Performing Community: How Urban Geography Can Help Us Understand Community in Urban Spaces

By Bariah Altaf Qadeer

Moving from one place to another has always been a challenging aspect of life because in a way, you have to start everything from scratch – new place, new people and new community. This aspect of becoming part of a new community entails several complex processes, because it starts with communicating, and that can be hard with strangers. For instance, socializing in a residential building involves several thought processes. I want to focus on this point from an Urban Geography perspective by connecting psychological and physical actions in a theory to understand how we perform community. There are two texts that I will analyze for this purpose: David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City and Tanja Blokland’s Community as Urban Practice. What is it that makes this act of communicating so complicated? Both authors delve into the ways the built environment can influence our way of living in a city and more specifically in neighborhoods.

Harvey (2009) shows that the city itself is complicated, and in this article, I will focus on problems in the city rather than of the city. In order to understand social processes and spatial (physical) form, we need to build a bridge between sociological imagination and geographical imagination (Harvey 2009: 23). Sociological imagination brings together the social and historical meaning of an individual (Harvey 2009: 23). Geographical imagination is realizing the role of space in an individual’s life (Harvey 2009: 23). Both forms of imagination seem to affect an individual’s relationships and interactions in a city. Once the built environment is created, it tends to institutionalize and determine future developments of social processes (Harvey 2009: 24). Once social processes occur in spaces, they create meanings for individuals where they realize their position in society. For instance, through interactions people know if they are accepted or not and based on this, they feel classified, which can also be discriminating. In a building, each person has their own history (sociological) and experiences spaces differently based on their histories (geographical). Both these forms of imagination influence the way they behave in spaces.

Apart from David Harvey’s view on how spaces influence our position in society, Tanja Blokland’s text adds the component of community. She believes that community is connected to our own social identity (2017). Based on our interactions with others, we shape and reshape our identities. Through our identities we perform community, which exemplifies the importance of community in our lives. We represent community and community represents us. This is a new approach that I want to focus on by analyzing people’s experiences with community in neighborhoods. When it comes to spaces, places and buildings where community is performed, they are “objects of (re)interpretation, narration and representation” (Gieryn 2002). This shows that in buildings we understand space through our experiences.

As mentioned earlier, an analysis between terms used both in Harvey and Blokland’s texts helps in understanding the complicated processes behind practicing community. It also highlights that a geographical and a sociological perspective can complement each other to further understand these complex ideas.

  David Harvey Tanja Blokland
Transactions … occur between individuals and organizations, which are affected by the space that separates them. … focus on relationships between individuals rather than individuals themselves. For example, lawyer/client, student/teacher, etc.
Boundaries … are certain amenities in an area that attract some residents, which shows the power of these places. … separate one entity from another. We tend to draw our social realities through these boundaries (137).
Space … is important to consider the symbolic meaning and its impact on human behavior. It is a “cognitive process” (36). … creates various symbols and meanings based on people’s uses and interactions in areas (118).
Symbolism … refers to the meanings people attach to places based on memories. Spatial symbolism affects human behaviour (32). … is based on community as a “culture,” which is built out of symbols. The same symbol can have different meanings for individuals (162).

Transactions

Based on Harvey’s text, we can assume that community is not just a place, but rather that there is a whole thought process that forms our unique conceptualizations around community. The boundaries that people have mentally constructed based on the way they are treated by society define the power imbalances. Their thought process then affects their performance of community, because there is a link between the cognitive and physical practice of community. People attach their own meanings to place, which arise based on their experiences.

Blokland extends this point by demonstrating that there are roles in society which make people feel superior/inferior, which impacts their transactions. Transactions create memories, routines and shared understandings (Tilly 2005). They seem to form the basis for people’s understanding of their surroundings which affects their perspectives on how to perform community. When a person moves to a new neighborhood in a building, based on their interactions, they learn about who is considered educated, helpful or skillful and this impacts their performance with their neighbors.

Boundaries

Boundaries, according to Harvey and Blokland, are a form of separating land in a city. For instance, a gated community creates a clear boundary, as only the residents are allowed to be there. Due to the separation of land, boundaries implement the concept of othering in cities (Crang 1998). This also creates power imbalances, because resources are distributed in certain parts of a city. But how are these boundaries created in the first place? They are in the mind, which is affected by the environment around us. There is a link between physical space and cognitive space, which shows that people perform community based on their understanding of these boundaries and their position in these spaces.

Space

Harvey explains that we create space based on what we see. It is a cognitive process because our perception of space has an impact on our behaviour. The relationship between humans and space seems to be reciprocal because humans divide space, and through this division, space affects humans along with their community performance. Figure 1 shows this relationship. For instance, in a new neighborhood, there are certain areas assigned for specific purposes, which are created by humans. If a newcomer in a neighborhood sees that people do not gather in common areas (such as a sitting area in a park) to interact, then this person will most likely act the same way.

The relationship visualized in figure 1 has become so innate to all of us that we do not even realize when we are drawing boundaries in the spaces around us. Similarly, we see and perform community in spaces based on the extent to which we feel accepted or rejected in an area. Community may be a mediating actor, since it is both a collective and a place-related entity. It is connected to a geographical area, but also present in our minds

Symbolism

Harvey believes that spaces have symbols for people based on their memories, and this concept affects their way of comprehending and practicing community. Contrastingly, Blokland views community as culture where people share experiences, which is built on symbols. These symbols have different meanings for people based on their experiences in spaces. For instance, in a building, there are various spaces, such as a community room, where people can hold religious gatherings and for this event, people may wear their religious clothing, but otherwise they wear casual clothing to fit in with everyone else. Symbols give individuals the capacity to make meaning of spaces based on our interpretation of them (Cohen 2013).

