Materialities and key dynamics of community
“[…] tous pour un, un pour tous ; c’est notre devise, n’est-ce pas ? ” (translated: […] all for one, one for all; that‘s our motto, isn‘t it?)”
— D‘Artagnan, Alexandre Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires
The recent increase in civic engagement and participation through community projects is being framed by some as the “emergence of a new culture towards a sustainable future”. This creates a naïve and romanticized idea of a bright new future. ‘Community’ is perceived as people taking positive action, a universal fix for solving issues through bottom-up initiatives. But are local bottom-up communities enough to tackle trans-local urgencies related to the climate-catastrophe?
An urgency to act concerning the climate crisis
In the face of an increasing urgency to act regarding the climate crisis and environmental destruction, a growing number of citizen level communities start mobilising for climate action. The recently published ICPP report has made many people aware of the urgency of the climate crisis. The drastic environmental consequences even a slight warming of the climate will have put politicians and legislators under increased pressure to become active at an institutional level. Thereby they face bureaucratic hurdles as well as conflicts of interest, turning this into a slow and non-transparent process. As a result, many people are becoming members of community initiatives in order to participate in a future development based on their own ideas and values.
In the past, communities were built early, strong and long-lasting. At the time, the assignment to a community was primarily associated with binding rights and obligations. For example, only being a part of the guild gave the right to exercise one’s craft. Today community is considered something to join freely, where to spend surplus leisure time or to pursue actions one like to identify with.
This essay looks at community in light of the drastic need for action against the climate crisis. Therefore it will consider materialities that are important for mediating and sustaining community. Afterward, identifying key dynamics of community, the author will critically explore the notion of ‘community’ as a practice of exclusion, enmity, and exclusivity. Community cannot exist without those who are not part of it. Becoming aware, that there is an ‘outside’ to all those communities is the starting point of this essay.
Community — acting together through shared values and goals
Today, the term community is used in an inflationary manner and can be understood in various ways. Denominating a group with shared ethnicity, neighbourhood, social class, occupation, etc., ‘community’ is an entity loaded with an ungraspable appeal that seems to have a certain magic power to unite people and to solve problems by itself, sustainably and cheaply. This makes it a blurry term for vague speech and therefore a great ingredient for any proposal of solutions.
The Oxford Dictionary offers various definitions for the term ‘community’. The way the term is being used in this essay points at “The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common”: a group of people acting together based on shared values and goals.
Following, the author will describe materialities and key dynamics that constitute community.
Materialities that constitute communities exemplified with community project Agrocité
In order to avoid a conceptualisation of the term ‘community’, we will look at the materialities that community is grounded in: the spatial infrastructure as a ground of action, community organisation of meetings and participation, and used symbols that create a shared identification.
As a case study we will examine Agrocité Gennevilliers, a community acting as a unit of R-Urban, a strategy which aims for “local action against global crises”. The purpose of Agrocité is to enable the development and sharing of know-how around organic agriculture, resilient farming techniques and the preservation of biodiversity. Therefore a range of events and workshops invites the public to participate.
Capacity of action and activities through the spatial infrastructure
Considering the specific spatial infrastructure of Agrocité, the community space can be divided into spaces for meeting, community activity, storage and communication.
Meeting spaces are the terrace as well as a designated multi-purpose room for organisational meetings, workshops, and lectures.
The spaces for community activity are publicly accessible during the opening hours, the public garden, experimental agricultural units, the shop, and community spaces. Areas like the storage space, the chicken unit, the kitchen and, outside of opening hours, the whole terrain are restricted to members.
There are designated areas for communication, namely whiteboards and a table of flyers and papers advertising events, encouraging participation or showing local offers.
Expression, identification, and strengthening of common values through symbols
Symbols do not need to be static representations, they can be expressed through actions and language. Symbolic actions or rituals, as well as a symbolic expressions, can become representations of shared values and partake in community.
“Wir schaffen das !”
— Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, during the 2015 migrant crisis
Dumas’ d’Artagnan uses the motto of the Three Musketeers ’one for all, all for one’, in order to evoke a sense of responsibility, solidarity, and unity.
In the case of Agrocité a common identity or symbolism gets created through the strong branding adopted from the R-Urban strategy. As a symbolic expression, its manifesto unites with the words “We, citizens of this planet…”. A clear symbol of belonging is the membership pass.
Communities are formed through shared values and a thereby communal identity. This identity is expressed, confirmed and strengthened through symbols that emphasise the belonging to a community. This belonging renders the symbols and rituals exclusive to be used by those who ‘belong’, and this exclusivity contributes to the feeling of community.
