Finding community as a modern urban nomad

My ‘settled’ family t’up north frequently refer to me as a nomad. They’re exasperated at the number of pages I take up in their address books and the sheer number of ‘New Home’ cards they’ve sent me over the years. My life is very different to theirs but, I think, is fairly typical of a lot of people who, like me, moved to London to find work after uni and have chosen the south-east to be their stomping ground.

I have moved house (county and country) more than 25 times in my life, 10 of those moves since leaving university in 2004. Each time, I have moved to a new part of the Big Smoke and, more recently, out to the suburbs. As I say, I’m not unique. I asked 10 of my friends, as part of a highly unscientific piece of research, how many times they had moved in the last 10 years and all who were London-based (7 out of the 10) said between 7-10 times.

This raises some challenges when it comes to ‘community’ and it’s a question we are frequently asked – how do you build community in urban areas with a highly mobile population?

Now, I’m not going to suggest I have a definitive answer on this, but my ‘research’ (!!!) offers some insight and raises some questions. Inherent in our mobile lifestyles is a flexibility and ability to adapt that you might not find in more stable, settled populations. All of my friends were able to point to multiple ‘communities’ or groups that they felt part of, but there was something in their descriptions that concerns me a little:

“I would describe my community as a mix of social and work or professionally connected people – or people I know socially now that I met professionally, and family. We’re geographically very spread – across city, country, and continent… But now, having moved, it feels very dispersed. I suppose that will change in the coming year or two if we stay in one place.”

“Probably spend most time with family and work colleagues, followed by regular catch ups with old friends. Don’t make new friends very often! I would estimate one social occasion a week at max!”

“My community is very diverse. There are pockets of great community spirit but these are not well known or shared widely. I’d say generally it is a community of people in transit. Looking to be elsewhere actually!”

Hardly any of my friends, myself included, mention the people living around them in their descriptions of the communities they feel part of. Most only knew 1 or 2 of their neighbours but not well enough to go to the local pub together. And you can feel their discomfort at this.

Innately – backed up by swathes of research – we know that it is the people and relationships in our lives that makes us happy. The concern I have for us modern nomads is that, while we can have strong networks of family, old friends and colleagues, when we go home in the evening, the physical distance between us is growing. We turn to technology (Facebook, Twitter, Skype etc.) to bridge that distance and to keep these incredibly important attachments alive but at the same time we’re preventing new ones from forming with the people sitting in the flats or houses next door.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop doing one thing in favour of the other, here. But I can’t help but think there is some correlation between this reality and the growing number of people around me suffering with anxiety, stress and other mental health challenges, increased drinking at home, and feeling lonely and isolated in one of the busiest and most densely populated cities in the country. Something has to change.

We talk a lot about building communities and much of our work is place-based and about citizen-led activity. We know people lead happier and healthier lives when they are able to use their gifts, connect them to other people’s gifts and make a positive impact in their communities. We always try to make sure that in this community building, those people on the margins are given every opportunity to actively engage in whatever way they can, if not take a lead in the community building activities from the start.

Now I’m sure that many of us modern nomads are at the heart of some communities; I sure know my friends are. But these are often located quite a distance from where they live so in some ways they might also be at the margins of some communities. And while they’re living busy lives, commuting to work, meeting with old friends, or checking Facebook for the latest updates, I suspect they would welcome the chance to be part of a community in their neighbourhood – just look at the answers they gave when I asked them to describe community:

“I rather liked Bauman’s rule of thumb, whereby he said you know something is a community and not a network or some other connection by the fact that if you break a tie, it will be traumatic. A network you can unfollow someone and add another and it doesn’t really matter. But in a community, cutting someone out, or leaving causes hurt and is difficult to negotiate socially.”

“A feeling of connectedness and shared responsibility. Whether to each other or the physical environment. I think it goes beyond knowing your neighbours and those around you, and is more to do with working collectively and co-operation to achieve.”

“A ‘community’ to me is a group of people connected by a common factor (location, interests etc.) who might not all know each other and have personal relationships, but have some shared experience and would support or be supportive of one another in a given situation. You’ve got your traditional communities, based around living in a certain area and sharing facilities, but then I also consider that a ‘community’ could be online (a group on a particular message-board, say), or a subculture (having grown up in the Goth scene, I consider that to be a ‘community’ of sorts). So, I think that shared experience makes a community, plus other possible add-ons such as belief (a church community) or location.”

“The more I’ve had jobs with “community” in the title the more I think it means whatever people want it to. I’d say it’s not necessarily about a place, although that can be enough to hold a community together. Not often though. It’s a mutually supportive association of people with some values, interests, needs or aims in common. Vague, but I think the idea of “community” is designed to be vague.”

But this has to be fluid and flexible and be able to withstand the mobility of the people involved. Where do you start?

We often say it starts with getting to know your neighbour, but for a number of reasons this can be daunting and difficult. So, perhaps a good starting point is in and with the more permanent ‘resources’ that exist in every neighbourhood. The parks, the libraries, the pubs, the schools, the train stations, the coffee-house on the way to the station. The places where people naturally convene, the bumping spaces. How can we start to use these spaces more effectively for the pursuit of building more connected communities? And of course there will be people in every neighbourhood who have been there for decades and have no intention of moving on. They will be invaluable.

But this won’t happen by itself which is why we need a Community Builder in every neighbourhood – Nurture Development’s ambition over the next 30 years. We need someone who can hold that vague and fluid space – community – and constantly find ways to bring people in from the margins and to use the changing resources around them in ways that will facilitate connectedness. Perhaps this is where permanent structures or institutions like Local Authorities can add most value by supporting the development of these roles across the neighbourhoods they serve.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts from one modern nomad who is proud to be part of a growing ABCD community, a community giving these big challenges the attention they need. I’d really welcome your thoughts and ideas around this particular question of finding and building community in an increasingly mobile and changing world.

Thank you to all of my friends who took part in my ‘research’ answering the following questions:

  1. What do you think makes a ‘community’?
  2. How many of your neighbours do you know by name?
  3. How many of your neighbours would you happily go to the pub with? Not hypothetically, but how many of them do you know enough at the moment, to go to the pub with…
  4. How many times have you moved house in the last 10 years?
  5. How would you describe your community?
  6. Who are the people you spend most of your spare time with? (You don’t have to name them but please tell me are they childhood friends, work friends, colleagues, neighbours, family or something else)?

Rebecca Daddow


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