“Community” is something you do, not something you are - RSA

“Community” is something you do, not something you are

Blog 5 Comments

  • Cities
  • Communities
  • Heritage

As part of the Heritage, Place and Identity project at the RSA, we have worked to understand what makes a successful heritage-led place-making programme. Community is the key stakeholder in the process, with engagement crucial throughout the long-term process not for a discrete period to shape a strategy. But who, or what, makes up the community? Often, asking this question misses the importance of the production of a community through engagement itself.

Whether you are forging a  partnership across diverse views and opinions, or if local history has become a driving force for place-identity, there is little doubt that if you want a regeneration project to work you must engage local people right from the start. Sometimes defining the community is part of the problem with heritage projects, but the process of engagement is a necessity.

Never let it be said that at the RSA we do not ask the big questions, of our renowned guest speakers and of each other in the office. When one of the directors asks me casually ‘So Dave, what is community, exactly?’ I first lent on sociological theory. Richard Jenkins has suggested that a group is a group when they identify themselves as such. But this differs from the dictionary definition that simply requires people to live in the same place (good luck defining the boundaries of a place), or share a particular characteristic. I live in London, and as many Londoners know – simply living in the same location (even the same building) does not always mean that you share the same community, or sense of it. But is this negative image of the UK, and of London, really accurate? Many Londoners are part of several communities, each with different geographies across the city (or the globe). In this sense, we might be best to understand a community is a self-identified bunch of people with a common interest. But merely identifying yourself as part of a community is not enough, you have to be an ongoing part of it.

Can we see a place for the community voice in planning decisions? As the guidance for London states, this needs to go beyond simply consultation. Yet even years after the Localism act of 2011, there remains little indication that neighbourhoods are forming ‘communities’ that act collectively to inform planning policy. This is perhaps more to do with the fact that sitting on planning committees can often take up much of a person’s valuable time, and sometimes without much to show for it. Proving the value of a communities activities can often be as hard as proving the value of intangible heritage, especially now as austerity enters the next stage, now with added mandate.

The previous coalition government spoke much of the power of local people and they took several steps to empower groups, neighbourhoods and communities. These included the Right to Bid, the Right to Challenge and the Right to build and to reclaim land. Some technical innovation could help these powers be taken up more broadly. There are websites designed to drive connections and relationships between local people, helping to form ties and community groups. There are also funding programmes that look to help foster groups across London, so the aid is not simply advice – but financial resources.

It remains an unfulfilled aspect of the devolution agenda that people representing smaller groups and local communities gain further control in what happens to the space around them and this is not less true for heritage projects. At the very heart of this is understanding that what we mean when we say that we need to ‘engage the community’. It’s more than hand picking a dozen people who are sympathetic to the cause of the developers. Nor is it arbitrarily gathering local residents together and trying to force engagement out of people who have jobs and families to look after. Indeed, ‘engaging the community’ could be considered something of a misnomer – it implies there is a bounded ‘community’ already, one which needs engaging with, rather than a product of the engagement.

Often, key stakeholders are the initiators of good heritage regeneration projects, but once the project is underway, it is imperative that some work is done on finding out who, in the area, cares about this project. Who will it affect, and who will want to effect it? Community engagement is also, in part, community creation. Gary Edson, said this of heritage in 2007:

“Heritage, in the best of circumstances, enfranchises the emotionally and culturally disenfranchised. It allows humankind to transcend individual destiny to achieve continuity” (Edson 2007)

Whilst the term ‘transcend individual destiny’ might come across as overly grandiose, that is exactly what happens when you become part of a community, or any group. Identifying yourself with other people for a common reason, or goal or even a characteristic brings dividends in the shape of productivity, health and, David Laven is keen to point out, resilience.

By engaging on heritage led projects, by working through divergent goals and differing opinions, not only do you work towards a more successful outcome, but you create with it a community of people who care for and have a stake in the end product – even if that ‘end’ is as realistically vague as the community itself. Community driven projects help forge the community itself, as they spend time and energy developing consensus and then working on a common goal. If achieved that goal can often become a defining attachment for participants and others; part of the shared past, part of the place and the community’s very identity.

Dave Yates



Engage with our research


Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • 'Defining the Community' is key. Or rather, allowing the community to define itself. When I delivered one of the old ODPM's Liveability pilots in several areas in London, I found that people had a very exact idea of the boundaries of their identifiable locality - as do estate agents! The bigger problem was that Council ward boundaries and administrative sub-divisions are not co-terminous with natural and historic community boundaries. An urban village, for example, may straddle not only two wards but two councils.

    Secondly, in terms of 'community engagement' and 'community empowerment' there is something inherently dis-empowering in the very terms; they imply a legitimacy on the part of the powerful party engaging with or empowering the powerless community almost as an act of voluntary altruism. The State has no greater legitimacy than that granted to it by its citizens. There is also an assumption that what is needed is greater dialogue between the State and the 'community' and that dialogue alone is sufficient, without any meaningful transfer of power. Indeed, this is exactly what 'Localism Lite' has been to date.

    The central State has long been engaged in removing the role of local intermediate institutions which were seen as impediments to a direct relationship between the State and the individual; whilst they are now slowly creeping back in the current social and political environment they have some way to go to regain the place they once had. I don't think the pace can be hurried.

    Localism and direct democracy is so much more than being allowed to manage the village hall by a benign administration.

  • I feel the community is ready and waiting, Problem is there is often poor communication between Governing bodies and community groups. Within Sheffield there are forums of various groups, networking events, even conferences but without Local Authority involvement. There is a drive for more joined up thinking across the city but actually being able to put this to the Council is proving difficult. The Council has meeting with big business in 1 room, local small businesses in another room and social enterprise in a third and never puts them all together. At present we are ending going by the back door by using the Universities but it is not ideal.

    • I agree Joyce - It remains part of the projects aim to remind people of the importance of engagement at all levels. Unfortunately, this does not make the process any less simple. I often feel that it should be the position of the universities to make sure that these connections are made across all levels. 

  • Dave. I tune into the suggestion of transcending individual destiny.  Only recently I learned that Maslow's heirarchy of needs had an eighth level, of self transcendence.

    An argument for creating business which puts the needs of the community first featured in our work in Crimea and this extract, published by the Charter for Compassion illustrates the main points.

    Tacking terrorism through compassionate economics.

    • It is a really important point Jeff. I enjoyed reading your article - it remains a complex and difficult topic, and one that requires further exploration.

Related articles

  • Blog: I love Dundee

    Jamie Cooke

    I love Dundee. It’s funny, but even in the world of today where Dundee is vibrant with the development of the V&A and waterfront, its status as a UNESCO City of Design and top place in our very own Heritage Index for Scotland, this is a statement that can be met with a range of responses ranging from ridicule to incredulity, especially in the Central Belt of Scotland.

  • Blog: Heritage for the Future. Join the Debate.

    Clare Devaney

    In November 2015, the RSA and HLF will co-host Heritage Question Time panel debates in Bristol and Greater Manchester. Join the debate!