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Community Building and Small Towns: Social Infrastructure in Dunnville, Ontario

By Bailey Berdan Gardien

If you drive down towards the coast of Lake Erie, you will eventually come upon the small town of Dunnville Ontario. At first glance there is nothing notable about Dunnville. The area mostly relies on tourism and agriculture sectors for their economy, but if you venture into the town’s center you will see many things that you would normally expect in a larger city. Walking through the downtown you see large, pedestrian-prioritized sidewalks that will lead you to a diverse number of small businesses. There’s the Minga, a not-for-profit vegan café, and Art Rocks Café, a gift shop/yoga studio/café, and among these businesses are a smattering of restaurants and public art galleries. The main business corridor of the town is located mere minutes away from the grand river and a large outdoor public farmer’s market which runs in some capacity year-round. The town has a community parking lot where anyone and everyone can park free of charge without limit. What’s even more charming than the infrastructure of the town is the culture; the people of Dunnville interact and engage with the public space they have been provided. There is something that Dunnville has done right that most large cities in Canada struggle with, developing and maintaining social infrastructure. 

Cities and communities are networks of people. They need many things to survive; economic opportunity, amenities, housing and so on. But the core of what makes cities what they are is the connections between the people who inhabit the space. Sociologist and scholar Eric Klinenberg has defined social infrastructure as the physical space that encourages these interactions to occur. Examples of social infrastructure would be libraries, parks, schools, places of worship, barbershops, and cafes; any place that allows interactions with people outside of your normal social circle. Not only do these spaces provide a public character to the city, but it also has been found that strong social infrastructure decreases feelings of isolation, exclusion and marginalization. Klinenberg found that neighbourhoods in Chicago that had strong social infrastructure had a lower mortality rate during a 1995 heat wave that killed over 700 people. 

Unlike many other Canadian cities, Dunnville has been able to facilitate and maintain social infrastructure, but why? I spoke to Lacie Williamson who owns LVW Creative Barracks, an art studio located in the heart of Dunnville, about what makes Dunnville so different from other communities in Haldimand County. She shared with me a few reasons why she believes that Dunnville has been able to attract and maintain social architecture. 

“Despite cultural organizations having a difficult time planting roots in other communities throughout Haldimand County, organizations and businesses in Dunnville thrive because of the community support from local residents,” said Williamson. She posits that cultural communities usually form through gentrification, attracting newcomers to displace the old, but Dunnville does not follow this model. The people who are engaged in the community are those who were born there and stayed. 

She also added, “Being surrounded by nature, disconnected from urban sprawl, and living in a community that promotes culture for the purpose of well-being is a great incubator for creativity.” 

As Canadian cities continue to rapidly urbanize, it is important to foster and maintain thriving communities not only for their happiness but also their health. Perhaps planners can look to small towns like Dunnville for inspiration. 

Featured image: Bailey Berdan Gardien

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