CCRES Key Elements of the Good Community


Key Elements of the Good Community


Did you ever stop to think about what makes your community a good place to live? On the other hand, it may be you don’t think you live in a good community. If you don’t think so, what is it about the community you don’t like? Is it the people, the traffic and congestion, the housing, the services, a combination-what is it?

To answer these questions, one must have criteria or an ideal of what comprises a good community. You are not likely to criticize what is, unless you think something better is possible. Thus, most everyone has an ideal community in mind that would theoretically be a good place to live.

Most people seldom talk or write about the good community because it seems too abstract. Community is often viewed as a location, a set of services, or a complex of buildings. Few authors tackle the more complicated version of the community-that is, what makes it a good place to live. Cottrell, Doxiadis, Goodman, Haworth, Sanders and Warren are exceptions who have examined the more subjective aspects of the good community. We shall return to some of their ideas.

It is likely everybody wants to live in a good community. It appears they always have. The desire and efforts of people to control and improve their living conditions have a long history. The community, in a historical context, was synonymous with the family or tribe. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people were living in small villages or towns where there was a general consensus of beliefs, moral values, and behavior (Saunders 1986). Social groups and individuals shared a way of life and were in general agreement on what constituted good and evil. Alienation and personal estrangement, which many in modern society encounter, were not common occurrences (Saunders 1986). Today, these topics are frequently discussed and many proposals are being developed to assist people in their quest for the “good life.” The good community is an integral part of this search.

Crime, alienation, fear, and dissatisfaction are only some of the symptoms of undesirable community life which cause concern, and in some instances, become the motivating forces for seeking ways to improve communities. It is one thing to examine the negative aspects of a community, but, it is equally important to consider the factors which promote cooperation and a spirit of helpfulness to others in the community (Hunter 1978, Korte 1983, Saunders 1986, Warren 1978, Gillette & McCollum 1990). It is easier, in both cases, to see the effect of these factors than it is to understand the development and consequences of them. Vivrett (1971) notes in an article concerned with planning:

Today, you and I may not know that we can build a wholly ideal community, one that can reconcile the cleavages of class, race, age, and style of life of the multitude that comprises the American people. But, we must believe that it is possible.

This view of what is possible, whether realistic or not, is positive in the belief that the good community should be strongly sought.

Key Elements of the Good Community

Because the good community is an ideal, there is no such community in existence. But the good community serves as a standard, a guideline, or as a goal to be achieved. It allows people in each community to use their imagination to conceive their own ideal community, to be sought by their own efforts. Using imagination to consider the good community frees one to examine and possibly arrive at a set of traits or features that characterize the good community. It would seem logical that if a community is to achieve goodness, it must reform itself so that these traits are present. It is not possible to specify the exact manner in which the traits must appear for a particular community to take on goodness. This can be done only by local residents, perhaps with the aid of specialists, making a detailed study of conditions in that particular community. It is likely conditions in any given community will be sufficiently unique for the sense of community to take a different form than it takes in any other place (Haworth 1972). Nine key elements of the good community identified by practitioners, scholars and researchers are discussed.


The first key element of the good community is that it must be a safe place to live. Suttles (1972) identified this principle when he noted: “Understandably, people want to live in a “good area” where they feel reasonably safe….” and further supported by Weeks (1992).

Safety is always relative. No place is absolutely safe. Tornadoes and earthquakes can, without warning, devastate an entire community. Flooding waters have submerged entire communities. People generally can accept natural disasters religiously, philosophically, or fatalistically. But residents of many communities can and do take precautions by building tornado warning systems, storm shelters, flood walls, or emergency centers. The good community is a place where responsible persons plan sensible response programs for uncontrollable natural events.

Secondly, residents of the good community are entitled to be free of unnecessary traffic and other community hazards; to have a safe water supply and clean air to breathe; and a safe place to work. Citizens of most communities have long enjoyed these features and tend to take them for granted. But overcrowding and environmental concerns have made a safe physical environment of paramount concern. Most communities can benefit from examining potential hazards.

A third area involves safety from crimes. Data from the Uniform Crime Reports note that crimes during the last decade have increased every year. Violent crimes increased sharply, as did property crimes. A growing crime problem reduces the safety of citizens and their property. An indicator of the good community is a low crime rate.

A safe community is the highest priority of a citizenry (Maslow 1976, Weeks 1992). Only when people are trapped or have virtually no other alternatives will they endure an unsafe community. How safe is your community? Do you have environmental concerns or crime problem? Do you have adequate police and fire protection? Have you taken precautions, where possible, to prevent unwarranted damage from natural causes?

