Bounding Space, Defining Place

The word “community” is often linked to images of togetherness, cooperation and well-being. The thoughts that spring to our mind when we think of belonging to a community is comparable to a safe haven — a place where you’re looked after, where you consider home, or more primal, a place where your needs are met. However as we age, our grasp and access to a strong and tight-knit community can change. In some ways, it becomes harder as our own idea of where and how we want to belong to a group becomes nuanced. I often hear others my age sharing a similar sentiment of wanting to have a stronger sense of community in their lives but not understanding the process of obtaining it. Maybe it was my own intention and quest for “bringing community into my life” that explains why I was extremely attuned to the place and understanding that India carved out for the strength that was derived from community these past ten months.

Although community should never be seen as an end in itself, it can often serve as a tool for how we organize our lives. For example, I was lucky enough to find my own Kotagiri community through my placement at Keystone. We were co-workers who shared interests, dreamers who shared ideas about how to live life more sustainably, and individuals who were considering how to participate in more global conversations and ideas relevant to our ideals and value systems. The bounding of our place in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, was important. The purposeful placement of the organization and its work on the fringe of main society helped us, its inhabitants, create a community that emphasized community. More importantly, it allowed the founders of the organization, Matthew, Pratim and Sneh, to embrace a more localized approach to developing their eco-friendly, conservationist community through the eco-oriented projects of Keystone Foundation.

Attempt 1...
Attempts to get a good picture together at Keystone.

 

Attempt 2...
Attempt number 2…

Extrapolating from this idea of intentional placement of a community, one thing that has caught my eye in India has been alternative living or being theoretically bounded by a value system different or from a rejection from main societal ways. For example, Auroville in South India or Kashi in Florida are both infamous examples of intentional communities [1, 4]. For many, the term “intentional community” could immediately evoke thoughts of the hippie communes of the 60s and the 70s — a notion that’s misleading and not inclusive of the long history that intentional communities have built and flourished into. There are also the more contemporary versions of intentional communities such as gated communities or even closer to home: my host organization, Keystone. Although the formation of the latter examples are not based on a strong critique of society, their fundamental characteristics constitute a form of intentional community.

I’m eager to explain the formation of an intentional community as a phenomenon called “place-making.” According to Pierce et al. (2010), place-making is a “inherently networked process, constituted by the socio-spatial relationships that link individuals together through a common place-frame.” Meaning the process through which individuals create and recreate the multi-layered experiences of the geography that they live in [1]. A common theme between these communities is that it produces a stage from which residences can explore and articulate their critiques or praises of society. Theoretically, by personifying their statements against society, they gain agency towards their alternative ideologies [2]. My exposure to the unique ideas and my observations to the existence of intentional communities in the Indian context led me to think of questions like:

Are the ideas defining the intentional community grassroots or are they ideas and alternative modes of living brought in from outside?

Why did the community form?

What does the community promote?

Why does the community need to exist? Or rather, is its existence necessary?

As a way to keep exploring some of these questions, I visited Auroville, a social experiment started in the late 1900s in South India. At Auroville, the movement towards a more sustainable ecology has become a fundamental component to the makeup of their community. What you find in Auroville is a dramatic diversity of expectations and visions for the future of human-kind, both material and non-material. Perhaps what remains from their proclaimed utopian roots is the community’s aspiration for human unity, self-growth, and the principles outlined by founder, “The Mother.” Their vision states that it “wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.” [3]

Matrimandir, a physical entity symbolizing the values of Auroville. Picture credit: www.auroville.org

I spent the day learning more about how Auroville was able successfully transform the dusty wasteland into an vibrant eco-system of around 405 hectares littered with organic farms, dairies, orchards, and wildlife areas. And how the inhabitants combat problems like water scarcity and deforestation through innovative techniques (one involving up-cycling their own waste to use as soil for new trees!). Through the course of the day, I found my interest in diving deeper on place-making as informed by my own experiences at Keystone and the existence of a space like Auroville. Meaning how is it that organizations and communities like this were able to generate a place that incorporated the role of self-making simply by determining its physical boundaries.

I observed some motivations that were consistent amongst the Aurovillians that I interacted with. Although not inclusive of all the diverse lines of thought, one key motivation for joining was their desire to lead a more socially and responsible lifestyle that they felt was not typically available in the mainstream rural or urban environments. Another more intangible goal was their commitment and desire for self-transformation and self-betterment.

This is not uncommon, a lot of research on place-making and space explain that intentional communities are bounded by common interests [1, 2]. Many of its inhabitants join with clear intentions of what they want to share and gain from their interactions and how they want to make use of the actual space.

However, a widely known critique remains for any intentional communities, which is:  If intentional communities are often based on a critique of society, then where and what is the space for them to contribute to a discourse on vast socio-political and environmental change? Auroville and Keystone have both shown how they focus on sculpting and grooming their immediate environment and surroundings to fit certain ideals. However, is a localized resistance and approach to a widely accepted critique a viable option to creating change on a greater level?

Although I cannot conclude this discussion of intentional communities with quantitative assessments of their success in breeding or catalyzing social change, I can for now speak to my experiences of finding and observing community in India. My visit to Auroville and my own experience creating, living, and breathing as a member of an intentional community — I do recognize that intentional communities offer important insights into a set of socially critical strategies. They are created with a thoughtful mindset and bring in principles that are: non-violent, self-critical, and responsible forms of critique. Ultimately what such communities offer is the chance for individuals to reinvent the way that people interact with the human and natural world. To others looking in, on the edge, or in both worlds how beautiful Is it to explore and simultaneously witness possible and transformative futures.

 

Works Cited

[1]  Pierce, J., Martin, D.G., J. T (2010). “Relational Place-Making: The Networked Politics of Place.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers – Royal Geographical Society 36: p. 54–70.

[2] Agnew, J.A. (1987). Place and Politics: The Geographical Meditation of State and Society. 1st ed. London: Routledge.

[3] N.A. (2014). “A Dream: Envisioning an Ideal Society.” Auroville.org. Upd. 13 Apr 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.auroville.org/contents/197.

Shruti comes to the AIF Fellowship from Madison, WI with a Bachelor of Science degree in Neurobiology and Psychology. Her interest in the health and wellness of marginalized populations developed while volunteering at a village hospital in an Indian village. Since then, Shruti has deepened her experience in instigating community-oriented health initiatives by working as the outreach and health education coordinator at a mental advocacy. She also worked as an honorary research associate at a radiology stroke lab following graduation. Shruti is eager to use the skills she gained to keep building a foundation of meaningful engagement with the country of her birth.

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