Common Place   /   February 13, 2014

The Quest for Thriving Communities

This blog has one abiding concern: What does it mean and take for a community and its residents to thrive?

At a time when financial downturns, demographic shifts, technological change, and ideological polarization strain the social fabric and undermine shared visions of the public good, the question is both urgent and challenging.

The question of what it means (and not simply what it takes) for a community to thrive is also necessarily a normative one. Every debate over a land-use policy or affordable housing initiative or effort at closing the achievement gap in education, each contribution to a local charity or hour spent volunteering, is a de facto referendum on how closely the status quo of a community reflects our ideals of what the good community does or does not look like.

Asking such a morally and ethically freighted question doesn’t require an appeal to the Platonic ideal of the good community.  Rather, it depends upon something more like a Socratic dialogue: a commitment both to deepening our understanding of what such a question entails and to working out ways to engage the question through conversation with others similarly concerned over time. In this, the question of what it means and takes to thrive has the character of a common endeavor or quest.

Common Place is intended to be an on-line venue in which those engaged in this quest can pursue a conversation together about the anatomy and the art of thriving communities. As the subtitle suggests, the objective of the blog is two-fold; and its two-fold character says something about the character of the conversation it hopes to facilitate:

1. The “Anatomy” of Thriving Communities—The first objective is to examine the important contextual elements—e.g., institutional structures, historical factors, communal scales, and constituent relationships—that contribute to or detract from the health and well-being of the places in which we live. We can call this the “science” of thriving communities.

(a) Crucially, within this contextual focus we are as interested in the points of interconnection and interaction as we are in analyzing any isolated structure, factor, scale or relationship. Accordingly, we place a premium on “ecological” approaches and perspectives.

(b) Given the inevitable normative dimensions of social life that the language of thriving foregrounds, we are as interested in analyzing tacit cultural assumptions about the nature of the good life and community as we are in the means to achieving them.  In this, we place a premium on what the humanities, alongside the social sciences and the applied professions, have to contribute to our pursuit of the general welfare.

(c) Finally, in light of the recent explosion of interest in social indicators and community assessment, we are also interested in critical examination of both the conventional and the state of the art ways we conceptualize and assess the health and well-being of our communities and the places we live in common.

 2. The “Art” of Thriving Communities – The second objective is to provide resources for putting the “science” of thriving communities into the service of concrete practice—and this pushes the conversation into the realm of art. We repeatedly find that you can have the brightest minds conducting the most rigorous research and promulgating the best ideas and still be ineffective in changing the status quo and advancing the common good. It takes more than the mere existence of public-spirited people with expert knowledge, for such persons can be found in some quantities in every community.

It appears to require rather subtle combinations of qualities and capacities, both individual and collective, the operation of which can be maddeningly difficult, if not impossible, to predict or measure. These elusive qualities and capacities include forms of virtue and practical wisdom on the part of residents and leaders that enrich and improve our quality of life and standards of living. The cultivation and activation of such qualities and capacities, in turn, seems to depend upon the creation of networks of virtuous and practically wise people working in concert, toward common ends, and supported by complementary institutions. This is simply another way of talking about politics classically conceived, not as the narrow instrumental art of partisanship, but as the capacious civic art of the res publica.

(a) Questions as old as antiquity, we are interested in examining these perennial themes anew: What can the possibilities of such a civic art form be in our time and in the context of contemporary realities? How do we cultivate the art of thriving communities and induct coming generations into its apprenticeship?  How can we sustain it in actual places against the myriad challenges that threaten to overwhelm it?

(b) Moving from the abstract to the concrete, we hope to generate a portfolio of case studies illustrating this art in action—profiles of exemplary individuals, communities, networks, and organizations that are instrumental in the thriving of their communities; for those who, by dint of persistent and creative effort, have transformed challenges into opportunities for innovation and enrichment.

(c) Finally, in a time of extreme polarization and an ever widening gap between socio-economic classes, when it would be tempting to believe that there is precious little common ground, we want to explore possibilities for working across differences for a more perfect union—those rare and unusual coalitions of residents that unpredictably spring up from time to time, bridging social sectors, classes, racial and ethnic divisions, and even metaphysical commitments.

We acknowledge that we are far from unique in raising such questions or in pursuing such a conversation. Indeed, it is precisely because we observe widespread interest on such matters that we think this blog worth establishing. We invite anyone interested in participating to join the conversation about the anatomy and the art of thriving communities and make their contribution to the quest.

While the blog is open to numerous lines of inquiry, in its first year the conveners of Common Place will be highlighting one overriding issue: the problem of how we assess and measure a thriving community? To this end, it will feature entries around a particular research project, The Thriving Cities Project, the aim of which is to develop a more genuinely holistic form of community assessment that will be a resource for those striving to make their communities flourish and residents thrive.