“I’ve never seen a tree grow from the top down.” – Ruth Glendinning, Founding Principal, Thriving Community Solutions

Community Roots

I grew up in an educated, financially comfortable, middle class family in suburban West Houston. Most of my friends’ dads worked for oil companies and it was normal for them to spend a couple of years living in other parts of the world, eventually coming back to Houston, only to leave again. My dad was an optometrist so we stayed in Houston as this revolving door kept turning, and life proceeded.  This pattern didn’t create the deep roots that I now know are vital to building real community. Neither did it create sustainable community wealth.

What is community wealth? It’s not just financial capital, which is certainly useful, it’s all the non-monetary capital (relationships, respect, trust, environmental, energy, knowledge, etc.) that create the basis of shared experiences leading to wisdom, empathy and community that transform a neighborhood from a collection of individual families sharing a ZIP code to a real community in which every member understands the purpose of Community is to produce the individual and mutual wellbeing of all the participants, in an ongoing way.

I had always felt something was missing from the marketing definition of community, that the surface story of green lawns and malls didn’t tell the whole story of the why of community and disconnected folks from the how of community. Those questions were answered for me both through personal experiments growing community in Austin and rural Oklahoma, and grounded in a deep education in the history and future of community from David Armistead, my business partner in Thriving Community Solutions.  David grew up in West Texas, was part of community building conversations in San Francisco, worked with Native American tribes and learned from Buckminster Fuller. From those experiences, David developed the flexible intellectual framework we’re using to create an inclusive, collaborative foundation for the unfolding path ahead.

The Seven Principles of a Rooted Community

The requirements to realize the community purpose in an ongoing (sustainable) fashion are:

  1. Community Social Contract – the social network among the participants in the community must continually self-organize up from a shared commitment, held by each participant, to coordinate their living together to produce community thriving. This is the principle of Community Social Contract.
  2. Integral Community – The community must be thought of by its participants as a complex adaptive system within itself, and as an element of the locally and globally interconnected ecosystem.
  3. Full Spectrum Capital – All basic capital forms (such as materials, energy, finance, labor, social capital and knowledge) must be fully considered in all community development activity.
  4. Community Wealth – The aggregate working capital stock, committed to provisioning the community to thrive both now and in the future, is the wealth of the community.
  5. Local Recirculation (i.e. Metabolic or Circular Economy) – This working capital needed within the local network of commerce for community thriving must be maintained in a working status.
  6. Local Co-Reliance – Community thriving must be produced primarily through the participants’ local coordination of their personal actions for effectively living life through locally emergent network of commerce that enables the community to progressively provision itself with the primary factors of living such as water, food, shelter, power, communications, education, and health.
  7. Eco-Balance – The eco-footprint required for the community to thrive must be balanced against the reproductive capacity of the local ecology. Failure to maintain this balance will break the recirculation of the natural capital of the community.

The Current Situation – Community Absence

It is a common observation that the predominant (i.e. – prior) world pattern has functioned in a way that has produced many places in which people live in close physical and functional proximity to one another, yet in that place they lack a meaningful experience of connection to their neighbors. These places lack community, and in these places the physicality of living in proximity is often confused for the functionality of community.

Wherever this occurs, the condition arises from the absence of the requirements for community. This often takes the form of this progressive decline:

  • collapse of the Community Social Contract
  • failure of Local Co-reliance
  • breakdown of Local Recirculation
  • collapse in the production of Community Wealth

This event flow drives an ever increasing systemic focus on ‘my, me, mine’ at the expense not only of the common good, but also of the systemic capacity to produce wellbeing for anyone, profoundly limiting community adaptability and sustainability.

In these places there is an ever increasing conversion of the wealth that naturally flows from the healthy activities of effective daily living out of community working capital and into financial assets that then concentrate in few hands. This oversimplifies the local network of commerce, diminishing and hollowing out the locally available jobs, which drives separation and isolation of the local residents from one another and from the real issues of provisioning life with food, water, shelter, education, finance, etc.

The result has been places that do not generate wellbeing, leaving most people in those places living in a daily struggle to make it, focused on finances and not wellbeing, often compromising their personal and family health for cash flow. And this happens across the whole range of economic classes.

These ‘hollowed out places’ do not thrive and do not enable thriving, regardless of how much financial activity may be engendered there.[i]

The Solution

Thriving now requires a local renewal (re-cultivation) of community. To move into this renewal requires a shift away from the old pattern that looked at community as an object (aggregated land, buildings and people), instead taking the more functional ‘new pattern’ view which looks at community as a dynamic social network of people coordinating their living of life together.

