city creates opportunities for subcultures to develop. The argument stands Wirth’s conclusion on the heterogeneity of the city on its head: that whereas to Wirth it tended to weaken social life, to Fischer increasing differentiation was enriching, fostering contact and allowing for groups to establish cultural identities.

Community Forms and Processes

The recognition that communities do exist, and are empirically identifiable, in cities needs to be accompanied by an acceptance that the form they assume, and the processes which underpin them, will vary. It would be naive to assume that cities are subdivided neatly into discrete communities. Cities may comprise a mosaic of social worlds, but these do not conform to a template in which (for example) residents of different parts of the city necessarily identify with the local area in which they live.

Even if, as it was argued in the earlier discussion, the defining of community has been something of a semantic minefield, there is a broad measure of agreement as to its basic attributes. Fundamentally, communities ‘are not merely territorial units but consist in the links that exist between people sharing common interests in a network of social relationships’ (Hill, 1994: 34; Karp et al., 1991). Effectively the community occupies the intermediate ground between the institutions of wider society, the city and its external environment, and the family and other immediate institutions with which the individual has daily social interaction.

In a study examining the social life within American neighbourhoods the Warrens (1977) have identified three factors which help distinguish between different types of community:

  • Identity—assessing the sense of place residents have, including the extent to which they consider they have shared values and interests with neighbours;
  • Interaction—what is the pattern of neighbouring within the area, the strength of the ties linking residents;
  • Linkages—the degree of closure of the local area from other parts of the city, adjacent or otherwise, and the purposes served by these linkages, such as to establish political leverage within external institutions operating at a city-wide level so as to gain some advantage for the local area.

Gottdiener (1994) has adapted the Warrens’ framework to define six types of community, ethnic villages, interactive middle-class neighbourhoods, diffuse, anomic and transitory communities and, finally, the defended neighbourhood. While giving a brief outline of these, the discussion here will focus on the last of them, the defended community.

At opposite ends of the ‘spectrum’ are the interactive middle-class neighbourhood and the anomic community. In the interactive middle-class community performance on each of the three criteria mentioned earlier is high. These are highly integrated communities in which there is a strong sense of belonging, extensive social interaction and which are able to use the professional skills of the residents to build external political linkages so as to buttress community advantage. In the anomic community scores on each of the three factors is low; typically these are low income neighbourhoods characterized by social breakdown and high crime rates. Compounding their social disorganization, local institutional capacity to counteract on some collective basis social problems is low; resident support of both the formal political process, in voting, and of the informal sector, through voluntary organizations, is low. Diffuse communities are closer to the interactive middle-class neighbourhood in the sense that while there is a low degree of social interaction within the former, nevertheless it functions as an effective community. Typically the residents of such communities will show strong linkages with areas outside the immediate locality. Like the interactive middle-class neighbourhood diffuse communities are able to use external linkages to defend the area’s status; conversely it is in anomic communities where the need for such linkages is the greatest, and where community capacity building is a priority to local regeneration.

Ethnic urban villages are identifiable as communities with a strong sense of identity, including that of place in that, typically, they occupy distinct territories, and in which there is a high degree of social interaction. They are also identified by a high degree of closure from other areas of the city, while at the same time some of their external linkages may be strong; where they comprise immigrant populations connections with their country of origin may be maintained, and indeed important, while in other cases as immigrant populations political power bases within City Hall may have been forged so as to ensure status identity. Where the collective identity is so critical to group integrity, restricting the social interaction with those from other parts of the city, particularly from neighbouring areas, is itself an important mechanism ensuring boundary maintenance; the ethnic urban village provides the most obvious illustration of Park’s description of the city as comprising ‘little worlds that touch but do not interpenetrate’ (Park, 1925/1952: 40).

In his study Urban Enclaves, of which the ethnic urban village is one example, Abrahamson (1996) demonstrates the supportive role such communities give to its ethnic members. In San Francisco’s Chinatown residents’ answers to the question as to why they like living there

focus on factors that are the advantages of any enclave. They like being close to the Chinese restaurants and shops where they can obtain goods and services available nowhere else. They also like the proximity to their relatives and friends and are comfortable living in a relatively homogenous community. (Abrahamson, 1996: 69)

These advantages differed between members of the group—for the more elderly the benefits were measured in terms of the proximity of the supportive network, for the young in terms of the fact that Chinatown could function as a place of work as well as of residence. This supportive capacity reflects the self-reliance of such communities; if, because of the hostility of the host population, self-reliance is borne out of necessity, it is also the means of safeguarding the integrity of the group.

