Throughout the history of humanity, society has been directed towards moving forward, that is, progress for efficiency and the better. However, with evolution, there are always aspects of living that people miss—a sense of connectedness and cooperation that used to be the binding power during earlier periods. As a response to such loss of important virtues, people have formed village communities that are capable of filling the emptiness we feel.
When first hearing the word village, people usually think of traditional residential units in an agricultural society. In the past, family units that lived inside the village had close ties with each other since their social and economic activities, such as farming and exchanging goods, were closely interdependent. Such interconnectedness inevitably led to a strong sense of community ties, as neighbors shared a great part of their lives. This attachment, also called jeong in Korean, is a cultural norm that came from the existence of villages in the Middle Ages.
Today, the picture is quite different. Although there may be differences around the globe, the transition from modern times to the contemporary ones has entailed drastic changes in people’s ways of life. The Industrial Revolution altered conventional forms of socio-economic activities, having people work in compact factories instead of open farmlands. Capitalists accumulated vast amounts of wealth, and this changed the perception of success. After the Industrial Revolution, people utilized the accumulated wealth in building technologies that aided in upgrading their quality of life.
Of course, it is meaningless to judge whether such a transition is right or wrong because societies naturally transform with the utilization of available resources. However, it is noteworthy to pay attention to the values that have gradually disappeared, and the corresponding attempts to revive them. Reformation of village communities, called maeul in Korean, is taking place on a national level, not with the objective of resurrecting traditionality, but with the commitment of achieving regional goals.
This new paradigm is gaining considerable social attention. To briefly explain the meaning of the village community formation, it is a set of grassroots urban planning procedures that require residents to voluntarily make plans and request assistance from public organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGO), and other experts in order to improve physical living conditionsand restore fellowship. In doing this, participation and cooperation between citizens and support groups are vital, as well as the sustainability of their plans.
There are complex reasons why village communities have reemerged today. First, having enjoyed sufficient wealth and efficiency in contemporary society, people have shifted their attention to non-materialistic matters that focus on improving quality of life. In addition, the authority to administer cities has been distributed to local areas, leading to a localization of management. Last, the availability of general education has improved people’s level of consciousness, thus fostering an atmosphere of preserving valuable historical and environmental assets and of caring for the community.
The formation of village communities in Korea started in the 1990s after witnessing positive results from Japan’s village reformation models, which were aimed at alleviating urban problems such as pollution, concentration of urban population, and functional gaps between urban and local areas. Spurred by this model, Korea began their work of village formation, which consequently developed into one of several community movements.
For example, the early actions of this movement involved various residential improvement projects on small space units such as forming streets without cars or making alleys with flower paths. In 1998, Daegu Samduck-dong promoted neighbors to engage in the removal of walls between houses as an attempt to stop the walls from hampering interaction between neighbors.
▲ The importance of community bond between individuals. Provided by ycdsb.ca.
Considering its results, this project does not seem to have been successful since only about 20 houses removed walls. However, the project spurred positive changes in the community, as citizens gathered to discuss how to make it a better place to live in and advanced it into local business projects. From the start, village community formation was a grassroots movement that reflected people’s desire to revive community spirit.
The distinct goals of each village community project can be distinguished into several categories. Main aims involve preservation of historical and cultural assets, improvement of residential environment, conservation of energy, protection from global warming, and support on income and job opportunities. Since climate change is so severe that the international community is intervening in the economic activities of sovereign nations to restrict the emission of harmful gases, the number of communities going green is widely growing. Popular among the public are residential improvement projects that incorporate an artistic approach, such as making underdeveloped villages a sight-seeing location by promoting wall paintings around the village and encouraging artists to reside in those areas.
Insadong, although it has become much more commercialized these days, was the first case in which a village community formation movement was accomplished in cooperation with government urban planning. Insa-dong is a place where Korean traditional culture can be witnessed through a collection of stores that sell traditional artifacts such as clothes, pencils, masks, calligraphy, and much more. Historically, Insa-dong was a popular place for artistic activities, and community builders sought to maintain its identity as an archive of Korean culture. Thus, small store owners in Insadong cooperated with government officials to prevent the inflow of development capital into the area. There were restrictions such as banning buildings more than five-stories high, not allowing commercial markets on the first floor of every building, and keeping small alleys intact. A closer look at a couple of village communities in Korea, and a unique community abroad will illustrate the importance of village communities.
▲ A promotional board describing the goals of Pumae. Provided by facebook.com/poomm365.
