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University of Basel

More! (02/2021)

Stronger together.

Text: Noƫmi Kern

Bonding together with like-minded people is part and parcel of human nature. What this can achieve can be seen in the example of the Gundeldinger Feld development in Basel. Far from being a threat, growing and heterogeneous societies actually represent an opportunity in this context.

View from above of the outdoor terrace of a restaurant and other buildings of the Gundeldinger Feld.
The Gundeldinger Feld in Basel. (Photo: Martin Zeller)

Goooaaal! The crowd cheers, and the stadium is filled with a collective euphoria. The love of soccer and “their” club turns the spectators into allies — into a society. What’s more, this happens despite — or precisely because of — the fact that they barely know one another. When they part ways after the game, they might never see each other again.

Oto Potluka is well-versed in these social phenomena. Working at the Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) of the University of Basel, the political scientist conducts research into how societies are formed and what makes them stronger or weaker. Sport is a particularly good example of the dynamics of community building: “It’s the lowest common denominator for the people in the stadium. Other things can emerge from this euphoria, but they don’t necessarily have to,” he says.

At the same time, it’s not only feelings of success that can create a sense of community. On the contrary, negative experiences can be an even stronger driver of this effect: “Crises such as the coronavirus pandemic encourage cohesion,” he says. “In these circumstances, people are prepared to give each other a helping hand.” It makes you realize that you would also be glad of assistance if you found yourself in a difficult situation.

After all, humans are social beings. We want to group together with like-minded people and pursue a common goal. This leads to the formation of communities — both formally organized ones, such as associations, and loose groupings, such as a group of people playing a round of cards. What matters is the level of commitment: “The key thing is that people are active. Only then can a community emerge,” says Potluka.

The fact that collective action can lead to great things is demonstrated by Gundeldinger Feld, a private urban development project in the “Gundeli” district of Basel. The project was the subject of a case study by Oto Potluka that aimed to examine how social innovation can play a successful role in urban development.

United by a common goal

It all began when an engineering company moved away 20 years ago. “The uncertainty surrounding the future of the site and how this would affect life in the district raised concerns among residents,” says Potluka. In order to find a solution that worked for the local area, five people got together. They began thinking about the site’s future. Their idea was for it to become a space where local residents could meet.

Instead of simply putting their own ideas into practice, the initiators asked other people about their wants and needs. In the process, some people also expressed worries and fears. “That’s only possible if people communicate with one another,” says Potluka, who is convinced that communication and mutual trust are vital to forming functioning communities.

Various interest groups had the chance to get involved in the Gundeldinger Feld development, although this participation also led to conflicts: The more people are involved, the more disparate are the aims they hope to fulfil. At the same time, however, community involvement also represented an opportunity: “Resources grow as more people get involved — and people are united by a common goal,” says Potluka. He suspects that the opportunity to help shape the project resulted in greater public acceptance than if an investor had implemented their vision for the site unilaterally.

Still, nothing would have been possible without money. The initiators drew on their own networks in order to identify companies that might be interested in becoming tenants or investors. Today, Gundeldinger Feld is home to — among other things — a day care center, bars and restaurants, a brewery, a climbing hall, a recording studio and office spaces. The development is the ultimate realization of heterogeneity and has long since attracted more than just local residents.

Oto Potluka’s case study reached the following conclusion: “For me, the key factors in the project’s success were dialog, power sharing, networking and funding.” Although the success of Gundeldinger Feld might encourage others to imitate the project, Potluka adds that “you can’t simply implement the same model at another location. Every location has its own particular circumstances, which must be taken into account.”

Heterogeneity represents an opportunity

Gundeldinger Feld is an example of a “bottom-up” solution. In other words, every aspect of the project was implemented “from below” at the private level with no need for “top-down” intervention by the state. For Potluka, “bottom-up” is a good approach in a growing, heterogeneous society. Initiatives of this kind arise locally and consider the needs of local residents. In scientific terms, this is referred to as place-based management.

Potluka believes that Switzerland’s federal system fosters this approach, and that direct democracy encourages dialog. “Take the Bernese municipality of Moutier as an example: The people were able to decide at the ballot box whether they wanted to become part of the Canton of Jura,” says Potluka, although he adds that, “in Switzerland, it takes time to reach a consensus.”

That isn’t always an easy task in the context of a growing population and migration — which brings people from different backgrounds into contact with one another. “In these circumstances, it’s particularly important to communicate with each other in order to reconcile different views and arrive at solutions together,” says the Czech researcher. In any case, he is certain of one thing: “If we can achieve that, then heterogeneity represents an opportunity for the community.”

Communities exist at the global level

Utilization of this opportunity is only possible if those who live in a foreign country also get involved. Expats are often accused of living in their own bubble. “Those who want to build contacts and get involved will do so wherever in the world they live,” says Potluka, speaking from his own experience. For the last three years, the researcher has been an active member of the voluntary fire department in Binningen. “In my opinion, however, a community isn’t necessarily tied to a location — it can also exist in the virtual realm.” Digitalization has made it easier to exchange ideas with like-minded people around the globe. This phenomenon has been reaffirmed by the pandemic and is giving rise to new forms of communities.

At the same time, communities that only exist online differ from those in which people know each other in person. “If people live in one place and meet regularly, the ‘inner cohesion’ effect is stronger,” says Potluka. The more pronounced this effect, the greater the obstacles to leaving the community. “People in ‘Gundeli’ couldn’t move away from one day to the next when the circumstances at Gundeldinger Feld changed, but the opportunity to get involved meant that they could make the project their own. That strengthens their connection with the place.”

Functioning communities are beneficial for everyone. Indeed, research shows that a society in which people group together is more stable. When people share their interests with others, it gives them a sense of belonging. This is referred to as social capital: “Where there are lots of communities, the social networks are denser. People know each other better and can therefore discuss issues and arrive at solutions faster,” explains Potluka. That’s good for social peace.

Is it not also the case that a sense of belonging can cause communities to come into conflict with one another? The researcher doesn’t think so, and he once again draws a comparison with the world of soccer. “Although fans of different clubs are rivals when it comes to the national league, they actually can’t make do without each other — and they’re all rooting for the same team at the international level. What matters then is their shared love of soccer.”

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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