Where one of the characteristics of the urban ethnic village is its ‘relative closure’ from much of the rest of the city in which it is located, particularly as a cultural expression, the paradox is that such communities are identified often in terms of a strong global sense of place. Immigrant ethnic villages such as San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Cuban community of Miami’s Little Havana or the ethnoburbs of Los Angeles (Li, 1998) reflect the globalization of the city, in which the development of local communities reflects the development of global diasporas which maintain strong cultural links with the homeland in the new environment. As globalization deepens, the arrival of new immigrant communities is leading to the territorial repartitioning of the city. Nor has their location been confined to the inner city as was so often the case in immigrant-fed urban growth in the past, where in cosmopolitan world cities such as Los Angeles, ethnoburbs such as ‘Little Taipei’ have been established in less than two decades in a process of invasion and succession not unlike that described by the Chicago ecologists.

Defended communities function as a special category where the threat to the local neighbourhood is sufficient to foster collective local action. The sources of threat are manifold; from capital with the pressure to redevelop a local neighbourhood involving its densification and/or a change in the type of land use; from the state, central or local, intent on implementing some infrastructural improvement, a new road or a new landfill site for waste disposal for example, which has benefits for the city (or fractions of it), but which is a clear threat to the local area; from residential populations in adjacent areas ‘spilling over’ into the neighbourhood. Precisely because of its high density the city comprises a complex weave of spatially-defined externalities generated by individual as well as collective action, many of which pose threats to the in situ residential population. While Gottdiener (1994) identifies the defended community as a separate type the ubiquity of conflict within the city means that defending the community often cross-cuts the other categories described, particularly as the threats to them ebb and flow.

Defending the community is not new; the creation of suburbs and their incorporation as separate legal entities in the nineteenth century, the forerunner of the jurisdictional jigsaw characterizing the US city (particularly in northern US states, for example) and institutional practices of zoning-in and -out are well-established methods by which the community has sought to safeguard its (territorial) base. Yet, for several reasons the defence of community has become more salient in the city in late capitalism. Neoliberal globalization has exacerbated the competitiveness of urban life; conflict, ever a defining feature of urban life, has become more salient as restructuring has (re)affirmed disparities of power and wealth. Threats to the local neighbourhood, as we have seen, are commonplace; the processes of restructuring, economic and physical, characterizing contemporary cities have increased the likelihood of threat. Simultaneously, and linked to the overarching processes of globalization in complex ways, inherited, relatively stable social formations linked to the ‘centred subject’ have been steadily eroded. Where self-identity is partly a reflection of the wider relationships of which the individual is part, the erosion of stable collective identifies—working-class communities centring on some long-standing manufacturing base now redundant through global economic restructuring, for example -destabilizes the sense of self. Globalization, then, has contributed in part to the ‘decentred subject’ through the de- and re-territorialization of social life. Old, previously relatively stable communities have been undermined through devalorization. New identities have formed around race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, ablement and other interest-based groups as urban societies have become more fragmented and ‘fluid’. Further, through formal or informal political means the demands of different groups have been voiced, and even those who were relatively ‘invisible’ within urban society, the disabled for instance, have joined the vocal interest-based communities in demanding a fairer city.

These trends have been associated with a rapid rise in defended communities in the city. Often their development has sought to establish or reaffirm the territorial basis of the community; clearly this is so in the case of neighbourhoods seeking to defend their community in the face of some threat. The rapid spread of gated communities, initially in the United States, but which are now found in cities in both the advanced and less developed economies, are among the more visible reminder of how the defence of personal privilege has become a feature of cities which are both more unequal and divided. Interest-based groups, too, may seek to establish a territorial claim, as in the case of gay communities which have developed in a number of cities in the advanced economies. The paradox would seem to be that while in the advanced economies lifetime mobility for the individual has increased, attenuating the geographical scale in which personal interaction takes place, there is if anything an increasing need to reaffirm the existence of the bounded community.

How such communities defend themselves, what resources they are able to muster varies; in the interactive middle-class neighbourhood, mentioned previously, local institutional capacity is high, whereas in the anomic community such capacity needs building, often through pro-active measures aimed at empowerment. In the middle-class community the professional skills and resources which can be mustered to confront threat can also be used to broker political linkages.

