CommunityDesign

Building a Community by Design in 5 Simple Steps

The importance of a Clay-Earth Pizza Oven

Largely, people come to permaculture because they’re impressed with the sustainable design solutions and clever cultivation techniques within the practice.  However, every bit as important to the theory of permaculture, is the community of people involved in its pursuits. Community structure, like a home or garden, takes careful consideration, thoughtful design, and patient nurturing.

When looking to build a permaculture community, some aspects will take root quickly and flourish; other parts require extra watering, a special microclimate, or even replanting. Nevertheless, it’s important to observe the group, interact socially, design activities, produce yields, and adjust to the feedback. Communal situations, like guilds, are replete with connections and synergy that can be harnessed for the common good. When the right notes are hit, the outcome is beautiful music.

But, when we all play to our own beat with no consideration for the orchestra, the different songs create a calamitous cacophony. Too much isolation, too much aimless energy, or too much disconnect and communities can take a turn for the worse. Akin to a garden severely out of whack, weaker parts of the village dynamic become victims of destructive pests.  We have to plan accordingly, recognising things won’t always be perfect.

Helping communities to connect

I thought it might be a good time to look at what sort of things can help to connect communities. Not only do I believe this to be integral to the advancement of permaculture and similar movements, but I also think that it is the crux of the whole thing. If we can’t work together, if we all run into our own off-grid hideaways and stay out of sight, then who have we left to look after the planet we so dearly love?

So, how can we design ways to better build community connections? Well, like so many things we do in permaculture, it’s starts with getting it right at home first and sharing the knowledge with others. In any permaculture site we design, there ought to be some thought that goes into making it a welcoming place for family, friends, neighbours, and strangers. Like an ecosystem, we need a healthy mixture of plants, animals, waterways, and even other humans to maintain the balance needed for sustainability.

Nurturing the seedlings
Photo courtesy of Jonathon Engels

 

1. Get to know your neighbours.

It’s become far too commonplace that we ignore the people living around us and go about our lives like automatons. None of us want to feel like that’s what we are doing. No one dreams of living a life devoid of human connection but wrought with workdays and indoor isolation. So, it’s important not to live that way. Sometimes that means making the effort ourselves.

We have to get out and about where we might cross paths with someone. We have to go for walks and invite folks over for a coffee.  Even share some of the collard greens from the garden. A little effort to get to the know the neighbours goes a long way. It won’t necessarily mean a new best friend (though it might), but it could mean an ally, an occasional helping hand, or a barbecue invite next weekend.

 

2. Hang out on the front porch

Something has happened in the last few decades in which we’ve moved from the front porch, waving at neighbours and pedestrians strolling by, to cocooning ourselves in backyard refuges that have been designed to shut everyone else out. The result has been that we are less connected with those most immediately around us. In turn, we tend to be more fearful as a society, reminiscing about the good old days when the world was safe and you knew your neighbours.

But, even in the mire of such skepticism, hanging out on the front porch or in the front yard is contagious. People can’t help but shout something across the street or, at the very least, acknowledge someone lives in that house at the cul-de-sac. Often, the result is that people come by to chat. They’ll bring back that drill they borrowed five months ago or remember a conversation they’d been meaning to have about the school fundraiser.

 

3. Host (and attend) get-togethers

The next step after knowing the neighbours and duping them into hanging out with you on the front porch is actually inviting them over to enjoy each other’s’ company. In fact, this is where people from elsewhere in the community might come in to connect. It’s amazing how something very simple—a card game, a pizza party, a potluck, a fire pit—can keep folks coming back for more.

As important as hosting get-togethers in your own domain is attending others’ get-togethers. I’m the first person to admit a kid’s birthday party isn’t going to get my heart thumping. I also know it means something to stop by for a hello and offer a birthday wish. Similarly, swinging by a party for a beer or two is more than worthwhile and makes a better impression/connection than not showing at all.

A regular monthly gathering between those who have expressed enjoyment in get-togethers then becomes an easy place for newbies to join and the tight-knit community to grow.

Community Get Together Permaculture Style
Photo Courtesy of Jonathon Engels

 

4. Share

Sometimes it takes more effort than we realise to actually begin sharing. It’s somewhat been worked out of our societal norms. Where we used to go to so-and-so’s for pool parties and to Johnny Down-the-Streets for the games because he’s got the crazy big TV.  Nowadays we all have our own stuff. It’s taken away our appreciation for other people’s stuff.

