Is a peaceful, just, creative, sustainable world a far-off, unattainable dream or might there be ways to begin to build such communities right in our own neighborhoods?
Archeologists and scholars like Marija Gimbutas, Heide Goettner-Abendroth, and Carol Christ have studied societies from Old Europe and elsewhere that share some common characteristics. (These societies are often referred to as “matriarchal.” However, there is ongoing discussion among scholars about how to name these societies. For these posts, I’ll use Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s beautiful term societies of peace). These qualities include prioritizing caring social relationships, art and beauty, ecological responsibility, equality, commitment to consensus decision-making, and more. Researchers often cite how buildings, city and town layout, and outdoor spaces of these societies of peace reflect these values by featuring similarly-sized residences, beautiful frescoes depicting women and men in peaceful pursuits, a lack of warlike structures, and plazas and courtyards for social, civic, and religious events, among other attributes.
Contemporary projects by architects and urban planners use many similar features as a way to promote these same values for the 21st century. And they are having success, though not naming these societies of peace as inspiration and perhaps not even being aware of them.
These efforts are in response to residents’ stated desires to live in communities with values similar to those of these societies of peace. A number of studies have shown, for example, that people felt most attached to communities that have social opportunities, openness to many kinds of residents, access to natural spaces, and are beautiful.. Also, access to the arts is strongly associated with being happy with one’s community.
However, these qualities are currently lacking where people live. One study found that about 40% of residents say they do not feel “attached” to their community. Only about 20% said that their communities were open to a diversity of people. A further survey found that about 30% of adults “lack companionship,” “feel left out,” and “feel isolated from others,” especially younger people. Clearly there is more work to do. Let’s look at how the built environment supported the values of these societies of peace in the past and how these strategies are being recreated now.
Centering Harmonious Relationships
Old European societies arranged buildings in ways that enhanced social relationships and a sense of belonging in the community. Some Eastern European Cucuteni settlements built homes in concentric circles or elipses with doors facing into the center. Larger houses may have been community gathering places and probably housed the core family with smaller houses close by for extended family, enhancing family bonds. In Anatolia’s Catalhoyuk, those buried beneath individual dwellings were not generally genetically related, which indicates that social network extended beyond kin to other community members, perhaps related to profession.
These patterns bring to mind modern cohousing communities, small developments where each of 20 to 40 households own their own home, but with significant common spaces. These include kitchens, dining rooms, recreational centers, open space, gardens, and more designed specifically to foster connection within and beyond families. Some place each house looking towards the others.
Another way modern urban planners encourage public gathering and interaction is through mixed use zoning, in which housing, commercial, office, and light industrial uses are allowed in the same space. This encourages people to live and work in the same neighborhood and to mingle at all times of day and evening, enhancing a sense of community.
Open gathering places for people to meet and relate to one another also promote social relationships. Carol Christ noted in a FAR post that the “palace” at Knossos in Crete was actually “a ritual center for the surrounding village, as well as a community gathering place, a place for storing grain, wine, and oil in a sacred way, and a place where ritual objects were fashioned of clay, bronze, stone, and gold.” Some Cucuteni sites had an open center used for feasting, rituals, or perhaps livestock. Stonehenge, according to Neil Wilkin, curator of the recent British Museum exhibit, was an “important place that people went to, to be together as a community,” and a “mix between a town hall and a cathedral, where people mingled for both religious and social reasons.” Ancient British Celts combined religious festivals with markets where people could come together as a community..
Similarly, in the 21st century, urban planners are increasingly building “Civic Commons” where people can enjoy attractive greenery, art, and performances, receive health and social services, take fitness and recreation classes, get an education, and other activities that bring people together formally and informally. Here people can form friendships, get to know their neighbors, and be in a space with a diversity of other residents as they go about their daily business. Though small, Stonewall Park in New York City combines greenery, art, and music performances with ample space for chatting and feeling part of the neighborhood.
Celebrating Beauty and Creativity
Societies of peace were well known for their attractive architecture and colorful, sophisticated art. In Crete, for example, wall frescoes dance with energy and stunning depictions of deities, humans, and the natural world. Similar subjects are carved as reliefs into the stone walls of temples in Malta and elsewhere. Throughout Old Europe and other societies of peace, magnificent painted pottery, jewelry, statues, and all other art forms are found in temples, civic buildings, homes, and burial sites.
Today, architects and urban planners focus on creating beautiful indoor and outdoor spaces and places where the arts can flourish such as open air theaters, renovated historic theaters, art displays in parks or public buildings, decorated fire hydrants, electrical boxes, and streets, colorful street signs and crosswalks, and more. Indoor and outdoor murals echo the breath-taking ancient frescoes.
To learn more about efforts towards equality, connecting to nature, consensus building, and whether these designs work, read Part 2, coming tomorrow!
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a community-based public policy wonk, having worked for 35 years in local and state public service. She is also a writer. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. She explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com,where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.
Sources: Sources are linked directly in the text. Unless otherwise noted, Information about Old Europe comes from Maria Gimbutas’s Civilization of the Goddess.
Modern Mixed-Use Development: Dr. Peter Schmidt, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Duwamish Choosing Community: Photo by Joe Mabel CC By-SA 3.0 GFDL granted by photographer
Stonewall Park photo by Carolyn Lee Boyd
Cucuteni Statues: Cristian Chirita, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Categories: Egalitarian Matriarchy