Goods and Services

A second highly important element of the good community is that residents must have access to those goods and services necessary to sustain them at a level acceptable to them (Wise & Williams 1981). People are first of all biological creatures that must be fed, clothed and housed to sufficient levels to sustain life. Above that, it is choice. But people should have a choice in the good community. This may lead them to commute for employment or migrate for better services as they individually seek the good life.

Goods and services are of such a varied nature that no attempt will be made to elaborate all possibilities here. Most people know when their water supply is inadequate in quantity and quality. The good community, ideally, would provide all such goods and services in plentiful supply at a price residents could afford. However, realistically, one trades off one advantage for another. Each of us in our own way seeks a balance to these tradeoffs. The good community offers as many options as possible.

Relationships That Bind Citizens Together

The real community is not the streets, the buildings or city hall-it’s people interacting or relating. Physical attributes are important, but they do not make a good community. Residents of an area having satisfactory relationships make a community good. It is not only important that individuals live in close proximity to one another but that the life of each interacts and impacts the lives of others. The interrelationships that bind the inhabitants together are substantial facts with which all must contend.

Interrelationships can be positive or they can be negative. They can also be minimal or absent. Warren (1975) described the lack of interrelationships in a neighborhood where an individual does not know neighbors, where one is anonymous, and where there is the greatest freedom from curious neighbors. This area also had the highest suicide rate of any area in the city (Durkheim 1951).

The lack of interrelationship among residents is a function of the metropolitan area and increasing distinction from local community (Warner and Lunt 1941; Weber 1946; Vidich & Bensman 1958). However, Suttles (1972) emphasized new sentiments and loyalties in a Chicago neighborhood formed the basis of social order. Regardless of location, urban or rural, the interrelationships in a neighborhood or community provide the resident an opportunity to interact. It is impossible to have one’s life interrelated with that of every person- even when living in a small village. It may not even be desirable in some cases. The good community provides all citizens the opportunity to have as many sharing experiences as they desire.

Hunter (1978) states that industrial societies are seeking civilization for which they have not as yet found a firm framework of moral and social values, or definite forms of social life. This may be why traditional peasant values, ways of life, and social institutions in rural communities still appeal so strongly to emotion and remain so strikingly evocative in today’s world (Hunter 1978). The key element of the good community to be identified in this discussion is that the relationships of residents must be of the character that bind people together.

Inter-relatedness simply means caring or concern for what happens to other people in the community. Terms such as cohesiveness, gemeinschaft, solidarity and “folks society” are examples used in the literature that has linked to the idea of a caring relationship. What are these relationships? How are they expressed in a typical community? Patterns that tend to emphasize similarity of purpose generally promote inter relatedness. In a rural community, often agriculture tends to bind people together. Likewise, a dominant religious or ethnic identity provides the common thread. Community projects, such as a community swimming pool built by citizens’ contributions and participation, is another way people are often pulled together. The point is-those things that cause people to be concerned with each other’s well-being help to build cohesion in a group.

Commonalty of Values and Goals

Another aspect of behavior that bind people together are holding similar values and seeking common goals.

The most obvious and easily identified examples of communities with common values which provide a close bond for people are the religious communities. For example, the Hutterite communities which are now found in several Western states and in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, still reflect the original pattern of social organization developed by one of the founders of the sect, Jacob Hutter. The basis of the original communities were pacifism, adult baptism, communal sharing of goods and property, and exclusiveness. The common religious beliefs, which include the belief in self help and therefore the limitation of contact in and involvement in the world, have led to the communities being physically isolated from the surrounding settlements and society but equally important, socially isolated.

The Hutterites also believe that the perfect society can be established now if the correct principles are employed. These principles stress the denial of individual accumulations of wealth. The communal holding of property and wealth in the manner of the early Christian disciples is the only form of ownership permitted. The stability and continuity of this communal organization are a product of the religious ideology and the pattern of life isolating them from the changes taking place in the rest of the world. The Hutterite communities have been increasing in number for over four hundred years (Thomas 1976).

The view that the residents of the good community must have a commonalty that binds them together is a widely held view. Haworth (1972) states that there is no sense of community unless people join together in valuing something. “The common value that unites them may be a goal they all consider worth achieving, so that each by noticing the identity of his objective with that of others, develops a kinship with them”.