Regulation of accessibility and participation through the organisational structure
Agrocité is organised mainly through voluntary participation. Every member has the right to care for a designated plot of the garden, at the same time the responsibility to maintain it and to contribute to communal tasks. Public participation sometimes requires paying a fee or signing up in advance. Outside partners and contributors get invited and involved to organise lectures, workshops, or hands-on activities. The community is managed by the founding partners from R-Urban, the municipality, and internal democratic processes. Some people thereby carry greater responsibilities, voluntary project managers with greater know-how and involvement take over lead tasks. There is one half-time paid employee person managing tasks that require extended attention, like the local shop and the chicken farm.
The organisational structure defines the specifics of how community functions or organises itself. It regulates participation and the general openness and accessibility from the outside.
Collectif Etc. as a case study for a non-hierarchical organisation
The ‘Collectif Etc.’, a collective of former architecture students from Strasbourg established an organisational structure where every member is supposed to be the same. This case describes a community that exists for a very deliberate cause, a group of very like-minded people in similar life situations defined the common conviction that ‘all are capable’. This became the constituting theme for their organisational structure. To live this conviction means opposing internal hierarchies, accordingly every member of the collective receives the same remuneration, resides in the same house and collaborates on the same project. This seems to work for the collective in terms of following their life project, yet it is not thinkable for people with dissimilar backgrounds and persuasions.
Key dynamics of community
Exclusion as a means for identification and defining borders
In today’s globalised world the individual has lost the comfort of a strong community. Collective identities have been “deeply undermined” through processes of globalisation and individualisation. At the same time, Mouffe considers today’s communities as a means to create such collective identity and thereby create meaning in times of radical individualisation. Identifying with a communal identity “allows one to speak of the ‘we’ […].”, giving people a sense of security within a group.
Manzini considers this as a way to create communal identities and shared values, mobilising a number of people to become active. On the other hand, being ‘part of’ defines those who participate in the same way as those who do not. Considering how communities are being formed, they can be understood as entities of exclusion.
“It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive manifestations of their aggressiveness.”
— Siegmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
To be part of a group relates to the notion of belonging, which “implies the performance of boundary work”. In other words, setting up borders between members and non-members of a community. To define who belongs and who doesn’t belong indicates the different values or circumstances that create this invisible border. Simply put, commonalities indicate that there are disparities. Communities are formed through the action of othering, Mouffe states that a ‘we’ “can exist only by the demarcation of a ‘they’.” By delimiting and defining the other one creates the ‘we’. This distinction between those who belong and those who do not constitute community.
Two cases of exclusion inside communities
Exclusion is not necessarily a conscious act, yet community elements like memberships can induce exclusion. In case of Agrocité, membership is restricted to those paying a monthly fee and who had been previously able to catch a spot. Alongside come extended rights and the privilege to appropriate a piece of the garden.
An other example of exclusion is the public accessibility of composting infrastructure at the ‘Jardin Partagé éphémère de Truillot’ in Paris. Set up in a public space in order to promote and allow a local management of organic waste, the disposal of organic waste is actually strictly regulated. Due to the limited size of the composting structures, only a small number of people — in fact, members of the community — can use the infrastructure of public composts. To be able to partake, a membership with the gardening association is required. Exclusion here happens through membership and related annual payment, as well through the limited space available in the urban environment. Thus exclusion happens not through deliberate action but rather through a constituting or discriminating infrastructure.
Unity through a common enemy
A common enemy allows to bridge otherwise insurmountable differences such as class, gender, or religion and unite against a shared danger coming from an alleged enemy. A current example of a common enemy is the so-called ‘elites’, a blurry definition of self-serving, “purportedly separate domains of power — media, business, politics, law, academia” acting together in unison. Those adversarial elites are being used to unite for example big ecological movements like the Extinction Rebellion. Once a common enemy is established in the public discussion, any action against it can be legitimised.
This strategy encourages action and mobilisation, but can also go wrong and eventually develop into radical dualism and polarisation. The notion ‘you are either with us or against us’ can lead to extreme polarisation. It is questionable if communities should promote such polarisation as it would not only render those who do not want to participate the ‘enemy’, but also those who can not — a big part of humanity lacks the capacity of participation in community due to precarious living conditions.
Enmity can be considered a base of forming communities by gapping insurmountable differences. At the same time, it creates an insurmountable gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The climate crisis can only be tackled in the unanimity of certain values. Therefore it can not be beneficial to promote enmity as a means of unity. Instead of a radical polarisation, a less extreme form of integration and humble consideration should be promoted, and a premature identification of enemies needs to be prevented.