City life entails an unconscious forgetting of the surrounding community—say, thoughts about what kind of place you are living in, how your neighborhood is changing, and who you are living with. Cities have come to be understood in terms of residence, simply a place where people work, live, and rest without any real interaction. Yet, in the Pumae community in Seochon, individuals try their best to preserve village life by exchanging information and sharing each others’ struggles.
The root of Pumae comes from the Seoul Church’s night school in 1984. People who attended the night school back then wanted to form a community full of jeong that would enable interaction between neighbors. Thus, they commenced their regional projects in collaboration with students from National school for the blind and the deaf, who had difficulties interacting with non-handicapped neighbors. The programs involved activities of volunteers taking care of blind students while the parents of those students visited the homes of non-blind students and created a ground of understanding about each others’ lives.
▲ The logo of Pumae provided by facebook.com/poomm365.
These days, the residents of Pumae are involved in various projects. In helping lonely neighbors, and the handicapped, Pumae activists use media such as music, movies, or photography to elicit a sense of community values. By designating different project themes each year, Pumae seeks to connect various groups and individuals in Seochon and rejuvenate the core values of Pumae, which are “togetherness, sharing, and celebration.”
Nonetheless, Pumae has experienced financial limitations in advancing these activities because the demand for such services—often of great help to neighbors by providing child care and educational facilities—outweighs what this community can realistically provide. In dealing with such difficulties, Pumae takes a community approach through democratic decision-making processes. For example, instead of opening a public hearing, often operating in manners that force the implementation of certain matter, Pumae holds town meetings. Also, in 2013, Pumae opened a series of events called “Citizen Speech Podium” in Cheonggye Plaza, where citizens were given opportunities to speak out about Seoul administrative matters. This year, Pumae, with government funding, will operate an independent organization that fosters communication between borough offices and residents.
Pumae greatly values communication between neighbors, and the voices raised in regard to social problems. Although it is a small community village located in Seochon, Pumae has influence on our society that far outreaches to other areas of Korea.
Auroville of India
Auroville is a community village near the Coromandel coast of Pondicherry in India. Despite its location, this village is not regional or cultural-specific, meaning that people from all over the world can become citizens of Auroville. It is an unusual town that aims to build a society with no greed, religious prejudice, and bureaucracy. The ideals that Auroville pursues are basically the opposite of communities that are dominated by the rules of capitalism. However, Auroville’s idealistic yet bold challenges give us opportunities to look at our society and ponder upon the value of unity.
▲ A complete view of Auroville. Provided by mariamassage.files.wordpress.com.
Auroville’s basic conception of a universal town and unity of humanity stems from the writings of the great Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. The person that converted Aurobindo’s conception into a real town is Mirra Alfassa, also called “mother” in Auroville, who was a spiritual partner of and cooperator with Aurobindo. “Auroville desires to become an international city where people regardless of sex, religion, political orientation, or nationality transcend their barriers and live in peaceful harmony.” This was the town’s first official declaration, made in 1965. In the following year, matters regarding Auroville were proposed by the Indian government at a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which unanimously approved of its establishment.
The establishment of Auroville is an extension of a wide-spread liberal, antiwar, and ecological movement that swept over the entire Europe in the late 1960s. Young people in France and Germany were in search of an idealistic world where capital and war did not exist. Their search led them to India, and Alfassa proposed the construction of an independent community with the size of a city to fulfill their dreams.
To some extent, Auroville residents’ goals of building a society where cooperation, harmony, and nature-friendly lifestyles replace competition and materialism has been achieved. For example, Auroville has a solar kitchen where eco-friendly technologies boil water and cook food. In addition, a nature-friendly brick-making machine that minimizes carbon emission was developed by the Indian government and Auroville. This technology was distributed to approximately 35 developing nations, including South Africa, Congo, and Nepal, without receiving any royalty fees because people are always placed before profit in the community.
▲ Auroville residents meditating together. Provided by motherandsriaurobindo.org.
Auroville residents can get groceries and daily necessities for free at the local “free store” and are also exempt from paying cost when going to hospitals, theaters and schools. Of course, it is not exactly free since residents are required to contribute eight hours of work per day to the community. The community does has an administrative organization, but it is unique in that its internal structure is not hierarchical. Workers are in charge of taking care of economic activity, promotion, tourism, and social welfare. Improvements are made through sharp criticism and feedback from citizens, as they have the power to alter the internal structure of the working group through meetings.