Harvey and Blokland demonstrate that people shape spaces based on the way they use them. The uses of these spaces then create symbols and meanings that affect the way people function in residential buildings and, on a larger scale, cities. The political and economic histories of spaces influence the experiences people have, which impacts people’s identities as residents or visitors of a space. We are positioned within a social structure that is characterized by specific power relations between us and our respective communities (Müller & Reichmann 2018). The social structures that we are a part of are also determined by power and authority.

Community is based on an elaborate process with multiple factors which influences humans. Just like cells are the basic units of life, neighborhoods are the basic units of a city. Metaphorically speaking, the nucleus in a cell represents an individual in a city, as the nucleus is an information center. It can represent our mind and how we think of community based on our sociological imagination, which is figuring out our identity through history (see Figure 2). The nuclear membrane is the geographical imagination where we situate ourselves in physical places. The membranes function as boundaries, which regulate the types of transactions we can have and that reinforce boundaries. Figuratively, the cell itself can be seen as a cultural concept, since all the space in the cell seems to represent the repetitive public practices or performances that are symbolic. These symbolic practices that Blokland (2017) identifies seem to be the way we physically perform community. The theoretical aspects that Harvey (2009) identifies seem to be the way we think about community. In both processes, the body plays an important role and is thus a common factor of both authors’ theories. There is a connection between the mind and the body, because the body expresses itself through reason by communicating with others (Freund 1990: 457). This further exemplifies how geographical, sociological, psychological and biological aspects simultaneously affect humans and, in turn, renders the concept of community highly complex.

By bringing Harvey’s and Blokland’s texts together, we can identify the different components that constitute community (figure 2). This combined approach is a model that brings a new approach to understand how we perform community in urban spaces. Spaces are created and then deemed as places where people reside, enjoy, fulfill their daily needs, have access to services and practice community.

We all engage in various types of communities. If we analyze our daily lives, we can see that there are visible and invisible communities that we interact with on a daily basis. The visible community is the physical community that we can see, and it is understood as a community due to the physical construction of that neighborhood. For instance, in a building, the common areas are where people can gather and communicate. It is visibly apparent. An invisible community is present in our minds and it represents what we think of or consider as community. This would refer to the communities that people want to become a part of. For example, in a building, a person may want to become a part of a certain group of people who they feel they can relate to. Such an imagined community is not visible or tangible.

As these concepts elucidate, trying to communicate with other residents in a building or neighborhood does consist of several complex processes that we may or may not be aware of. It depends on how an individual wants to perform community. Behind this action of socializing are several thought processes. Through our social cognition, we are able to make sense of the world (Glynn & Watkiss 2016). Similarly, this impacts the way we think about community, which directly affects the way we perform community. Harvey’s and Blokland’s texts can be utilized to begin to understand how community is performed. The ideas discussed in their texts show a communion between thoughts and actions regarding community. I used both these texts to incorporate mental and physical actions into a theory to improve our understanding of performing community in spaces.

Most models of cities (Burgess 1925, Hoyt 1933 & Harris and Ullman 1945) describe where residents are moving due to factors related to growth. Nevertheless, the model presented in Figure 2 demonstrates the thought processes an individual goes through while trying to perform community in various parts of a city, such as in their neighborhoods, workplaces and entertainment facilities. There are several processes happening in cities simultaneously and the ideas presented here provide information on aspects which previous research on cities has neglected: people in neighborhoods and their ongoing experiences with community. The theoretical and practical aspects of community can be seen together to analyze the processes behind performing community, which demonstrates that community in cities are as important as the nucleus in a cell.


 

About the Author

Bariah Altaf Qadeer is a PhD student at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) and the department of geography. Her dissertation focuses on community building in different housing forms in mixed-use areas of Toronto. After analyzing the themes of alienation in the city in various forms of literature, she wanted to research this idea further. The aspect of community building, understood through interdisciplinary lens, was central to her master’s thesis and is highly relevant to her PhD project. She believes that experiential perceptions of residents reshape places, and that understanding these perspectives is key to bringing positive change to neighborhoods through better community building.

 


References

Blokland, T. Community as Urban Practice. Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2017.

Burgess, E.W. “The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project.” In The City Reader, edited by R. Legates and F. Stout, 153-161. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Cohen, A.P. Symbolic Construction of Community Key Ideas. Routledge, 2013.

Crang, M. Cultural Geography. London: Routledge, 1998.

Freund, P.E.S. “The expressive body: a common ground for the sociology of emotions and health and illness.” Sociology of Health & Illness 12, (1990): 452-477.

Gieryn, T. (2002). “What buildings do.” Theory and Society 31, (2002): 35-74.

Glynn M.A. & Watkiss L. “Social Cognition.” In The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Strategic Management, edited by M. Augier and D. Teece, 1-4. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Harris, C.D. & Ullman, E.L. “The Nature of Cities.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 242, no. 1 (1945): 7-17. doi:10.1177/000271624524200103

Harvey, D. Social Justice and the City. Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Hoyt, H. One hundred years of land values in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933.

Müller, A.-L. & Reichmann, W. Architecture, materiality and society: connecting sociology of architecture with science and technology studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Tilly, C. Trust and rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


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