Communities are more than physical buildings. They have an identity to which people attach a sense of belonging. When the rebuilding of communities devastated by the recent bushfires in Victoria begins it is important this is not forgotten, and that the focus is not solely on the physical reconstruction of the physical environment.
Recent bushfires in communities in rural Victoria have the capacity to further impact upon people and places already fragile from existing hardships of a long term drought and an economic downturn.
People have lost not only family, friends, neighbours, pets, stock and their livelihoods they have also lost the community both in terms of the physical place, the land as they knew it and the connections and memories of shared life in those communities. The community spirit and solidarity has been weakened. Along with providing material aid and individual support, action needs to be taken to help rebuild the community.
Little attention so far has been paid to the role the sense of place has for the wellbeing of community members. Investment in action for longer term restoration of the places where people live, learn, work and socialise will re-establish support and security as people pull together and through positive shared experience rebuild a way of life, connectedness and a future for their community.
According to leaders in the academic field of place identity, the identity of a place reflects each individual’s unique experience and social life as well as those experiences common to all individual and group members. A sense of place includes images and memories of places, conscious and unconscious beliefs, expectations, feelings, preferences and interactions in and with physical settings. Any interaction community members may have in the physical setting is created within their collection of expectations, beliefs, feelings, ideas and aspirations about that environment.
In this way the meaning function of the setting - what should happen in it, what the setting is supposed to be like, and how the individual and others are supposed to behave in it - is assigned. The sense of meaning that is created reflects the physical and landscape appearance, personal memory, community history and emotional attachment. The community stories need to be respected by the media and not dissected endlessly fracturing community identities.
This perspective for the fire devastated areas requires a shift in thinking to a more holistic “individual within their psychosocial environment” orientation. That is, in addition to providing varying types of support for individuals, such disasters are recognised as life events where restorative community processes are a critical part of the response of government, helping professionals, family and members of other communities.
It is not just recreating physical buildings but purposefully planning to re-construct the life and collect the stories of the community, providing conditions for people together to re-create meanings from their experiences through the rebuilding, for themselves and for the shared history of their place. This brings the professional care-givers together with the communities they are supporting, yet ensuring the community takes a leading role. An environment is needed that will facilitate the development of a range of community leaders, and government and professionals who will hear their voices and take action.
Ready access to factual information is critical in times of crisis. Within communities there are traditional formal sources of information such as schools, general practitioners and local community agencies, as well as informal networks through faith communities, sporting and social clubs. These may all have disappeared. Interim substitutes such as a community radio station need to be provided until more formal sources are in operation.
For the communities decimated by the fires rebuilding relationships as well as their physical spaces can be facilitated by community participation processes in decision-making, setting priorities, planning and action, followed by celebratory rituals as indicators of community wellbeing are reached, for example the re-opening of a school, provision of health services and sporting facilities.
Re-creating community is an alternative and complementary strategy to current professional support services. The expanded focus for action needs to include building the capacity and strengths of the community to attend to all of the “place” components, in addition to attending to meeting individuals’ needs.