Community is all around us; it flickers in the smiles of passing acquaintances, it rumbles in the comfort of familiar shopkeepers, it surrounds us as we walk through the spaces we know, the places we have explored our many lives. While the Oxford dictionary describes community “as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”, it seems a little cold, mildly noninclusive to the potential of thriving, resilient, and caring communities. To build further then, perhaps the definition of sustainable communities offers a more well-rounded option; “ a sustainable community is one that is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient”.

Let’s break that apart. Economically healthy and resilient. The people who live in this community can support themselves, having profitable (and ideally, fulfilling) jobs that enable them to meet their basic needs, but also those necessary for happiness and a high standard of living. Financial support such as reduced costs of childcare, healthcare and funding for education all work to promote economic resiliency for the members in the community. A large part of this is, I believe, a local economy, which seeks to invest in the businesses that are run by our neighbours. Farmers’ markets, mom and pop shops, and supporting local artists and tradespeople all work to keep money within the local economy. It is important to note that for many people, supporting local businesses is not feasible as chain businesses offer lower prices through the cutting of social and environmental corners. As local economies continue to spread, the hope is that the higher costs of local- which through competition may go down- will be absorbed by the resiliency of the community that protects the people who live there.

Next up, we have environmentally healthy and resilient. This would ideally be a community, in this case a system, that is able to maintain its own homeostasis, constantly directing efforts towards minimizing its impact on our earth. We know what this looks like- trees, bikes, public transit, green space and so on. But to go a little further; the importance of protected bike lanes (check out these radical options here) that are free from parked, stopped, waiting, lost, or confused cars.  Trees are known to have numerous benefits in a community such as improve air quality,  housing value,  aesthetics and mental health, which is why it is important to have the urban forest equally distributed among income levels in a community. Having a reliable, timely, and affordable public transit system offers a realistic alternative to automobile use. Mixed-use development, such as living above the store you shop from, across from your dentist, down the street from your work and around the corner from the dog park, allows us to avoid car use and create an interconnected web of relationships within our community. Environmental justice, defined by the EPA as the fair treatment and involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income, with respect to development laws, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies, is a grading stick to measure the environmental sustainability of a community. This means certain groups are not unevenly exposed to environmental hazards such as pollution, waste, or natural disasters. While the forward movement of sustainability is often idealized, the baseline must be to protect the basic needs of all people first and allow equal access to the benefits of a healthy environment.

And lastly, we come upon a community that is socially healthy and resilient. What does it take for the people within a community to feel safe and happy? Adequate (and maybe even accommodating) healthcare systems, that focus on pre-emptive ways to maintain the patients health is important. Equal opportunity education systems that ensure support of students with all needs, and post-secondary education support that doesn’t leave students with piles of education-resenting debt (cough osap cough) is vital to social sustainability. Another aspect is affordable childcare that leaves parents with feel-good and realistic options, and minimum wages that encourage self-respect and the ease of livelihood. The social protection and understanding care of elderly people is imperative, recognizing the wealth of knowledge and experience they can offer. I believe the feelings of community, connection, and trust come once our needs of survival are happily met, and that means jobs, health, and homes.

Although this may appear to be a Utopian idea of how communities function, I believe it is important to have a benchmark in which to direct our energies. Also, to look where else it exists. The national minimum wage of Australia is $17.70 before taxes. Free or low-cost post-secondary education is offered in Germany, France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and more. Bhutan measures its progress in Gross National Happiness, instead of Gross Domestic Product. And it isn’t to say that these places are perfect, but instead that they are directing their efforts towards something different; something for people.

We see authentic community arise out of unique places; the unmonitored side-streets of transitioning neighbourhoods, the sparkling stalls of local markets, the early-morning bustle of local shopkeepers, setting the stage for the day’s happenings. And while community is a natural by-product of the gathering of people, as cities continue to grow it is paramount that these aspects of sustainability are prioritized in their design and development. What can we take from traditional communities that came before us and continue to thrive today? As you look around to your neighbours, to your home, where do you see the magic of community flicker? Perhaps that is the best place to start.

By Claire Stevenson- Blythe

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.