Communications technologies were supposed to doom urban community. After all, with high-quality, free, instantaneous communication with people from around the world, who cares about talking over the fence with the neighbor, or joining the local bowling league? Ironically, the Internet, the world’s most widely available communications medium, has sparked some of the most narrowly focused local forums that have ever existed: community or placeblogs, listservs and hyperlocal journalism projects focusing on specific neighborhoods, blocks or buildings. Although many thinkers predicted the collapse of urban community, planner and theorist Melvin Webber had a more nuanced view. In his prescient 1964 essay, Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm, he predicted the growth of new urban realms, but also the persistent importance of urban places that may explain this resurgent localism. (1)
How did communications transform urban life? To Webber, urbanity is participation in cultural, social, and economic transactions. In the future therefore, “urbanity is no longer the exclusive trait of the city dweller … increasingly the farmers themselves are participating in the urban life of the world.” Webber concludes, “as accessibility becomes further freed from propinquity, cohabitation of a territorial place […] is becoming less important to the maintenance of social communities.”
Webber defined a set of loosely geographic realms. The local realm, defined by in-person interaction is the world of our physical neighborhoods, grocery stores, and other people we encounter personally. People with more specialized interests participate in higher realms, perhaps a metropolitan realm through a citywide organization, occasionally the national realm during professional meetings, even, for the example of the business leader or the elite scientific researcher, the world realm. All this would fundamentally transform urban place, creating an entire nonplace urban realm that had barely existed before. “The place-community represents only a limited and special case of the larger genus of communities, deriving its basis from the common interests that attach to propinquity alone.”
In the early days of the Internet, it looked like this was happening. Common-interest communities formed on chat rooms and listservs, regardless of the actual location of participants. The term cyberspace itself suggested an ethereal place both everywhere and nowhere, a sort of alternate universe to place-based community.
Was Webber right? After all, he predicted social changes “are expanding the range of diversity in the average person’s associations and are inducing a parallel reduction in the relative importance of place-related interests and associations.” The dissolution of tight bonds around physical community is real, and documented by research in the vein of Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone. American’s don’t live in tight-knit, clannish urban neighborhoods anymore. Although perhaps partly caused with by less sociability, a major cause must be our growing involvement in interactions at other realms: staying in touch with family spread around the world through Skype, keeping up with professional networks through email or conferences, even forging online-only interest-based communities.
Then something unexpected happened. Just as the Internet became more ubiquitous and widely used, it began to work to reinforce place-based communities. People with similar interests could find each-other through services like Meetup.com. Although made famous by its effective use by political campaigns, the most dynamic Meetup groups have interests more narrow and permanent than politics: knitting, beach volleyball, classical music. Thousands of local blogs, termed placeblogs by Lisa Williams, have popped up in cities across the country, and forums and listservs connect neighbors.
Why the interest in the local? Webber hypothesizes that even the world leader must work in the local realm at least some of his time, and some people still live their lives in the local realm, rarely interacting with people outside their neighborhood. If you added up all the aggregate person-hours, he speculated, you’d find still by far the majority expended in the local realm, even if time expended at higher realms has increased significantly. Thus, even in a postmodern world of global communications, local, place-based communities remains an important locus of activity. After all, Webber points out, “Those who live near each other share an interest in lowering the social costs of doing so, and they share an interest in the quality of certain services and goods that can be supplied only locally,” including traffic on the streets, garbage collection, children’s facilities, and public nuisances. I would argue that as a realm of deliberation and disagreement, the local realm is different than similar-interest networks at higher realms. After all, if you get into a disagreement with professional contacts you can simply quit the group. The place-based community, by virtue of the difficulty of moving and the necessity for close interaction, is difficult to quit and difficult to change. Most significantly, unlike the others its participation is not voluntary; everyone must live somewhere, and cannot easily escape the positive and negative attributes of their surroundings.
Furthermore, place-based communities have unique characteristics. Ignoring issues of segregation, they’re the urban realm where you’re most likely to encounter people different from yourself. The small physical scale of the local community also means its one where an individual can have a tangible impact, whether lobbying city government to install a streetlight or conducting a simple neighborhood cleanup. The national and global realm seems more difficult for the individual to change than ever, with its swarm of politicians, policy experts, corporate and special interest groups. The place-based community, on the other hand, offers the individual a refreshingly tangible venue in a fragmented world to make a difference. In addition, the great personal stakes combined with greater say provides increased motivation for participation.
45 years later, the theories of Melvin Webber seem more relevant than ever. Even in the face of growing nonplace urban realms, the place-based community retains the role as an important venue for interaction, consumption and conflict. However, paradoxically, the Internet can be used to form or reinforce local, place-based communities even while it facilitates the growth of nonplace urban realms.
(1) Webber, Melvin M. “Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm.” In Explorations into Urban Structure, ed. Webber, et al, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.