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Book Review - Making a Place for Community by Thad Williamson, Gar Alperovitz, and David Imbroscio

 Making a Place for Community: Local Politics in a Global Era
by Thad Williamson, Gar Alperovitz, and David Imbroscio
$29.95, Routledge, 400 pages, 2002
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

Making a Place for Community begins by squarely confronting conventional wisdom, as summed up in a 1980 report requested by President Jimmy Carter. A National Agenda for the Eighties concludes that federal efforts “concerned principally with the health of specific places will inevitably conflict with efforts to revitalize the larger economy.”

This has it precisely backwards, the three authors of Making a Place argue, and they marshal a prodigious amount of evidence to make their case. A healthy larger economy rests on and depends on the presence of many healthy smaller economies.

The first part of the book makes the argument that community is beneficial not only because it makes us feel good but because it makes us act better and live better. Rootlessness, whether of capital or people, threatens community and undermines the possibility of healthy economies. The book investigates the “triple threat” to community: globalization, the movement of capital and goods within the United States, and suburban sprawl.

Fascinating factoids are sprinkled throughout. Such as Robert Putnam's mathematical equation explaining the relationship between mobility and community. Each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent. Or the remarkable fact that federal spending on regional and community development was cut by 60 percent between 1980 and 1990 under conservative Republicans and then was cut another 10 percent in the 1990s by liberal Democrats.
The final two-thirds of the book are prescriptive. The authors discuss an astonishing array of strategies: employee stock ownership plans, municipal enterprises, community development corporations, micro-enterprise funds, community sustained agriculture, land trusts, cooperatives, job training, transition aid. It is a dizzying tour of possibilities.

The book does suffer one serious shortcoming. It doesn't address the dark side of strong communities. It may be a myth that close-knit communities are inevitably racist and reactionary, but there is abundant evidence that they are parochial, xenophobic, and resistant to change. They often display a disappointing unwillingness to share with other communities and a disconcerting tendency, if given the power, to demand uniformity of behavior by their inhabitants. The authors argue for diverse communities but often, if given the choice, people opt for homogeneous communities. Witness the rise of gated communities and homeowner associations. How does one encourage diversity, protect the rights of minorities, and persuade communities to succor their weak and needy?

The modern world seems to equate mobility with progress. We measure the health of our economies by the distances traveled by our goods and services. Community, when policy makers think of it at all, is viewed as an obstacle to prosperity or, at best, as a place where we might find temporary reprieve from the slings and arrows of the real world. And we are creating, at the international level, a series of institutions, processes, and standards that will make it ever-more difficult to reverse this perspective.

Making a Place for Community is one of a growing number of books arguing that we should reverse this trend. What makes it stand out is that it also offers strategies to help us do so. That it avoids some of the deeper questions about the relationship between community, justice, and freedom does not diminish this achievement—or the fact that community is a deep human need.


Reviewer David Morris is co-founder of the Minneapolis and Washington, DC–based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is the author of a number of books, including Neighborhood Power; Self-Reliant Cities, and most recently, Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System. He directs ILSR's New Rules project, www.newrules.org.

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