Thursday, August 12, 2010

the city's heart

A quote I read from Jane Jacobs' iconic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities got me thinking recently:
When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighbourhood of the whole begins to suffer. People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by chance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.
The "heart" whose passing Jacobs mourns seems to be no other than that of the community - that arena in which a mélange of minds, ideas, backgrounds and talents unite to build on and reinforce one another. Where human beings shed the burden of individualism in order to contribute to the building of something that transcends merely the sum of their separate parts.

Today's discourse on the value of the 'community' is often housed within a wider discourse on community development and local economy; yet there appears to be a universal struggle to get to the heart of what the term really means. How relevant is community life in today's urban-centred working world, with its constant flux of moving house and migration, its faster trains and all-you-can-eat internet? Are the communities of today online networks, are they those fading memories of 1950's sports clubs and church groups, are they defined by common interests, or along geographical lines like neighbourhoods?

We think the time is ripe to reconsider the purposes of the community, and to trace an outline of the potential destiny of the communities of today and tomorrow. This is not the first time we have posted about the community, but this time around, we'd like to think about the role of the community in individual and social transformation. And so, our main question:
When so many forces are pulling us the other way, why make the effort to learn about the ways and methods of community building?

Some initial thoughts....

What if our true identity, as a community, is spiritual, consisting of members working together to enable each individual to embark upon a process of learning to become protagonists of their own spiritual and material development?

What if we conceive of unity as both the instrument and the goal of creating this kind of community?

What if a commitment to this 'unity' implies a collective process of inquiry, of walking together - consulting, acting and reflecting on the process of community building?

The Baha'i writings state:
Let us take the inhabitants of a city....if they establish the strongest bonds of unity among themselves, how far they will progress, even in a brief period....
Please share your thoughts!


  1. There you go, a new post ! :)
    I can't agree more, the heart of the city is the base for it to run well, like the fuel of a motor or the heart of humans, if it doesn't work, the rest can't follow ;)
    Ppl need to go above their own personal interests and start thinking about the good of all, starting at the local level, the city ! :)

  2. Vesall, I read "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" a few years ago and I think you've hit the nail on the end. For Jacobs, the heart of the city is the community, but she can't quite articulate how to develop or strengthen that heart. She advocates building a culture of community through human interaction/mix-use architecture/etc... but fails to recognize what unites all within the community-- which is our spiritual reality. Thanks for sharing! :)

  3. In these quotations, learning about the ways and methods of community building seems deeply connected to the construction of an ever-advancing society. Community life emerges when its activities are sustained by "men and women eager to improve material and spiritual conditions in their surroundings." So we should make the effort to learn the ways and methods of community building, despite competing social forces, because only by contributing to that vibrant community life can we achieve our true purpose.

    The dual role of unity - as means and end - is shocking in its simplicity. The implications of this are no doubt far-reaching, and beyond me at this moment. Thank you for posting.

  4. These discussion prompts led to a reflection on knowledge as the central process of a community.