It might take a minute. It might get some funny looks. But, starting a sharing community is a fantastic way to build community by design. Rather than everyone owning a gas-powered concrete saw, what if one neighbour did but would lend it out because, when she needed to use a hedge trimmer once or twice a year, the fella down the road has one. Rather than each of us going the road alone, we could learn to once again pool our resources.

Bring people excess produce from the garden. Use a little of your time and skill to help a neighbour build a deck or set up a website. Lend someone a book or film if it seems a decent fit. Sharing creates good will amongst neighbours. Good will makes us more likely to share. The wheels on the bus go round and round. Founding some sort of forum that fosters a sharing culture will bring the community closer together.

5. Create a safe haven

While it’s important to respect people’s private space and personal proclivities, there is also something to be said for being in the same boat. One of the things I liked about being a backpacker for several years was that there was a somewhat intrinsic call to look out for one another. It was nothing to ask a relative stranger to keep an eye on all your belongings while you popped into the store for a snack. Everyone was in the same boat and equally as vulnerable, so the inclination to look out for and trust one another felt natural.

Communities can be much the same. Neighbours can pick up the mail, water the plants, or feed the fish while you are out for the weekend. You can do the same for them. It just takes someone recognising the benefits of this.  Then suddenly the lady across the street isn’t too bashful to check on things when an unfamiliar car is there but you aren’t. Rather than expecting others to butt out, invite them in.

An easy way to bring your community together
Photo courtesy of Johnathon Engels

Of course, it’s easy enough to point out the things we can do to bring our communities closer together.  It’s another to design them into our permaculture site. So, in order to make it part of a design rather than a few feckless efforts,

Here’s a little bullet list of projects to help:

  • Cob pizza oven:Invite people over to help build it. Invite them over to help use it. Fire it up regularly for pizza parties or even for neighbours to pop by to make their own wood-fired thin-crust to take home.
  • Community gardenUse a more public place on your property to put together a little community garden. If you are growing an abundance of food, some neighbours (or their children) are likely to be interested. Have a few garden beds that are communally tended (even if you do most of the work) and shared with others.
  • Potlucks: I’m part of an amazing community in which most of us grow gardens. When the harvests started rolling in this year, we had several potlucks based around whatever produce was thriving. It’s a reason to get together. A chance to have zucchini prepared in some manner you don’t, and a glimpse into whose growing what. We have a great communal space for these. Make it a block party or a park picnic.
  • Club/Page/WebsiteDepending on how technological your community is, creating some sort of club or website for people who share common interests or needs is wonderful way to inspire sharing. Tools, books, seeds, fruit/jam (harvests can be huge), and so on can all be community builders. Someone just has to get the ball rolling.
  • WorkdaysCommunal spaces are something that we theoretically love to have, but in terms of use, they are often under-appreciated. One way to inspire people to get together is to take full advantage of shared spaces. In fact, find communal ownership of them to organise voluntary workdays. Maybe it’s cleaning up a fallen tree or planting some flowers or picking up a littered area. People get a chance to work together, to enjoy their physical community together, and to build a collective appreciation for what they have. While attendance is often low at the beginning, regularity and persistence will usually persevere.

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Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

3 Comments

  1. Our friends decided to put up their new collapsible hot tub for a few days from time to time, not only for themselves, but for their neighbours, too. That’s how they are building community!

  2. One great website to help build community in the neighbourhood is NextDoor(dot)com. It’s a bit like a hyper-local Facebook. When you sign up the service uses your post/zip code to connect you with people in the neighbouring suburbs who are also using the site.

    You can share an invitation via the usual social channels, email, or you can generate a printable invitation with a sign-up code that you can then drop in the neighbours’ letter boxes. (The latter is how I found out about the site; a proactive neighbour did a letterbox drop to the surrounding streets.)

    People in my local area have been sharing recommendations for local businesses, such as plumbers or mechanics, letting people know when pets and items are lost or found, and one person has proposed a dad’s group for people to catch up and get to know each other. I think it has great potential in this online day and age to build community.

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