The estates and flat complexes of 1980’s Ireland, although often facing social problems and poverty in their own right, were also thriving, vibrant and convivial places to grow up. Children would roam the streets and play outdoors together, mothers would chat over back-yard walls while hanging out the washed clothes, and front doors were rarely closed or locked.
There was an intimacy and connection amidst it all that lent itself to a sense of place and community. It wasn’t idyllic of course, and many welcomed the opportunities economic growth brought – a chance to get work outside of the community, to earn higher wages, to get a university education, to move out to more upmarket neighbourhoods, to travel or move abroad.
However with that growth and social mobility, there was also an erosion of the bonds that tied people together in the places where they lived. In some suburban areas of Dublin, with people working long hours, facing long commutes and turning to more individual free-time activities it became common for people to barely know or interact with their neighbours and to feel less connected to the physical space they lived in. People were more likely to spend their free time in their high-spec newly purchased homes, than in the local park. Perceptions of safety changed, and children played less often outside with their peers. Hedges grew higher, doors were locked and supermarkets replaced the local grocer, butcher and bakers.
The shift in economic circumstances has brought with it a realignment of values in some communities
Fast forward to Ireland today, and something exciting is happening around community. Without undermining the harsh reality of increased unemployment for many families, the shift in economic circumstances has also brought with it a realignment of values in some communities across the country. People are feeling a need to look outwards, connect with those around them, and create opportunities for sharing, supporting one another and igniting initiatives that sustain local economies and make the places we live more enjoyable places to be. More people are attracted to networks and platforms that allow communities to pool and share resources, and in doing so build greater bonds of trust.
Residents regularly come together for pot-luck meals in people’s homes, and the village-wide email list acts as a means to communicate and share open invitations to parties, celebrations and events organised by individuals
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the rural Irish community of Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary. A small village in the midlands, with a strong sense of community in its own right, it has in recent years become the location of Ireland’s only eco village project. The project, essentially a neighbourhood off the main street of the existing village, has inspired and contributed to a thriving, vibrant and interconnected community life. The design of the development itself encouraged a sense of sharing – homes are built without separate gardens for the most part, and the recreational space is instead a commonly owned and accessible plot of the overall land. There is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm on the site, to which members contribute monthly sharing the produce and the risk. Freshly harvested vegetables are collected by members three times a week with an understanding that you take what you need, while being mindful of the needs of others. An arts collective has animated an empty property, offering accommodation, catering facilities and craft equipment for people to create, host and organise pop-up food and arts events. Residents regularly come together for pot-luck meals in people’s homes, and the village-wide email list acts as a means to communicate and share open invitations to parties, celebrations and events organised by individuals. It is this atmosphere and approach to collectively meeting the needs of individuals in the community that has made it such a great place to live, demonstrated by the fact that the community was listed as a runner-up in the Irish Times Best Places to Live as well as winning the LivCom International Award for most liveable communities.
The erosion of the fabric of community is not of course isolated to Ireland. Worldwide, particularly in urban environments, residents struggle to create a sense of connection and common belonging in the places they live. Great examples are emerging however, of how the sharing economy can enhance this sense of connection and place. Berlin, Germany demonstrates how the sharing economy can become part of the fabric of a city and its many suburbs. In the Prinzessinnengärten in the Kreuzberg area, a derelict site has been transformed into a space where members can harvest their own fresh vegetables, educational events take place, and there is a social space with a café and bar (selling non-profit beer of course!). Not too far down the road, the wonderful Weltkuche provides jobs and training for migrant women, and raises funds by selling delicious ethnic food to the public. On Fehrbelliner Strasse in the North East of the city, the first borrwing shop has kicked off a trend across the country, creating opportunities for people to borrow from a library of household items, rather than purchase the items individually.
The efficiency, enjoyment and ease with which communities and individuals are moving into this new way of transacting speaks volumes
In Australia, cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are at the forefront of new ripples in the sharing economy. The oft-referenced AirBnB and Uber examples aside, people are matching unused bikes, empty driveways, empty sheds, excess clothing and cars with those who need them. The Secondbite project, established by a Melbourne couple has had great success in sourcing waste food, to provide nutritious catered food to community groups at reduced costs. The Welcome Dinner Project, is an excellent example of trust being built in the face of fears around new arrivals from the Middle East, organising shared meals in people’s homes for new arrivals and established Australians, transforming attitudes and forging friendships in the process.
It seems the core of these initiatives is the connection between people involved. For the most part, the efficiency, enjoyment and ease with which communities and individuals are moving into this new way of transacting speaks volumes, and sees increasingly more initiatives and projects emerging that connect resources and needs in ways that transcend traditional monetary exchanges. Advocates claim it is recreating the personal human interactions and connections that our modern economic model has eroded.