An example of one community unified by a goal or common value is given by Poston (1972) in his article, “Creating the Ideal Community.” Although dated, it exemplifies the principles of community commonality. Poston described the rural community of Winlock, Washington and its efforts to look at all aspects of the community’s total makeup. A series of meetings were held to take an attitude survey on “What Makes Winlock Tick?” Citizens gave answers to pointed questions concerning their innermost thoughts about their local problems. Within a few weeks virtually all the residents became absorbed in the development effort as the public discussions spread through the community and became the most important topic of local conversation. In this process, the people of Winlock taught themselves about local problems and learned about their common values.

The first project they chose was that of cleaning up the cemetery. For many years, one of the local organizations had called for a cemetery cleanup day, but each year only a few people participated. This had become a symbol of defeat. An elaborate proposal for cleaning and landscaping the cemetery was presented to the community and adopted unanimously with a date set for the action to begin. At 7:00 a.m. on the specified date the people started to come and within two hours, more than 500 men, women, and children of all social groups were involved with the project. The cemetery was hallowed ground, and in it there was a vivid connection between the past, present, and future of their community. What they had done was far more than clean up a cemetery-they had transformed a symbol of defeat into a symbol of victory.

Other projects were planned and implemented. Within less than a year after the cemetery cleanup was accomplished, the community brought in a new manufacturing plant with more than a hundred jobs and an annual payroll of one million dollars. This plant was the first in a series of new plants the community acquired to create still more jobs. The residents learned that all aspects of community life are interdependent, and they got action on every front-new community facilities, school improvements, recreational programs, adult education, expanded retail trade, the passage of bond issues to meet long neglected needs, and a long list of other projects in which the whole community worked with a oneness that inspired many other communities.

Residents of the small rural village of Pandora, Ohio have held an annual fall festival for many years. It is an annual fund raising event for improving outdoor recreation facilities in the community. Not only do all the residents in the area benefit by improved recreation facilities, but they gain the feelings of kinship associated with reaching their goals. Many communities have events such as festivals or auctions to raise financial resources for a specific project. These events become central to the community because the receiving entity, in turn, provides services and resources to the community.

The essence of these examples are summarized by Haworth when he notes: “It is indispensable to the community that its members have a common value, a common regard for something, and this regard is a mental act in the life of each, an affair of his consciousness. But the community that results from the sharing of a value is visible. The sharing itself is overt and public. A community, as a community, may be seen. The fact of community makes a difference to the world, not merely to the minds of people” (1972).

The key element in this discussion may be generalized: Residents of the good community must have a commonalty that binds them together.

Whole Person Principle

Haworth suggests some people view a community very superficially and see the human settlement as merely a band of people who chanced to settle down together in one place. When this happens we see concern mainly for providing the inhabitants with various amenities-housing, educational and recreational facilities, open spaces, or eradicating various objectionable facilities, as congested streets, slums, or areas of blight. These are important. But looking in greater depth, a person can identify underlying forces in a human settlement that nurtures the blight or the congestion. These forces stem from flaws in the social structure of the settlement. “When a settlement is regarded only as a geographical fact, not as a social fact, there usually is a preoccupation with the symptoms of problems whose causes are not even sought” (1972).

Warren addresses this element in a slightly different way. He discusses the importance of primary relationships. There is a sense of community in a group of people who know one another well. “Knowing well” means the full patterns of functional social relationships which people may have with one another. We must know the shopkeeper or teacher not only as such, but also as persons-whether or not they pay their debts, are responsible for their children, or what they think of the school system (1975). Perhaps this is summarized by stating that people should know each other personally and should deal with each other as whole persons. Social relationships can then be fulfilling to individuals in a community.

Warren believes that the development of encounter groups, sensitivity training groups, and related groups are attempts to overcome the impersonality of human contacts in industrial societies which are in the more advanced stages of the “great change.” Recently, many communal groups have been formed basically to develop “authentic” social relationships. It is important to note that they are deliberate attempts to restructure the totality of community living, obviously involving a radical rejection of the various aspects of the highly developed society.

The key element to be identified here is the “whole person relationship.” Stated as a generalization, in the good community, people are treated as “whole persons.” This key element is akin to the principle of inter-relatedness. However, one might interrelate in several ways with his community but still be treated as a fragmented person. The “whole person” principle is almost at the other end of the continuum from the fragmentation that often occurs in the anonymity of large city environments.


