Words by Allyssia Alleyne.
Community is just a direct debit away. At a time when we are increasingly detached from one another (a 2015 study found only 13% of Brits aged 25 to 39 knew the names of their five closest neighbors), a glut of premium spaces have emerged that count connection and collaboration among their amenities—from coworking spaces and co-living complexes to members’ clubs and lifestyle hotels. Buy in and you’re not just gaining access to a space: You’re getting the chance to be a part of something bigger.
In these spaces, it’s assumed, you’ll find people with similar interests, values and backgrounds. You’ll work, drink or go to gong baths together. However, a skepticism seems to follow. On a company homepage or investor deck, “community”—like “identity” or “family” can seem like another pillar of private life, appropriated and commodified.
The question arises: Can you ever really manufacture community? Consider, for example, an internal WeWork study titled Are Our Members Friends?, published in 2017, which found that “the average WeWork member isn’t socially connected with others in their building.” Sixty-nine percent of members reported they had no friends at WeWork beyond their colleagues, and few could identify many other members by name.1
“We use ‘community’ in so many ways,
it’s a really slippery term.”
Our notions of community extend beyond friendship, however. “We use ‘community’ in so many ways, it’s a really slippery term,” says Clay Spinuzzi, a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin. As an example, he points to the different connotations of the word at a place of worship, a gated community, and in the LGBTQ+ community. With a concept so open to interpretation, corporate entities are given ample room to redefine it for their benefit.
The idea of selling community is nothing new. The developers of master-planned residential communities—from the UK’s 20th-century garden city movement to modern suburban developments—have long lured prospective residents with the promise of community.
“It is an ideal type of community that resonates in the collective imagination, recalling a romanticized view of a small town or village setting,” academics at the University of Queensland wrote in a 2008 study into contemporary planned estates in Australian suburbs. “While residents have little requirement or desire, and few excess resources, to devote to the establishment of durable social relationships or civic norms within the boundaries of the development; the process by which the developer creates an illusion, or ‘sense’ of community plays an important role in the establishment of a subjective sense of ontological security for residents.”
“This outcome,” they continue, “is to the benefit of both resident and developer. The developer’s brand and reputation is enhanced and the resident remains unencumbered by any need for commitment to a local ‘commons.’”
In Spinuzzi’s experience, would-be community-creators often struggle to concretely explain what the word means to them. For a 2018 article published in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Spinuzzi and a team of researchers interviewed and observed coworkers, community managers and other employees at coworking spaces in the United States, Italy and Serbia to find out what “community” meant to them in practical terms.
Across the board, participants used the term inconsistently, encompassing everything from socializing and knowledge-sharing to merely working alongside another person; and members seemed divided in what they wanted out of their community experience. Where one person wanted companionship, Spinuzzi says, another just wanted a quiet place to work without their dogs interrupting.
“I’m not sure that community
is a thing you can sell—it’s more
of a feeling.”
What the operators of these spaces offer, he suggests, is the opportunity for individuals to have their diverse needs met in an environment that feels both personal and collaborative, and within structures they neither have to develop nor sustain—conditions that don’t often emerge organically. “There’s a lot of what is sometimes called mutual adjustment.… I think a community manager, or a community team, has to be involved in that to make sure that everybody’s still pointed in the same direction,” Spinuzzi says.
Ben Prevezer is the cofounder and CEO of boutique co-living company Mason & Fifth, which currently operates a 28-unit space in southeast London (most rooms are leased for at least three months, but others can be booked by the night). He says he is acutely aware of the distrust of commoditized communities.
“I’m not sure that community is a thing you can sell—it’s more of a feeling,” he says. “We’re not like, ‘Here is a community for you to plug straight into and become part of.’” Initially, Prevezer saw the company’s role as curating experiences, such as supper clubs, craft nights and talks, but he now considers it to be more a case of facilitating the community to do this themselves. While plans do still come from the top (he’s taking the lead on an upcoming wild swimming and camping trip), Mason & Fifth regularly hosts events instigated and led by residents, including a photography class and life drawing.
Patch, a group of coworking spaces with three locations in southeast England, is on a similar mission to create hubs for community-building, though its definition of community extends beyond its fee-paying members. “One way that we frame what we’re trying to do is that we want to become a lighthouse for local life—to be a space in the community where people can come to connect, to discover new ideas, to work, to socialize,” says Paloma Strelitz, Patch’s head of product and creative director.
A cofounder of the Turner Prize–winning collective Assemble, best known for its socially minded public projects, Strelitz believes Patch’s spaces should support local initiatives to foster community, rather than create separate siloed communities with its members.2 To that end, the team has adopted an open-door policy, inviting the public and local organizations to use their facilities for free or at reduced rates, subsidized by the fee-paying tenants.
“The first and fundamental point of learning from my Assemble experience is that there are fantastic people everywhere you go doing interesting and engaging things,” Strelitz says. “Every place [Patch goes] to, we understand that it is our responsibility to reach out and build relationships.”
Still, for all of their positive intentions, such spaces, driven by profit and primed to scale, can feel contrived. Perhaps, on a fundamental level, we think of communities as more, well, communal, in the way of a kibbutz or a co-op, or a particularly cohesive house share. Rather than a top-down approach—where members pay for and rely on outside agents to facilitate connection for their own gain—should community members be working together to determine their needs and find ways to address them collaboratively?
This is the model embraced by the artist-led Cubitt gallery in Islington, north London, which counts Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and Ingrid Pollard as alums. The 32 members renting its affordable studio spaces each take on a job, such as building maintenance or fundraising, to help keep costs down, and further the organization’s mission through participation in internal committees. Similarly, residents of the Old Hall Community, housed in a former friary in Suffolk, pool resources, dine together, and put in 15 hours of work a week to maintain the house and its gardens.
This model can have surprising longevity. Cubitt and the Old Hall have been going strong since 1991 and 1974 respectively, while the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association—one of the largest co-ops in North America—has provided at-cost room and board to the Ohio college’s student body for nearly 75 years.3
Whether corporate-run communities can ever deliver something similar is, Spinuzzi explains, difficult to determine. “Authenticity, kind of like community, is really hard to pin down. I think people are going to have their own definitions, and those definitions evolve over time,” he says. “It depends on what the [community managers and members] mean by community, and if those ideas are synchronized.”
As is always the case in the free market, the value of such communities has less to do with the product itself, than with what consumers take away from it. But a degree of mutual investment could be essential for delivering long-lasting personal returns.