The development of the so-called Green Bans in Sydney in the 1970s demonstrate the ability of interactive middle-class neighbourhoods to successfully resist threat (Roddewig, 1978). What was distinctive about the Green Bans was the ability of neighbourhood groups to broker powerful linkages with other groups, notably with local trade union movements, to halt developmental changes affecting the neighbourhood. One of the early Green Bans, in the affluent, middle-class Sydney suburb of Hunter’s Hill, sought to prevent the development of native bushland in an area which was only a few miles from the city centre. The community sought the support of the major union involved in the development, the Builder’s Labor Federation, whose leader was persuaded to join forces with the local activists. Green Bans were a relatively short-lived form of resistance, and were the product of particular circumstances. Nevertheless they were successful in demonstrating the power of neighbourhood defence once mobilized. They exemplify a powerful source of local action; even if they are episodic, and are often stimulated by NIMBYism to maintain local privilege, they are commonplace in the city as significant reminders of the power of place-based attachments. The Green Bans were important too in reflecting one of Castells’s (1983) criteria for urban social movement, the ability of local (community) activism to transform power relations, although these effects were not to have a more general or durable impact.

The development of gay communities in San Francisco provided Castells (1983) with a grassroots movement which was more successful in establishing and defending a territorial community protecting the rights and interests of an ‘outsider’ group. It was one of the earlier of such communities now found in cities as different as London, Paris, Madrid, Manchester and Sydney. While gay communities are defended in the sense that their establishment needed to overcome hostility, their development and maintenance has much to do with the increasing role played by consumption in self-identities in postmodern societies, and particularly in the city. Mort (1998) has traced the development of the gay community in London, specifically within Soho, an area which has been linked historically with unconventional, sometimes outsider, groups. The transformation of Soho in the 1980s exemplified a coming together of a number of changes centring on the interplay between consumption and identity, its commercialism through advertising which sought to promote consumerism alongside the image of the city (London) as a major site of consumption, processes which could be targeted at specific markets, such as young men. As in other gay communities territoriality provides a source of power, enabling members to adopt social practices which would be the less acceptable in the city beyond.

Community: Inside/Outside

Earlier it was suggested that community is a problematic term because of the difficulties arising from how it should be defined. But there are other reasons why community is problematic arising from the assumption implied by the term that it is inclusionary. How the boundaries of the community are defined determines those who are included, and those who are excluded. It is precisely because of their inclusionary nature that we tend to think of communities as being somehow a ‘good thing’, of having, like the term decentralization, apple-pie qualities which defy denial as a value in its own right. Yet, the rhetoric of inclusion acts as a mask to the divisions within communities, and their ability to act as a (comm)unity Of course, within the city as a whole, communities frequently find themselves in conflict, over the allocation of resources, zero-sum competitions to attract or avoid a particular land use and the like, reflecting the scale and diversity which characterize the city. But at the more local level, within the individual (territorial) community functioning as a unit is for the most part something of an ideal, concealing differences and divisions within it.

In short, then, community is a totalizing construct which assumes a degree of internal coherence which is rarely the case, and is in all likelihood unattainable. Even taking one of the most basic indicators upon which the territorially-defined community is predicated, the existence of a distinct local place, it is clear that how this is perceived will differ between community members. They may not even be able to agree on what are the geographical limits of the place, its boundaries. Where there have been attempts to define the territorial boundaries of the community frequently there is at best only limited agreement as to the limits (Paddison, 1981). But also, by its nature, place is not some neutral container in which the social interaction of everyday life occurs; individuals and groups imbue spaces with different meanings. As Staeheli and Thompson (1997) show in their work in Boulder (Colorado) different groups can prioritize the needs of the same area in radically different ways. Attachments to the community too will vary between members of it. Adapting Relph’s (1976) insider/outsider terminology residents will differ in their ‘insideness’ with some members of the community feeling a much greater degree of attachment with local place than others. As Relph expressed it, ‘to be inside a place is to belong to it and to identify with it, and the more profoundly inside you are the stronger is the identity with the place’ (1976: 49).

There are other ways than the different attachment to place in which community glosses over internal difference. To assume that the territorial community could itself be a common bond presumes that the other identities which residents have—of ethnicity, gender, for example—can somehow be either subsumed under the umbrella of community, or that the latter itself will be able to supercede such difference. Clearly many communities are defined in terms of these characteristics. But the act of drawing a boundary around the community implies a degree of internal homogeneity which may be more myth than reality.

