Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Neighbourliness in theory and in practice Yesterday to a Young Foundation seminar on neighbourliness, which reminded me of a note I wrote a couple of years ago about the need to explore the connection between neighbourliness and engagement with governance. Low levels of neighbourliness do not necessarily mean disengagement from democratic processes, but in many residential areas they suggest an impoverishment of the public sphere. The balance between cohesion and heterogeneity can be critical, which is why we need to keep pressing for clear understanding of community cohesion and not treat it as some policy fad that has been and gone. Neighbourhoods with strong internal ties may be precisely those where there is the greatest suspicion of, or simply detachment from, the wider civic society and its governance processes. Thinking about the most active neighbourly people I know, none of them is involved to my knowledge in any official governance role, far from it. By the same token, neighbourhoods where place-based relationships are less in evidence can have relatively high levels of participation in formal governance. And again, looking at gated communities in the USA raises concerns about the fracture between island-building local governance and contributions to governance in the surrounding areas. I seem constantly to be banging a drum about the understanding of informality in social relations. The eruption of the Respect agenda, or the re-invigoration of interest in neighbourliness through JRF funding the Young Foundation to look at it, to me just serve to highlight this peculiarly-ignored need. Another point on neighbourliness occurs to me. There's a tendency to imply that what we might call traditional close-knit local neighbourhoods (such as those described by Young and Willmott, let's say) were communities in which people lacked choice in their social relationships. We assume that the car and the television in particular, plus the distribution of employment, greater wealth and mobility, have allowed us to develop what Talja Blokland has described as a diminished need to be neighbourly, the possibility of being neighbourly more at one's own discretion. I have no doubt that this is true but I wonder sometimes if we don't rather exaggerate it. Perhaps it's my age, and the fact that I grew up in a suburb with what were then unremarkably high levels of neighbouring. Last night I drove into my neighbourhood (shame!) coming back from a car trip to the supermarket (shame!). Between car and front door I exchanged a wave with one next-door neighbour and had a five minute chat with a neighbour a few doors along... He was keen to get a few of us together for a drink and a chat to thank us for our active support over a series of incidents that affected his family in the autumn. I'm lucky enough to live in a cul-de-sac (shame!) where such relations are pretty much routine and expected.

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