Exclusivity and the capacity to participate
Manzini expects the emergence of a new culture by establishing values that eventually will unite more people to act for a common cause. Which exact values are expected to do the job remains unanswered, the only sure thing is that those values should lead to a sustainable future which is being initiated through participation and civic engagement.
In the idealistic meaning of it, community arises where people with intersecting values come together in order to act together. However, this formation of community is influenced by factors such as social class, income, origin or age, which restrict who has the actual capacity to participate. The earlier example of exclusive public composting in Paris illustrates the privilege of those being members against those who are not. Further restrictive factors are for example the time when community takes place, used language, distance or logistic accessibility.
This exclusivity can be brought up as a critique of community. Mostly a predominantly white middle class is able to join ecological movements. This might influence the position certain community projects can have in the public perception, and the attention or help communities get from institutions and policies
Example of the exclusive possibility of participation based on social class and ethnicity
As an example, the participants of the Extinction Rebellion could execute a strategy of peaceful resistance only because they arguably belong to a certain class and ethnicity, making use of the informal privilege that this entails. The members of the Extinction Rebellion movement carried out acts of disobedience since November 2018, most recently occupying four prominent sites in London for 11 days during which 1130 people got arrested. The protesters followed a strategy of obstruction, willingly being arrested to thereby exceed the capacity of London police. In this case, it was argued that the protest by predominantly white middle-class participants could not have been staged like this by black or less privileged people. That is a valid critique to make. But maybe also the argument is defendable that it is better to act thanks to privileges than not to act because of them. Those with the capacity to act should act.
A union of communities in order to act trans-locally
Unity can be seen as a fruitful means of mobilisation and as a basis to address collective needs. However, community projects seem to have only a small impact at the time. It is being argued that this small impact will eventually lead to a greater change of mind. Yet this change of mind needs to be lobbied in order to transcend over the local. That is why a trans-local representative body should be established.
As an example of uniting different local projects from across Europe, the Eco Nomadic School aims to create a network for mutual learning, teaching, and sharing of knowledge, in order to improve individual community projects.24 However, the Eco Nomadic school remains persistently in the local. Its members do not commit themselves to a shared goal. But local improvement does not change the situation of the trans-local, it just means the secluded locality and community improve compared to the outside.
Instead, a trans-local network of communities might work as a Union. A union of communities could emerge that does not merge the different locally-rooted communities but rather situates them in an organised and strategic network in order to address problems on a bigger scale. Like this, coordinated action could be taken as well as a step in the direction of the staggering new culture Manzini desires.
The R-Urban strategy proposes a growing network of connected units in order to develop a diversity of projects with different goals.25 Like this, new emerging units can benefit from the experience and credibility that has been developed previously. Like this, it establishes the organisational structure for knowledge exchange and strategic impact. Thereby it aims to gain necessary public and institutional credibility, benefit from distributed specialised expertise and connect with other projects, investors, and policymakers.
Yet so far, R-Urban remains an experimental strategy, with the ultimate aspiration to initiate small changes for many. Thereby, again, it is leaving out all those who are not taking part in the community. In a possible union of communities, who will be ‘them’ outside of the union, and what will be their position? Is it necessary to create a community of people without community, a non-community as a counter-movement to have an instance that lobbies for the needs and positions of all those that are ‘not part of’?
Reaching over the community horizon with a trans-local body of communities?
Community has much to do with separation and exclusion, distinguishing oneself from the others. This should be acknowledged as a fact and be handled consciously. Communities could aim to increase accessibility and encourage a plurality of opinions amongst their members. It has to be accepted that community always creates non-community. A critique that can be formulated is the difficulty to reach over the community horizon, to include people from outside. Yet, considering that humans like to come together based on shared identification like social class or occupation, this is understandable.
Instead of creating enmity and reducing a plurality of opinions onto one common enemy, this plurality must be preserved. Instead of establishing an ideological fight ‘against’, a strategically organised effort ‘for’ should be initiated. This strategic organisation could come through exchange and mutual agreements, by creating a union or institution that can represent the plurality of communities for climate action. A locally closed group will hardly ever reach over its own limits, but a strategic body of communities might do.
“ Ne faisons pas « contre », mais « pour » . Ne faisons pas « sans », mais « avec » . Cherchons à ateindre un idéal collectif, et ancrons, dans le sol, notre utopie. ”26
(translated: “Let‘s not do ‘against’, but ‘for’. Let us not do ‘without‘, but ‘with’. Let us seek to achieve a collective ideal, and let us anchor our utopia in the ground.”)
— Collectif Etc., Alter Architectures Manifesto, contribution of Collectif Etc.
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