Auroville is a community village that works toward achieving idealistic goals. In other words, the community has been experimenting with the formation of a utopian society for 45 years. Their lifestyles reflect a wider scope of equality and harmony compared to normal capitalistic societies around the world. Yet, it is realistically difficult to be completely absent of inequality. In principle, housing is supposed to be provided by Auroville, thus equalizing the living standards of all residents. However, that is not the case because financial deficits made it inevitable for the newcomers to build their own houses with the money they possessed before becoming a member of Auroville. Thus, some degree of class difference still remains in Auroville. The community indeed has respectable goals that are in line with what the United Nations (UN) designated as important values— peace, equality, and eco-friendliness. In terms of community spirit, Auroville is a great model that shows the boldness of its trials. However, it seems that the longevity of its goals needs to be carefully maintained with another bold effort.
Natural Birth and Death of a Village Community
An old Nigerian proverb says, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” This implies that there needs to be a communal effort to parent and raise children. The same is true for today. In metropolitan cities, in particular, parents of small children have few chances to share their parenting methods. Hence, they necessitate an alternative organization for child-rearing instead of relying on private education or worrying about dangerous, and distrustful settings for children, which may be beyond their control. To deal with these problems, a special child upbringing community emerged, Dongdaemun-gu Pumasi.
▲ Pictures taking activities of village communities in Seoul. Photographed by Lee Ji Hoon.
Hwang Yeong Dan, the author of Miraculous Parenting Method: Pumasi (2005), was one of the leaders in the village nurturing community Pumasi, which derives its name from the term for the Korean traditional collaboration system in labor. The community once had more than two hundred children and their families as its members in the Dongdaemun-gu. Comprised of various households, Pumasi was created in a residence-driven way by their need for an alternative child-rearing system. One of the original members was Hwang.
Activities in the community were usually based on their village. For instance, children designed village maps from their perspectives and explored historic areas and sites in the village under the guide of a member who was expert in history. Since the village had many members, there were diverse experts among them. They willingly offered their abilities to share with the members, rely upon each other, and overcome anonymity in the city. Starting with the child-rearing system, it extended to networking families, neighbors and society. Hwang said, “Pumasi led to recovery of happiness for children, parents, and consequently the village.”
▲ Mok-2-dong village community held a village festival. Provided by www.yangcheon.go.kr.
The happy village community, however, did not last long. Considering that Pumasi started in March, 2000, when there was lack of support for village communities, it had several hardships to overcome. “Pumasi did not receive any administrative or financial support from the city government. The members of the group voluntarily raised funds instead. We usually held meetings in members’ houses, taking turns, but always lacked enough room to hold everyone. We asked culture centers or community service centers for space to rent, but we were always rejected,” Hwang said.
Pumasi withered in 2011 after its buds first sprouted. It followed the typical nature to birth and death of one community. Hwang explained that the end of the community was mainly because its members had more various and diversified needs as their children grew up. There were still some problems, unfortunately. “If there had been more administrative and financial supports, the community could have lasted longer,” she lamented. It is natural for one village community to have ups and downs. But to encourage and foster it, support must work as nutrients.
Government Waters and Nurtures the Flower
As the demand for village communities and their support arose, some administrative districts governments made regulations to assist local residents. Beginning with Jeju Special Self-Governing Province in 2012, regulations dealing with village communities have been created. For instance, after the Seoul Metropolitan Government declared its “regulation about making and supporting village communities in Seoul,” more has been achieved than expected since it was implemented in Seoul, which was once regarded to have very weak bonds between its residents.
▲ Hundreds of village communities were created in Seoul after SCSC was established. Provided by www.seoulmaeul.org.
The effort is strongly supported by the Seoul Community Support Center (SCSC) which was established following the regulation in August, 2012. Under the mission statement, “Rediscovering Seoul as an Urban Village Community that Seoulites plan according to their own needs and accomplish by their own hands,” 8,000 village communities have been consulted and some of them received aids. This was what Hwang, the leader of the Pumasi, truly hoped for.
▲ Brand Image of SCSC. Provided by www.seoulmaeul.org.
What is special about SCSC is that all its agents are from existing village communities, including Kim Jong Ho, the secretary general of SCSC, and are not officers from the administrative departments of government. Kim pointed out, “Devising projects based on what we experienced and necessitated before, we could help village communities become more substantive, especially targeting Seoul citizens in a direct way.” Making the best use of their experiences, SCSC consecutively succeeded with programs such as “Connect Village Community and School,” and “Childcare Project in Parents Community.” Recently, they executed a pilot project that converts community centers into village welfare centers. The plan aims to encourage citizens’ participation.
