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Aug 29, 2017 | by CentreDirector

Academic perspective: When communities of place become communities of interest: the magic catalyst of community wellbeing?

Prof. Rhiannon Corcoran, Academic Lead, Community Wellbeing Evidence Programme. Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, University of Liverpool.

We, the community wellbeing evidence programme, have now completed the first stage of our evidence synthesis work for the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. Our ‘systematic reviews of reviews’ on interventions that promote wellbeing have focussed on housing, on social relations and on place-based co-production. We have also made strides to improve the conceptual understanding and measurement of this complex entity that we call community wellbeing.

The luxury of the summer recess in University provides the time to take stock, to think and to ask what, if anything, can we now say about how to improve the togetherness of UK communities? Are there any sure-fire answers to creating communities that feel good and function well?  

Reflecting on the process so far, what our team knew from the start was that we had a question that was really worth getting our teeth into. We were equally well aware that we had a job on our hands while collectively agreeing that if the mission is to build meaningful positive social change then we must be looking to our communities. With warnings that loneliness is as big a killer as smoking (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010) hitting the press again recently, the answers to distress must lie, in large part within our communities and our places. However, as individuals we differ in the extent to which we need company or privacy, reflecting the fact that isolation does not necessarily mean loneliness and that loneliness does not only enter our lives as a consequence of physical isolation. Any answers will not be simple fix-alls and, the functioning of the community is not solely reflected in the functioning of the individuals within it.

Philosophers interested in social cognition talk of ‘we-ness’ – a “first-person plural perspective” that emerges out of but, dwells beyond, the level of interpersonal interactions (Gallotti & Frith, 2013); That IS community wellbeing. A thing that can emerge and be observed but, can it be tended and can it, indeed should it, be contrived?

Several highlights of our work so far exist in the foundation pieces we have produced demonstrating that we are examining the interface and intersections of sector-based working in local government. This is an authentically multi-sector, multi-disciplinary issue that requires a meeting of minds and a collective spirit and goal. This is reflected in the broad audience for our work where practitioners and policy-makers have the will to work closely together using evaluation tools, developed by engaged academics, that are nuanced enough to capture change and the mechanisms that drive change. The community wellbeing evidence programme’s nascent theory of change and our working review of the indicators of community wellbeing provide the necessary background to advance our understanding of the concept as laid out, in full and unapologetic complexity, in our Conceptual Review coming soon.

The broad questions we asked in our ‘reviews of reviews’ were suggested by our audience during a collaborative development stage:

  • How can we facilitate community wellbeing in our housing policies and practice?
  • What are the corner stones of better social relations in our communities?
  • Do we know if co-production of decisions at local level effects individual and community wellbeing?

Urban design – Place stewardship and infrastructure

Though evidence seems to be sparse in some of these areas and that which does exist typically leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality, it seems that across these pieces, place stewardship and place infrastructure play integral roles. Paranagamage et al.’s (2010) content analysis of urban design guidance identifies four core themes of places that built environment professionals should try to maximise in order to promote wellbeing – connectivity, safety, character and diversity. In other words if we can safely reach those we want to in a place that pleases our senses and satisfies our diverse needs then we should be well on the way to feeling good and functioning well. But what of we-ness? Where does that exist in this elixir? What alchemy is needed to produce this elusive constituent?

Our neighbours and neighbourhoods

Neighbourhoods are the stage-sets of our lives. In fact, sharing a physical neighbourhood is increasingly the only thing that we know we have in common with our neighbours. We also feel safe in assuming that we share a common intention to keep our neighbourhoods as good as they can be – neat, tidy, thriving, providing, celebratory and so on.

Organisations like community wellbeing evidence programme members Happy City do a great job spreading the word of the importance of hedonic wellbeing in place and Charles Montgomery in his polemic “Happy City Transforming our lives through Urban Design” demonstrates how urban design professionals can play a role.

But what of eudaimonic concepts like purpose and meaning in life? Where do they fit in? Is it only these more sustainable forms of wellbeing that can truly build the ‘we-ness’ of community wellbeing?

Space and place

For me, and referred to in our Conceptual Review, the most compelling distinction that differentiates space from place was offered by Cresswell (2004) who encapsulates it, very simply, by defining place as space with meaning. Using this definition, we have some justification to argue that the city-scale spatial economic regeneration initiatives of the 90s and 00s that were focussed almost entirely on economy and growth have, albeit accidentally, unplaced many urban areas. Genius loci have been buried under the homogenous pursuit of business. Places to live have become housing zones or, at best, residential quarters. Homes have become housing units delivered by volume house builders. The language is important because it alienates us from spaces, shattering any hope of developing the people-place bond. As the country addresses its housing shortage we must think carefully about the alienation resulting from the development of meaningless residential spaces developed using formulaic layout solutions.

People, Power, Place 

It is through the ascent of local power that communities can restore the essential people-place bond. Early on, during the community wellbeing evidence programme’s collaborative development phase, the importance of the people-power-place relationship to community wellbeing was widely endorsed and so easily agreed as a fundamental principle that remains central to achieving our purpose.

We see people-power-place in action when our neighbourhoods, villages, towns or cities become a focus of common interest. When people make their place a community of interest. When communities of place become communities of interest we begin to develop a set of in-common aims, objectives and intentions. Dreams and aspirations for neighbourhoods are discussed and opportunities to make it happen are pursued, in common. When things begin to change physically, behaviour change follows and, importantly, neighbourhood we-ness builds to oversee a reinvention of place and community.

Any enabling processes that support and encourage this regaining of place by its people will likely involve only light touch governance to enable the spirit of place to re-emerge. I anticipate that such initiatives will become the sustaining force behind flourishing communities.


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