Predictability of life in a settlement may be taken for granted by many people, but it is an important principle of the good community. Predictability is a product of familiarity. Most of us prefer to be aware of and understand emotionally the scheme of life in our community. We have only to experience strange vehicles or unusual noises and we gain some appreciation of the fact that most of us like to understand what’s happening and its relationship to us. It was simpler in earlier times to know what was happening. Village as well as personal were predictable. Each person’s daily routine would bring one into contact with most of the village’s affairs. Few persons engaged in ventures in which one was not habitually engaged. Little in the settlement was hidden from residents. The village became the world to the individual-visible and familiar-and one could live with a sure sense of place in it (Haworth 1972).

Change and technology have altered many of the predictable dimensions of our communities. As smaller communities become integrated into a large-scale society, our ethnocentrism (values, beliefs, etc.) declines and our freedom to act unobserved is increased. We lose comfort and emotional security. Some critics of the small community contend we also lose the intellectual sterility of smaller places. Regardless of any intellectual gain or loss, the level of anxiety rises. This anxiety is to a large degree a product of not being able to predict many aspects of one’s daily life.

Minar and Greer (1969) feel in this crisis of unpredictability, there is promise of community, and there is a threat to its loss. The promise is our communication systems make possible a kind of unity over great territories and our educational systems make possible a kind of integration among highly differentiated people never known before. The authors feel that we need to invent new styles of community to cope with growing diversity or community can be lost. New ways for people to reduce anxiety must include greater predictability and routine in their lives.

In summary, the principle of this discussion suggests that in the good community, most day-to-day relationships must be highly predictable.

A Recognized Place in the Social Structure

Earlier in history, the extended family was considered to be a settlement and had a great influence on areas which we now consider the affairs of the community such as religion, education, art, politics, and work. Each family member had a definite place and a set of rights and duties that surrounded one’s birth. Each person was remembered and considered not only in life but after death. The early family and settlements had a strong sense of history. This awareness of history helped individuals to view themselves as constituting a family, which transcended each and all of them (Haworth 1972).

Small communities frequently display a homogeneity in patterns of belief, attitude and behavior of its members, but this does not mean that individuals are carbon copies of one another. One notices that there is a pattern of tolerance or perhaps begrudging respect for certain nonconformists whose virtues, flaws, or preferences make them what novelist Sherwood Anderson called local characters. He gives us a picture of a lonely bachelor who had withdrawn from village life, the man who loved to argue, the spinster teacher, the town drunk, and the woman who made it her business to judge everyone’s morals. Even though villages seem to insist on a general consensus of political, economic and moral issues, there is still a place for everyone in the social structure.

People have, as a rule, an immense ability to adjust to their earned or assigned place in the community. One’s place in the social relationships of the community may be high or low by some criteria, but having a recognized place-to be known for something-is important to everyone. Loneliness is a well known product of a lack of personal recognition in a community.

The key element revealed in this discussion suggest: In the good community, each member has a recognized place within the social structure.

A community of 3,000 people in southern Ohio illustrates this principle. A resident of some 60 years of age has been mentally retarded all his life. But Harold has a place in the community. Everybody knows him and of his condition. He is self-sufficient in terms of physically caring for himself but has been on welfare all his life. He is mentally unable to hold a regular job. He has the freedom of the community and spends most of his days on the main street of town, greeting people as they pass. Most people accept Harold for who he is and his circumstances. He has a place in the community and people care about him in the sense that his place in the social structure be maintained. Without a community that cared, Harold would be institutionalized. Harold’s community has also produced a president of a large state University. If you ask him today about Harold, he could talk to you at length about him. The opposite of what is being discussed is anonymity. Anonymity is people not caring what happens to you except in a very generalized way.


The opportunities available to an individual in one’s community are greatly influenced by cultural, ethnic, religious, political, educational, industrial, commercial, familial, and recreational institutions in the community. Community life is formed by the activities which these institutions encourage. Each institution has a reason for being-to worship, to instruct, to govern, to entertain or to amuse. The richness of opportunity for rewarding work, satisfying play, learning, creating, and worshipping is dependent upon the community’s institutions.

Ebenezer Howard proposed that garden cities be built around a central city in which there would be a university, various museums, churches, libraries, shops of all kinds, parks and playgrounds, theaters, places of amusement, all of which would be genuinely accessible to the individual (1945). Obviously, the proximity to these enhancing activities are limited by population density. However, the advent of highways, transportation, telephones, radio, television, movies, libraries, postal systems, satellite communications, and many other such conveniences makes accessibility to the products and services of a modern society available to residents of almost any community. Commuting has become a way of life for many Americans. They choose to live where they wish and commute to employment.

