A city of villages – the role of propinquity and local foci for communities

A buddy of mine once described living in Amsterdam as “living in multiple villages in one city”. At the neighborhood café below his house, he met his neighbors and local friends, at the theater, he met his colleagues and other actors / play writers, at the university he met professors and fellow students – basically his entire action space was filled with different social networks, mostly clustered around spatially bounded localities.

Sometimes, but not often, these social networks would overlap. Most of the times the quality of the described ties was weak: his most intimate connections were located outside of Amsterdam (mostly because he had just recently moved there and his family all lived in Zwolle).

Community lost, saved or liberated?

This ‘city of villages’ concept is reflected very well by the ‘Community Liberated argument’ that is prevalent in many of the writings of Barry Wellman.

In sociology during the 1970’s, three distinctly different points of view on the community were popular: Community Lost, Community Saved and Community Liberated. The first stated that urbanites were no longer incorporated in one single solidary community, but rather a limited member of multiple loose social networks. As a response to this, scholars hypothesized that these strong solidary systems still remain, despite the changing societal forces associated with industrialism. The last is a hybrid of the two first, affirming the existence of primary ties, but also considering the possibility that these ties are no longer knit in one tightly packed solidarity.

Wellman investigated the functioning of intimate relationships of more than 8000 inhabitants of East York, Toronto. He concluded that:

“Our findings most fully support the Liberated Argument […] There are links to a variety of people with different structural positions, often living in quite different residential area’s (or interacting at work), and maintaining contact both by telephone and in person, at a wide range of time intervals.” (Wellman, 1979, p. 1225).


Apparently, my friend was living the life of a communally liberated urbanite. He made contact with his neighbors, and became part of the theater milieu by accepting a job as an actor. His most intimate ties however, remained with his family back in Zwolle, a 50 minutes train ride to the east. This also has been found by Wellman (1979). Proximity seems to matter most for on the job contact and help. For most other assistance, East Yorkers, my friend and by extension most people in general, will turn to family regardless of where they live.

As Putnam (2000) proves, local social capital is still very important for the functioning of neighborhoods. Summarizing the work of criminologist Robert J. Sampson he concludes that anonymity and sparse acquaintanceship, unsupervised teen play and a weak organizational base and low participation in local activities lead to an increased risk of crime and violence.

The findings by Fischer therefor are cause for concern: “City-dwellers are, in fact, typically less involved with their fellow residents than are suburbanites or nonmetropolitan people.” (Fischer, 1982, p. 161).

It is perhaps for this reason that my friend chose to live in Amsterdam as if he lived in more than one Zwolle at the same time because on the same occasion he trusted me with his point of view that “Zwolle’s size (approx. 110.000 inhabitants, DH.) is the perfect size for me. It is big enough to have my basic needs – a theater, lots of nice shops, good restaurants, a couple of nice bars etc., but at the same time it remains small enough for me to know pretty much everybody who is important.”

This very statement is surprisingly consistent with Fischers find that “Living in a small town did, it seems, increase peoples involvement with fellow residents.” (Fischer, 1982, p. 162). Since this seemed to be important to my friend, he tried to replicate the small town in the big city.

Local foci

One, if not the main mechanism my friend used to order his city life into clusters that in his mind resembled small towns, was by using localities such as the university, the theater or the local bar to physically constrain his villages. In fact, he used these localities as what Scott Feld would refer to as a focus. “A focus is defined as a social, psychological, legal or physical entity around which joint activities are organized” (Feld, 1981, p. 1016).

These foci produce clustered patterns of ties in social networks, and my friend chose to see every cluster as a distinct village within the city. It seems that local foci can help building social networks. From a common sense perspective this makes sense: when you move to a new city or neighborhood and you want to meet people who share an interest, you join the local gym, football club, library or you go to the local pub. In turn, if these foci are locally based, and / or geographically bounded, these foci can help accumulate local social capital, collective efficacy and so add to the production of a safer neighborhood / city of villages.


My friend found living in a small town more desirable than living in anonymity. He used local foci to cluster his activities and related social networks to replicate a village within the city. It seems that for these weak ties, propinquity is still very important: the fact that he specifically used geographical bounded localities is an indication that distance is not dead when it comes to shaping ones urban life.

However, for strong intimate ties, it seemed that kinship is more important than distance. Perhaps when it comes to intimate relations, the city of villages had not (yet) had enough time to produce enough quality in the network ties.

Perhaps the desirability of small towns within a city this is a matter of taste and of habituation. My friend had lived in small towns his entire life before he moved to Amsterdam, but my ex-girlfriend had lived in Amsterdam her entire life and hated the fact that I greeted so many people when she was with me in Enkhuizen. “I would never want to be so exposed to my pupils”, she confided (we were both high school teachers). “I love the fact that I can be anonymous here.”

  1. Feld, S. (1981) The focused organization of social ties. American Journal of Sociology, 86(5): 1015-1053.
  2. Fischer, C.S. (1982) To Dwell among Friends. Personal Networks in Town and City. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Chapter 13 (pp.158-178): The Spatial Dimension of Personal Relations.
  3. Putnam, R.D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. Chapter 18 (pp. 307-318): Safe and Productive Neighborhoods.
  4. Wellman, B. (1979) The community question. The intimate networks of East Yorkers. American Journal of Sociology, 85(5): 1201 – 1231.

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