In my last Blog I wrote about how pleasant it was to have ample sufficiency, with enough to live on and also to help others. Since writing that Blog my post-doctoral research fellowship, with its regular income and research monies has come to an end, and I have also had some health issues (flu-like symptoms without snuffles).
I’m getting much better now, but this experience has made me aware of how reliant many of us are on having or being supported by those who have good health and regular incomes.
While feeling debilitated, I often found myself wishing we had well connected villages, or “networked localities” where there was support ready to hand, where any of us could ask, “Can anyone help … ?” and just know that there would be people nearby who would be pleased to assist.
I was once part of such a locality. This was in St Albans, Christchurch, New Zealand (1992-2002). It was at a time when some people were interested in experimenting with ways new communications technologies could amplify local, face-to-face networking and development. Beginning in 1992 with a local, desktop-published news magazine and culminating in 2000 with a local, participatory community web project, these electronic communication-based projects helped to turn a fragmented suburb into a networked locality.
What do I mean by a networked locality? I recently I came across a print-out of the home page of the St Albans community website (2000) and re-read the welcome blurb. I think some aspects of this blurb go some way to explain the network locality concept. The blurb said:
WELCOME TO ST ALBANS. This site is intended to be a living reflection of what is happening in St Albans as a tool for civic participation and as a window for the wider world. It will be constantly changing and growing with the input of our community and interested visitors.
To unpack the four concepts in the blurb:
Importantly, this “living reflection,” or representation of St Albans was created by people themselves.
On the front page are links to STANN, the St Albans Neighbourhood News, its community paper, (“the voice of St Albans”) and to a Neighbourboard, that included discussion, help wanted and help offered, and buy sell and exchange.
There are also links to pages on local public information, including local politics, SARA (the St Albans Residents Association), local business, sport, history, community, youth, ethnic groups, arts, events and entertainment.
On the front page also are excerpts from recent stories, and graphics, including of a sudden storm in St Albans, an opinion piece on children growing up and their concerns (what they look like, particularly their weight) and a feature article on artists in St Albans. There is a calendar of events, and links to other local websites.
The website was inclusive. Anyone could write, and be supported to write if needed, on matters relating to local life. Everyone was seen as a knowledgeable actor who could make a valuable contribution, everyone had something to offer.
This locally-grounded networking approach (in contrast to the more usual top-down institutional approach) was inclusive of all in reflecting on what was happening and seeing possibilities to meet shared needs.
Civic life was about connection building, seeing new possibilities, and developing related joint action.
St Albans was developing a sense of itself as a place and what it had within it, with inhabitants (human and non-human), and it was constructing its own narratives. From this more developed sense of self, it could interrelate more effectively with the wider world. For instance, people from anywhere in the world could and did engage with local people about the neighbourhood, including some who were becoming interested in living, or returning to live in St Albans.
The effectiveness of this project was due to the collaboration of a team of people with diverse talents, who were committed to the project and prepared to constantly innovate, in order to keep engaging local people.
The team (who were unpaid) continually worked to ensure regular locally-based stories about the experiences, activities and possibilities that helped to build up new feelings of connectedness and belonging.
At the time of this project I recall hearing about a resident who lived in a St Albans retirement home. He was bed-ridden and needed 24 hour care. Prior to his disability, he had been an early adopter of technology, and while in care, made use of technology to remain connected with the life he had known outside the institution. A St Albans resident, who nursed him, told me how much he appreciated having a window through which he could keep in touch with his local world.
The team worked hard, back in the 1990s, to create what has since come to be called a “social networking” site, but with a focus on the local.
Easy-to-use, engaging and universally accessible social networking software models like TradeMe, Facebook and Youtube have since become available. Similar softwares could now be much more easily created or adapted for engaging people in their localities.
As the global recession takes its toll, I think there will be a greater need for local community support structures. As John Wardle, the driving force behind St Albans projects said,
To give, to receive and to care are some of the most important elements of worthwhile community, but this cannot happen if we do not know what is happening. Who needs help? Where do we find help? Who wants to buy? Who wants to sell? What events are happening, when and where? …
It is a sad state of affairs when someone is in need and someone is offering, but the two cannot find each other. In modern cities this is very common. Effective community needs good information to happen. Without it we have tragic waste. This can be in the form of loneliness and isolation or of food, goods and energy. It takes good communication to find that kind word or spare cabbage its most welcome home (1997).
The St Albans model (1992-2002) demonstrated how an active, engaging network locality model could support local development. I think it is timely to re-consider this model. What do you think?