Defining Community (Part 2) – Space and place and their role in the 21st century community

In Friday’s post on John Dewey and the definition of community, I suggested that in many ways, physical geography and place have little to do with what defines a community. Today, however, I’m turning to another highly cited author, Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), to consider the role physical world does play in the meaning of and formation of community.

Putnam’s (2000) research in Bowling Alone, (a large scale analysis of national survey data) explains that there was a large generational shift during the second half of the twentieth century. He writes, “Compared with Gen X’ers, men and women born before 1946 are nearly twice as likely to feel a sense of belonging to their neighborhood, to their church, to their local community, and to the various groups and organizations to which they belong” (pp. 274-275).

Younger generations still care most about close family and friends–their most intimate social networks–but not as much about the traditional community markers of neighborhood and membership in civic organizations.

How individuals understand and make meaning of their communities however, may not be the only relevant issue. Spatial segregation by class, color, and ethnic background are facts of the American landscape (Putnam, 2000; Squires, 1994Massey and Denton; 1993). As a result, while individuals continue to identify less with their physical communities, the physical boundaries of their communities continue to impact their lives and their development of effective social networks.

Putnam argues that urban sprawl has disrupted traditional community structures. Importantly for decline in civic engagement, sprawl has increased residential segregation and homogeneity and these declines in turn have negatively impacted community engagement:

Second, sprawl is associated with increasing social segregation, and social homogeneity appears to reduce incentives for civic involvement, as well as opportunities for social networks that cut across class and racial lines. Sprawl has been especially toxic for bridging social capital.

While schools must orient themselves towards associative, non-spatial forms of community, they must also continue to be anchored in the physical place, helping to connect new forms of community back into the physical neighborhoods around schools.

As I have argued, schools have an important role to play in the development of local civic engagement and in the building of communal social capital–informal connections among members and between members and others outside of the physical community matter. Through this work (see the classic work of Leonard Covello and many schools in the network of the Coalition for Community Schools) schools can teach with rather than against the lessons that students learn in their daily lives.

Covello, in his autobiography, The Heart is the Teacher (1958) explains the necessity of schooling rooted in physical community:

There was no denying the fact that outside the school there were vital, powerful, and compelling forces constantly educating the boys and girls of the community in spite of, or contrary to, the school ideal…And the school itself had to be both leader and coordinating agency, to a certain extent the pivot upon which much even of the social and civic life would turn.

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