Even so, the drawing of boundaries inevitably becomes entwined with community. By its nature boundary demarcation tends to be brutal, notably in defining who is inside and who is outside. That is, community is about similarity, but it is also about difference, about the exclusion of ‘others’. Physically, such communities become expressed in the search for the homogenous community. In his book The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, Sennett (1970) argues that the quest for the ‘purified community’, represented by the homogenous neighbourhood, is a desire for collective defence against the hostile and the unpredictable. In fact, such a community does not necessarily function in a highly interactive way; the residents of them do not need to engage with one another. The purified community is an imagined community; ‘the image of the community is purified of all that might convey a feeling of difference, let alone a conflict, in who “we” are’. Sennett’s argument of purified community had wider application to cities than to residential areas: in the sense that it became translated into the need to establish a stable social order, its place was apparent in the wider history of city planning. But it is in suburbia, and particularly in the more affluent suburbs, that the twin objectives of asserting control and of avoiding disorder and difference along with the unexpected can be achieved.

Postmodern accounts tend to be especially critical of the myth of community for failing to recognize its exclusionary nature. As Sandercock (1998) argued within the territorially-based community ‘there may well be a dominant group with a distinct set of values and lifestyle, but… there are always those who are regarded as not belonging, as inferior, deviant, or threatening -whether it’s the poor who live “on the other side of the tracks”, the Aborigines who dwell on the fringes … or the gays who live in the night, in the shadows’ (1998: 191). Community becomes a dangerous construct, precisely because it hides the process of making individuals and groups behind the facade of its inclusionary rhetoric.

The Appeal to Community

While the idea(l) of the community has come under sustained attack, paradoxically its appeal as a means by which to achieve social change has, if anything, increased. How cities are restructured, and particularly how the more deprived neighbourhoods of the city can be regenerated, makes recourse to the need for community participation. More ambitiously the recent spread of communitarian ideas has sought to re-invent a political philosophy based on the multiplicity of communities which exist to foster communal life, and fundamentally to bring about the re-moral-ization of society. Such ideas have become influential in moulding how local urban regeneration will be more likely to succeed where it can build up(on) social capital.

Bringing the community into the practice of urban regeneration is a demonstrably more fraught exercise than governments have assumed it to be. In the more top-down forms of participation employed to discover opinions on an urban planning proposal (for example), involving the community might be little more than an exercise in tokenism (Arnstein, 1969). But even where participation was limited to a public meeting in which local views were being sought it was often clear that ‘the community’ did not hold a single view. Eliciting a single community opinion was implausible, unless the multiplicity of different views was to be ignored in favour of the dominant voice. Such an outcome is hardly surprising: communities, as we have argued, are invariably divided.

The incorporation of community participation in urban regeneration in the United States and Britain (for example) has been on a much more ambitious scale than is represented by the single public meeting designed to gain local reaction to a land-use change affecting the neighbourhood. In Britain the introduction of the City Challenge and Single Regeneration Budget programmes have been built upon the notion of partnership between local government, the private sector, voluntary bodies and local communities. In some cases other government agencies and, quangos, might also be involved in the local regeneration project. Within such programmes, the funding for which is competitive, the role of the local community is problematic, often marginalized to the more significant objectives of the programme ensuring the leverage of private sector investment or to the need of meeting tight deadlines for the submission of bids.

This is not to deny that community involvement in the task of urban regeneration is argued as being of mutual benefit both to the local community and to the development agency charged with the task of regenerating the local area. The experience of Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (England) is a case in point. As an Urban Development Corporation set up in 1987, its chief task was ‘to bring land and buildings (in a riverside area) back into effective use … and to encourage the development of existing and new industry and commerce’ (Russell, 1998: vii). It was a major challenge. Covering an area of some 6,000 acres, the area had experienced pronounced economic decline, and with it social dislocation. Selective outmigration in the 1980s had left a residual population, largely unskilled, and communities which had become fractured as a result of the economic and social changes. The Development Corporation set in tow a community development strategy aimed at increasing the ability of the population to compete in the labour market, fostering community business, widening social housing opportunities and increasing tenant management, encouraging participation and building up the social and cultural facilities of the area. Though not atypical as a set of objectives aimed at regenerating inner city/old industrial areas, what was different was that the Corporation built community participation into the process of agenda-setting, i.e. at an early stage, and sought to use innovative techniques (such as monitoring panels) to ensure that implementation was meeting the intended targets.

