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Building Social Bonds in Communities

By William Hatcher

A community differs from a neighborhood. Neighborhoods are merely space; whereas, communities are comprised of people living and working together forming social bonds. Over the past few months, this column has stressed the importance of communities developing their assets. Like many proponents of the assets model of development, I’m often asked: What about communities that appear to have few local assets? This is an important question that needs to be address. Many of our communities think of themselves, and are viewed by outside observers, as lacking assets. Tupleo, Miss. illustrates how a community, which viewed itself as having few assets, can change for the better by building social bonds and moving the discussion away from needs and towards assets.

The Tupelo Model

Among development scholars and practitioners, the history of Tupelo is well-known. The city’s economic improvements have been profiled by authors, such as Vaughan Grisham and Robert Putnam. In the mid-1900s, Tupelo was a struggling city, like many communities throughout the South and America. George McLean purchased the failing local newspaper. According to McLean, he “purchased a bankrupt paper from a bankrupt bank.” Within a few decades, McLean had helped make the paper and the overall community successful.

McLean, at first singlehandedly, organized community efforts to develop and implement a successful vision for Tupelo. He formed Lift Inc., a community action agency focused on improving the local school system and bringing citizens together in the community. The organization, along with McLean’s newspaper, raised millions for local schools. McLean and his supporters argued for a vision of Tupelo as a community that worked together to solve its problems. Today, due to this vision, the community has Fortune 500 companies, healthy local businesses and a recognized hospital.

The community’s success inspired Vincent Vaughan, a sociologist at the University of Mississippi and John Grisham’s brother, to spend a large part of his career studying Tupelo. He and other students of the community have formulated some of the basic principles referred to in development as the Tupelo Model.

These principles include the following:

  • Local individuals must solve local problems.
  • People are resources, not challenges.
  • Community development must assist the poorest members of the community.
  • Leadership is an important feature of development.
  • A community must formulate regional plans and work with its neighbors.
  • The public must be involved in the forming of these plans.
  • Funding development is an investment, not a cost.

As can be seen, the model stresses the cultivation of local assets, the importance of public involvement and the necessity of close social bonds. At its foundation, the Tupelo Model is based on the simple but often difficult to achieve idea that communities succeed when they work together.

Methods of Building Community

In their book Better Together, Putnam and Feldstein profile communities that have the ability to foster trust among many groups. Tupelo is one of the communities profiled. A book coauthored by Putnam, of course, focuses on the benefits of social capital—social interconnectedness in communities. It is important to recognize that high levels of social capital do not necessarily produce a community that can improve itself. In fact, many of our struggling communities have large amounts of social connectedness that cause them to shut out new people and ideas. Furthermore, many of these communities struggle because they cannot advance the development process beyond a focus on needs. When McLean moved to Tupelo, he faced a community that at first did not accept him because he was not part of the social bonds that had been in place for generations. Social connectedness that embraces new ideas and people is what our communities need and it is what McLean sought to foster in his city.

How can practitioners do the same in their communities? First, physical design can be used to grow positive social bonds. Communities trapped by dated models of zoning physically separate their citizens. Physical design of our communities can change people. Burnham and the progressive planners knew this well when they designed parts of Chicago, the Central City Park in New York and the Mall in Washington. Jane Jacobs understood this when she fought against the public works projects of Robert Moses. Today, New Urbanism and other approaches argue for mixed use design to ensure that people from diverse backgrounds interact with one another.

Second, local governments have a role to encourage the formation of civil society in their boundaries. Close-knit communities need a large, diverse collection of community groups and nonprofits. McLean, as noted, founded and led a community action organization that linked other organizations. And if these organizations form, it is important to give them meaningful work, so they will stay together. This means that many of our local governments need to be more open to including key stakeholders and groups in decision-making in the areas, such as budgeting and planning.

Lastly, local governments and nonprofit groups need to be professional. By that, I mean they need to make their decisions based on expertise not politics. Of course, development decisions will be political, but by focusing on technical factors, communities will help build confidence in local social networks and also develop effective policies.

Community development scholars and practitioners often debate whether communities should implement people-based policies or place-based ones. In practice, both types of policies are important, of course. But if you ask proponents of the Tupelo Model, they will argue that communities must first build its social ties. Tupelo’s success, and challenges, can help communities understand the importance of doing development together.

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2 Responses to Building Social Bonds in Communities

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