The good community provides sufficient opportunities for growth and fulfillment as desired by residents. The desire of residents will vary according to the culture, the customs and the tastes of a particular locality. It will require rock music for some, country music or opera for others, and silence for the remainder. The vast number of different church groups attest to the accessibility of religious opportunity, even in the remotest communities. The good community is good because people have the opportunity to grow and be fulfilled.

Some local communities have such distinctive opportunities themselves that the lure of the large metropolitan area is lessened. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is known throughout this country for its annual Bach Festival. The community is involved throughout the year in preparation for the performance of a major musical work during the month of May. Bethlehem has achieved distinction and praise for its efforts in this area. The music festival is valued and supported by a large segment of the community.


At the beginning of the 20th century, many reformers and planners looked to the suburb as the hope of America and salvation of its cities. Suburban growth exceeded the expectations of planners, community developers, politicians, and others concerned. The 1970 census recorded a total of 76 million suburban residents compared to 64 million urbanites and 63 million people in rural areas. Many Americans are attracted to suburban areas because of their basic anti-urban bias demonstrated by their general hostility to the scale, culture, and life styles of big cities.

Some attribute the anti-urban bias as a component to the “rural turnaround.” First documentation of the “rural turnaround” was in the early 1970s. People from urban and suburban areas moved to small, rural areas in higher numbers than those leaving the area. While these people aspire to leave the urban area, they still desire the amenities and opportunities connected with urban areas, such as emergency services, high quality education, access to shopping, and responsive government. With improved transportation, suburban and rural areas have become alternative to urban living.

Another lure of the suburbs and rural areas is associated with the fact that most Americans have consistently sought to live in communities with others like themselves. Dolce notes: “While our national image is one of ethnic and cultural diversity, on a community level we have tended to prefer homogeneity. However, there never have been any general rules on which groups were to be excluded. That depended on the times and the particular suburb under consideration. These attitudes, working in concern, have encouraged Americans to seek communities of like-minded residents within which to raise their families, and an environment as far removed from congested urban centers as their jobs and finances would carry them. The lure of the suburbs, therefore is, an expression of a pervasive anti-urban bias in one of the most highly urbanized nations of the world, and it is an affirmation of the American commitment to homogeneity in the midst of ethnic and cultural diversity” (1976).

Gans (1967) suggests that heterogeneity (age, race and class) has been advocated for at least four reasons:

It adds variety to an area and thus enriches the lives of residents.
It promotes tolerance of social and cultural differences.
It provides a broadening educational influence on children.
It encourages exposure to alternative ways of life (1967).
Records indicate, in the past at least, homogeneity has been most people’s free choice. Thus, the merits of this approach will not be discussed except to note Gans recommendations. He suggests that the optimum solution, at least in communities of homeowners who are raising small children, is selective homogeneity at the block level and heterogeneity at the community level. “Whereas a mixture of population types, and especially of rich and poor, is desirable in the community as a whole, heterogeneity on the block will not produce the intended tolerance, but will lead to conflict that is undesirable because it is essentially insoluble and thus becomes chronic” (1967). This discussion suggests the following generalization: The good community is homogeneous enough to prevent conflict between neighbors, but heterogeneous enough to create some diversity.


Earlier in this bulletin, nine key elements of the good community have been elaborated. They are herein listed.

The “good community”:

offers residents a safe place to live.
offers access to those goods and services necessary to sustain residents at a level acceptable to them.
must have relationships of the character that bind people together.
must have a commonalty of values and goals that helps residents pull together.
is a place where people are treated as “whole”persons.
is a place where the day-to-day relationships among residents are highly predictable.
has a recognized place within the social structure for each member.
provides sufficient opportunities for growth and fulfillment.
is homogeneous enough to prevent conflict between neighbors but heterogeneous to create some diversity.
No claim is made as to the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of the key elements of the good community. What is suggested is that they are among the elements that make a community “good,” at least from the residents’ point of view.


Leaders in most communities spend their time wrestling with day-to-day issues such as improving a community’s water supply or seeking new industry or scores of other such activities. Often this is done without anyone really asking the question-What is the problem we are trying to solve? Obviously, in many cases, the problem is apparent. There is insufficient water of undesirable quality to meet the residents needs. But in many cases, the problem isn’t so clear-cut. Instead of seeking new industry, perhaps a more logical question would be: What does this community really need to improve the life of local residents? Is it jobs? Is it a park? Is it lower taxes? Or, is it a better evening program for youth and adults in the local schools? What could we do to really improve our collective lives?

The purpose of this paper have been to stimulate people, like yourself, to ask these questions. You vary well may be on the right course of action. A few minutes talking to your fellow citizens and thinking about it, will help you to know.


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