In an assessment of community involvement Russell (1998) argued that it proved to be of mutual benefit to both the governmental agency and to the local population. For the Development Corporation, it was more than a device for legitimating the agency’s programme, though where the UDCs, unlike local government, lacked a democratic base, gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the local population was important. As bonuses, community participation ‘gave a better product by the application of on-the-ground knowledge and pressure for what was appropriate and workable’ (Russell, 1998: 45). Equally, by extending ownership, vandalism and other problems were reduced. Though, as Russell demonstrated, there were shortcomings to the ways in which community participation was both structured and used, its employment was largely beneficial to the overarching aim of establishing sustainable local regeneration.

Compared to experience elsewhere—in, for example, the earlier years of the flagship UDC established by the Thatcher Government in London’s Docklands—community involvement in Tyne and Wear was to be more carefully crafted into the mechanics of urban regeneration. As an instrumental device, it is a moot point whether in the north-east England case, participation was able to involve the multiple publics inherent in urban communities. The practice of community participation underlines how complex and time-absorbing it is, how it needs to demonstrate awareness of the different groups and interests represented in any community, and how it needs to be built into the different stages of the process of regeneration (Atkinson and Cope, 1997).


Community remains a useful concept by which to understand how urban social life has, and is given, meaning, but only insofar as its limitations and complexities are acknowledged. Critically, communities are complex: rather than unitary, they are multi-dimensional, harbouring within them a diversity of different interests and voices. Rather than searching for the unity of community, as Abu-Lughod (1994) said working in the East Village of Manhattan, the point should be to focus on controversies within the community as ‘there is no single “authorial” [authoritative] image of the neighbourhood’ (1994: 195). Recognizing the community as multi-dimensional points the way forward to recognizing a sense of diversity within a shared sense of belonging.

Communities, then, are political, not in the sense of partisan politics, but in the sense of containing within them competing demands and the potential for conflict as well as harmony. The harnessing of community participation within urban governance, to the extent that it has sought to give real expression to local demands has a tendency to gloss over the political nature of the community. Participation is too easily co-opted for specific governmental ends based on the belief that communities are more unified than is actually the case.

Communities, too, are divisive. They are about the constructing of boundaries between who is defined as inside and who outside. Being inside gives both position and status to the individual, cocooning them from the social diversity of the city, providing a means of support and a (territorial) base upon which to maintain individual and group identity. But boundaries are exclusionary, a means of othering those to be excluded, and though in a liberal democratic society people have a right to form exclusivist types of association, their almost natural tendency is to promote self-interest towards outsiders. Bell (1998) questions, then, the development of the ‘Residential Community Association’, embracing the lives of some 32 million Americans, as being more ‘privatistic enclaves’ than communities, aimed at maintaining the privileges of the middle and upper income groups.

The exclusivity of community may of course be beneficial for individuals and groups which are otherwise more vulnerable, or even the subject of discrimination, within society at large. For immigrants to the city, and particularly for the ethnically distinctive immigrant, group association brings a suite of benefits which can help adjustment to the new (urban) environment. Community can in this sense be defensive, and protective, as well as sometimes helping to provide a means of gaining access to labour and other urban markets. Thus, ethnic economies characterize cities in the advanced economies (Barrett et al., 1996) as they do cities in less developed economies (Speece, 1990).

In a globalizing world economy, and particularly in its world cities, exclusivist ethnic communities are reaffirming themselves in cities such as London, New York and Los Angeles. The nature of such communities is changing: globalizing processes are altering the spatiality of such communities. Community (in the global era) is in the process of being disembedded from its purely local basis, the local intersecting with the global; thus ‘second-generation Bangladeshis in the East End of London … engage in lively, diverse commentaries of belonging which range across numerous boundaries of space and time’ (Eade, 1997: 24).

Rather, then, than abandon the notion of community, as earlier urban analysts have suggested, providing there is adequate recognition given to its complex and contested nature, it has continued (analytic) value in understanding social life in late modern cities. Clearly though, as the lessons of the Residential Community Associations, gated communities and other exclusivist associations demonstrate, the danger is that community can be used to protect the interests of the more privileged at a cost to the city as community.