Here’s another report calling for policy to bolster social networks – this one is from the International Longevity Centre UK, Can localism work for older people in urban environments? In this case the call is ‘to strengthen interpersonal, intergenerational, and multigenerational networks, particularly in urban areas.’
This accumulating acknowledgement that our dependence on institutions has left us vulnerable, as a society, is not misplaced in my view. The echo is familiar, as is the echo of the echo. Network poverty was worthy of more research attention than it got in recent wealthier times. Now that we really need some data on it, I suspect we’re going to be leaning heavily on the RSA study because I’m not sure there’s a great deal else to go on.
So what does it mean, to a policymaker, this call to help strengthen social networks? How should policy respond?
I’d start with a requirement that local policies should avoid doing damage to existing local social networks, a bit like the duty to involve. Vicki Nash suggested something similar, ‘community proofing,’ some years ago.
It would mean for instance that a new supermarket or road widening or library closure could not be approved without an intelligible analysis of its impact on local social networks, an analysis that in turn would inform public consultation. It wouldn’t take us long to develop the methodology, once we had to. I’ve suggested before, the reason we don't have the methodology to demonstrate the social value of local amenities that stimulate social networks is because no political value has been placed on human processes that are informal and organic.
Will that change, with all these calls to strengthen networks? Is there the political will to acknowledge that local social interactions have value which plays out in, and profoundly affects the costs of, other social provision?
The requirement to avoid network damage does not have to be accompanied by a given standard of social network strength, to which all neighbourhoods should be expected to aspire. Wrong approach, don’t go there.
But yes it should set us thinking about other ways of enhancing informal interaction, for example through the design of local spaces and dwellings; placing more than crudely economic value on local third places; support for local online networks; policies that discourage unnecessary car use and encourage walking; promotion of the principle of local (walkable) services and local (walkable) schools… All these will seem eminently sensible, if they don’t already, once there is government-level recognition of the essential value of informal interactions and the local social networks that they represent.
All this has drawn me back to a book chapter I wrote on policy and local social relations, here, in which I noted that
‘social relationships in neighbourhoods are organic, requiring a healthy ecology that reflects informality and also requiring that most of the time formality keeps its distance.’
And in which I quoted Robert Ellikson’s observation that
‘…lawmakers who are unappreciative of the social conditions that foster informal cooperation are likely to create a world in which there is both more law and less order.’