Seen through this lens, community can be defined as a social network in which the participants share, as a core element of their relationships, the tacit social contract to coordinate their living together so they jointly produce individual and shared wellbeing, community thriving, provisioning for thriving now and also in their shared future.

Where It’s Working

Braddock PA

Young entrepreneurs and artists have been lured by Braddock Redux’s vision: employ art and green initiatives, and recycle empty buildings. A prime example, in size and location, is the Ohringer Building on Braddock Avenue. When Braddock Redux offered free studio space in the 80-year-old structure, 30 artists showed up; foundations then gave grants for a redesign. Now, Braddock Redux owns and pays taxes on the property (though problems with a Duquesne Light transformer have kept upper floors dark). Down the block, a building still emblazoned with the flaking name Unsmoke provides seasonal workspace for other creative types. And the former St. Michael’s convent acts as a hostel for temporary visitors curious to connect with those creative pioneers.

As he sits next door to the community center in his loft lined with black-and-white photos of Braddock, John Fetterman admits that maintaining equilibrium between what long-term residents need and new ones want is tricky. “We need to achieve this balance between the community we have and the community we need to continue to grow in the right direction; that philosophy underpins everything we attempt to do. I’d say we’re right where we need to be.”

Spur TX

In July of 2014, Spur uniquely proclaimed itself as the Nation’s first “tiny” house friendly town, and the vision for what that implies is steadily becoming a reality.  We invited the tiny house community to settle in Spur because our little town is brimming with potential and opportunity.  The tiny house movement is full of creative innovation and has attracted do’ers from all walks of life who value self-sufficient sustainability and practical progress.  People who value lifestyle and community over the bustling anonymous over-worked and under-employed city life will find Spur very welcoming.

Spur is a classic West Texas town which has undergone a dramatic population drain to the big cities over the last few decades.  Once a town of several thousand, Spur has all the infrastructure you would expect of a city, with paved roads, city electric/water/sewage, and even fiber optic internet.  But with only about 1,000 people, the city has hundreds of vacant lots and abandoned buildings and several vacant commercial buildings.  It’s the perfect place for the next generation of pioneers with an open mindset to come and create something amazing while realizing their own aspirations.  We’re in a transitional stage right now and would love to come out of it ahead by ignoring the status quo and becoming a model for 21st century towns.

Modena/Reggio Emilia Italy

Reggio Emilia is one of the most prosperous economic areas of the country and is noted for its high standard of living and per capita income, which have always contributed to its excellent quality of life and social cohesion. The city and its surrounding territory enjoy a high level of employment, thanks to a network of small and medium-sized firms, which guarantee an excellent employment rate for graduates of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The sectors of Mechanics, Food and Agriculture (with products like the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, one of the gastronomical trademarks of the territory) represent a longstanding tradition and are world-renowned. In addition, more than 200 firms make up the “Mechatronic District”, the crowning glory of this province. The manufacturing industry is at the heart of the local economy, despite recent changes and the Globalization process. Reggio Emilia has also seen a progressive growth of activities connected to media and the arts (from design to dance, from the performing arts to communication, and from advertising to music), The talented people and companies operating in the sector enjoy widespread public attention. The city’s framework is becoming increasingly one of a “creative district” specialized in the new media, as witnessed by the city’s participation in the Urbact European Project on “Creative Clusters in Low Density Urban Areas”.

Neighborhood Centers Inc. Houston – East Aldine TX

People who grow up here love this place. At a community meeting led by Neighborhood Centers, a young man working on his GED declares that he wants to become a certified welder and put down roots. A woman who runs a beauty salon says, “I could have opened my business in The Woodlands, but my heart is here, in the Aldine area. I wanted my business to prosper in the community, with the community.”

What’s Next – Become a Community Weaver

We commonly hear the call for Community Builders or Community Makers. I propose that we become Community Weavers:

Wisdom to know a commitment to shared wellbeing is the core of community

Empathize with the struggles of others

Accept the responsibility for enacting change

Value the unique elements that make your community home

Engage with your community

Respond to opportunities

Share your solutions – https://resilience-exchange.sphaera.world/account/solutions

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post. I want this blog to become a platform for cooperative learning and action. Please let me know what’s working in your community, or, what’s not working, so we can collaborate on solutions in this unfolding story.



[i] Physical security is a fundamental aspect of wellbeing. Wherever thriving breaks down, physical security becomes destabilized and eroded. The less thriving is experienced in a place, the less physical security exists in that place. Simply possessing financial assets does not resolve this problem, but it does tend to mask how physical insecurity reduces the wellbeing of the upper class, who tend to respond to this by spending money on force strategies intended to provide physical security. These strategies cannot work. Only the regeneration of functional communities can begin to provision our common physical security.