▲ Kim suggested that Mok-2-dong village community is the most successful example of village supporting project. Provided by www.yangcheon.go.kr.
Designing village communities through a mediator such as SCSC could be appraised as successful in that it established an administrative foundation. “In the early stage, there has to be an incubating system to breed the community. Even though it has been created according to the medium set by the government, the villages can also receive administrative and financial support from it. I think projects for building village communities are worthwhile as long as they are led by citizens,” said Professor Lee Tae Dong (Political Science and International Relations, Yonsei University).
Some concern, however, still remains about village communities and support centers. “SCSC provides only three to five years of financial backing. After that period, villages have to manage communities and go through obstacles by themselves. Since registrations are unceasing, we plan to teach a village to fish, not just to give them fish. We worry, however, whether village communities can survive and prosper,” remarked Kim. On the contrary, some experts criticize the service itself. In the magazine Urban Information Service, one writer denounced village-making projects for the reason that they were sometimes improvised just to conduct central government projects.
Such a village must eventually be led by its members, not by an outside authority. Thus village communities hope to stand on their own feet one day without any external help. In the same vein, the ultimate goal of support centers like SCSC is encouraging self-reliance of each community. For example, the Dobong-gu Village Community Support Center vigorously manages their affairs under the slogan, “We desire to make a village where there is no need of a support center.” When that wish comes true, village community can achieve its true meaning.
Next Participants: Buds Meant to Blossom
“Youth is our future,” said Jose Rizal. As many people agree, the outlook of a community depends on its youth who are going to become its leading members. This is also true in village communities. Without younger citizens’ awareness or interest, villagecommunities cannot last. Professor Lee acknowledged the importance of youth in communities and gave a class, “Introduction to Village” this semester at Yonsei University (YU). The project is also the SCSC beneficiary.
▲ Lee and students learned about the Sinchon District more closely. Provided by blog.naver.com/nayun3411.
The main theme of the project is building a bridge between the university and its surrounding local community. In the class, students learn to comprehend the village community not only in theoretical aspects but also through practical activities. The study covers from the definition of village from various perspectives to real case studies on a global scale. Based on what they have learned, students discuss the problems of the Sinchon district, where YU is located and how to rejuvenate the area.
They are planning to take four field trips throughout the course. Collaborating with mentors and assistants who are experts in village communities, they will get a chance to seek answers and devise alternatives in real unban settings. The first field trip was in March. Lee said, “There is a serious gap between university and local community these days. Although Sinchon is the main sphere of living for YU students, they have less chance to participate in the community actively.” Through the class, however, students design the community as leaders, not as bystanders.
Jeong Bit A Reum, the team leader of the class, said, “Contrary to other classes where students just sit and listen to the class, I was thrilled because I could encounter and analyze Sinchon District academically in the field. Learning from regional experts in village communities, I had a chance to scheme how to use the space of a pedestrian underpass on Yonsei Road.” Heo Seung Gyu, another project attendee also said, “Through the lecture and its field trip, I was excited that I could get to learn about regional issues in Sinchon that I have been interested in.”
Lee said, “University students can exert their vast potentials under the circumstance of autonomy. Although it is hard to achieve a goal by oneself without any help, college students can create and contribute village communities under sufficient supports and opportunities for decision making.” As the class provides chances to ponder upon the idea of community, there need to be channels for students to communicate about community policies. Such youth can be the next village makers.
Casting a Light on Society's Dim Parts
▲ Kim stressed the importance of village community. Photographed by Lee Ji Hoon.
The community connotes a great worth in today’s society. As Gandhi said, “The future of India lies in its villages.” Kim stressed, “What matter nowadays is not the tangible elements such as decent food, opulent buildings, and luxurious ornaments. Physical goods can be overwhelming but people are living in circumstances that lack close ties and intangible values.” The community can be the answer to these problems. It boosts communication and the sharing of interests, thus making networks not only between people but also between communities. Starting from these fundamental issues, village communities can treat agenda like regenerating cities.
It seems daunting to introduce the village community into today’s society. Moreover, it is almost unfeasible to literally build a “village” in the city. Although the village community may seem like outdated system or even a regression to the past, it is actually a movement forward to a more democratic, autonomous society. In the village community, people can achieve what they have dreamt about the ideal society, which consists of mutual cooperation. To save those lost in the midst of competition and alienation, village communities can illuminate the dark society with the torch of reciprocity and interconnectedness.