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Is Community Just Another Commodity?

Todd Litman's picture
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A commodity is something that is normally bought and sold. Not everything is a commodity. Sure, most people need to purchase a certain amount of food, clothing and housing, but many other things that we value are not for sale.

For example, simply purchasing exercise equipment will not make you physically fit – it requires effort. Similarly, health, safety, education, rewarding personal relationships, community and our satisfaction with life are aspirations that depend more on our behavior than on how much we spend.

This is not to deny that a certain amount of money is helpful, for example, to afford good food, safe vehicles, and adequate schools, but spending more does not guarantee greater success. In fact, as we become materially wealthier, the benefits from additional spending tends to decline – we are often better off spending less money and more time on the activities we care about.

For example, it is common for people to work extra hard so they can afford an exotic holiday that they think need to recover from the stress of work. They would probably be better reducing their work hours, and the stress in their life, even if this requires accepting a less glamorous but cheaper holiday.

This has important implications for planning. There are two, mutually exclusive visions of "paradise." One envisions paradise as a commodity, a distant place that you can buy (for a home or cottage) or rent (as a holiday destination) if you can afford it. The more you spend, the closer you get to real paradise. This is the perspective that we commonly see in holiday and real estate advertising. Publications, such as "Sperlings Best Places" (www.bestplaces.net), claim to identify the cities that are best for certain groups or activities (such as "Best Cities For Seniors" and "Romantic Cities for Baby Boomers").

That perspective reflects the idea that people should continually move from one place to another, until they find the "best," and there is noting wrong with spoiling a place if you can afford to replace it with one that is better. This discourages people from putting their heart and soul into a particular location.

The other vision perceives paradise as something we create within our own community, by developing friendships, social institutions, businesses, services and a healthy environment. From this perspective, paradise is not a commodity, it is the outcome of the effort we invest into people and the build and natural environment in a particiular place.

The challenge facing planners is to help build a vision that every community can become paradise.

 

For more information see:

Todd Litman (2007), Community Cohesion As A Transport Planning Objective, VTPI (www.vtpi.org); and www.vtpi.org/cohesion.pdf.

Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

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