7 top tips for supporting citizen driven community building – part 6

This is the sixth blog of seven in the top tips for citizen driven community building. This week’s blog addresses the issue of scale: “what’s an optimum size of Neighbourhood to work with?”


Top tip #6 –  The optimum population size of neighbourhood is 3000 – 5000 residents

In his essay “Contempt for Small Places,” Wendell Berry -the world’s foremost authority on the above question in my opinion-reflects:

“The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds. The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places…
We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams. Small destructions add up, and finally they are understood collectively as large destructions.”


What do you mean by ‘Community’?

The word ‘Community’, has an endless array of definitions. So much so that it has come to means whatever anyone says it means. There is no one agreed definition, so definitions are arbitrary.


Ask not ‘what is community?’, but ‘where is community for you?’

But what if instead of asking ‘what is Community?’, we asked ‘where is Community for you?’ No doubt answers will still vary widely and remain largely subjective, but certainly from an ABCD Institute perspective what we mean by community-in line with John McKnight’s and Jody Kretzmann’s work -is: a small physical place, a town, block, estate, Neighbourhood, or village. This meaning doesn’t preclude other definitions of community, or the fact that community can be located in different places for different people, it simply makes clear where our focus is and what we mean.

Choosing to learn more about small places in urban and rural contexts opens up a fascinating view on the world. You get to see so many interactions between citizens, their associations; local economy’s and cultural life, all of which in turn are in relationship with the built environment and the local ecology.

The benefit of working with people in small local communities aside from the cultural, economic, and ecological potential it offers, is found in the size itself. At Nurture Development our primary interest is in supporting people to act powerfully together in a way that’s good for them, their neighbour’s (especially those who have been relegated to the position of ‘the stranger’) and the planet. Allied to this we want to better understand how local institutions can do no harm and support that to happen.

In both instance (doing no harm, and trying to support), going small and local offers tremendous advantages. Because:

1. Most people will mobilise around the things they care about, and feel they can influence. People are more likely to act together on issues that are close to their own doorstep’s and that affect them and their neighbour’s.
2. The small place, even when contested offers a common focal point.
3. The hyper local scale makes identifying, connecting and mobilising of assets more achievable than for example a city-wide scale.
4. The small local place ups the potential for relationships with near neighbours to form, at the bus stop and other bumping places and gathering spaces.
5. The Neighbourhood / small town can become the shared unit of change “everybodies baby”, so that agencies and communities can work together on a common concern, and get clear about who does what best. This helps agencies get out of their silos by agreeing on the neighbourhood as a primary unit of change.

I have written previously about some of our work in small places in the U.K. over the last 8 years here: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/why-place-such-a-strong-and-focused-emphasis-on-place-based-community-building-abcd/


Small is Beautiful and essential

Our learning in these communities of place echoes E.F. Schumacher wonderful expression: ‘Small is beautiful’; we would add, ‘and essential’ if we are to involve people as the primary producers of an alternative future.

Such local small places are not the same as political or administrative boundaries, they are typically defined in a million small informal ways by the people who live there.

When we ask questions like:

  1. ‘Where are you from?’
  2. ‘Where do you reside?’
  3. ‘What lends to the liveability of that place?’
  4. ‘At what scale would you feel confident you could make a contribution to the well-being of your neighbour’s?’

The answers for the most part, are small, local and personal. That scale can vary but our experience is that there is a threshold or a tipping point between 3,000 -5,000 people and once you get beyond 5,000 it really starts to get much more challenging to support local residents to build community from inside out. Size matters.

I’d like to finish with another quote from Wendell Berry where he puts the small is beautiful narrative into a more global, modern context:

“Every man for himself” is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighbourliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatised.”

The quote is a great reminder that if we are going to save our planet from impending ecocide, then a vital starting point is in collective action at the Neighbourhood level.

Cormac Russell

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  • Great blog, brimming with truth

    March 18, 2017 at 7:48 am
    • Shaun Burnett

      Thanks Grace. We’re glad it resonated

      March 21, 2017 at 6:48 pm

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