The Atlantic has a piece by Sarah Goodyear on the contribution of social connections to community resilience in time of crisis, picking up on a New Yorker article (£) by Eric Klinenberg. Hurricane Sandy came close enough for some policy makers to have their suits splashed with a little nasty reality, in turn legitimating (for a short while at least) some public discussion of these issues:
‘As cities prepare for climate change in earnest, they’re going to need to harden infrastructure, change building patterns, and overhaul government emergency procedures. But they’re also going to have to put a greater value on the human connections that can be found in walkable neighborhoods where people know each other and support local businesses.’
The assumption that walkability might be a key criterion is an interesting one, and one of the comments to the article expresses scepticism about it. I’m aware of one study (Du Toit et al 2007) which found that 'walkable neighbourhoods are not necessarily more sociable places in which to live'.
However the researchers in that, south Australian, study were looking for 'strong' social ties between neighbours - a mistake in my view (and a very common one) because you don't necessarily need strong connections, or to feel you belong to a close-knit community, to have someone look out for you in time of crisis (although they help of course).
We can’t all be, and some of us definitely do not want to be, part of a close-knit community, as I’ve suggested often enough. What might help all round would be higher levels of neighbourly recognition – meaning, having been seen around the neighbourhood from time to time, perhaps with a smile or a few words: being accessible in time of need without invading others’ privacy. It's reasonable to assume that walkable environments are more likely to give rise to what I call sequences of informal recognition, which accrue to provide a form of social capital that has largely been overlooked in study and policy.
The point also needs to be made that when crisis strikes, and there are residents who happen to lack social connections, they are going to stand a better chance of being picked up and supported if there is an active local online network that people use to communicate openly and fast. If authorities anywhere in the world really are looking to invest in community resilience, they should be looking to facilitate the development of independent, citizen-led online networks.
Meanwhile back in the UK, not dissimilar themes have been raised following a claim by Care Minister Norman Lamb in the Telegraph that:
‘We have lost the extended family because families have become dispersed. We need to rebuild that neighbourly resilience that helps people stay independent. If someone is living on their own never seeing anyone, that is a dismal existence, and it often ends up with it all collapsing and them going into a care home.’
This is followed of course by the urging of us all to do more neighbouring; and a possible new slogan – this is not ‘big society’ but (tada!) the ‘decent society.’ Capitalisation and branding to follow, presumably.
The minister said that councils should lead the way in encouraging people to help their neighbours stay out of care. ‘I want local authorities to be giving people guidance about how they can maintain their own resilience, using their friends, their neighbours, their community and in that way build resilience and reduce the burden on the state.’
Lamb’s remarks aroused some contemptuous counter-argument from Sarah Ditum on Comment is Free. And to the extent that this is about caring, she has a point – the amount of unpaid care that is being carried out for people with an illness or disability has increased and is likely to keep increasing. Her riposte resonates perfectly reasonably:
‘It's not the populace that's resigning from its responsibilities to the vulnerable; it's the government.’
The minister has generalised unhelpfully and not taken the time needed to catch up with any thinking that anyone else has been doing, or to find out what is the current state of play. And we need not dwell on the trite assumptions about 'the neighbour support that used to be there'. But still, there is a worthwhile message here if it weren't so badly packaged. It would be responsible for local authorities to issue guidance which takes account of what is already going on – if they have the time or funds to get this done.
What seems to me problematic in the language Lamb uses is his hard-wired political compulsion to individualise the response, rather than acknowledge an obvious role for community development. This is typified in referring to 'independence' without entertaining the possibility of interdependence.
This is routine political contortionism I suppose. The government would like the beneficial consequences of community development without having to accept either that some people experience disadvantage or misfortune that is not their fault, or that they can address those disadvantages by themselves (without the disempowering arbitrariness of philanthropy) if supported in doing so.