Friday, 27 April 2007

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Smile and be counted Last week the Guardian published a short article by Peter Singer, about a city-funded initiative in Port Phillip near Melbourne, where volunteers monitor the number of smiles between passers-by in the street. Signs are then placed to let pedestrians know when they are in, for instance, a 10 smiles per hour zone. Coupled with investment in street parties, this is all 'part of a larger programme attempting to measure changes in quality of life... The council wants Port Phillip to be a sustainable community, not merely in an environmental sense but also in terms of social equity, economic viability and cultural vitality.' You'd think from reading some of the comments the article has solicited, that government was taking over responsibility for the control of facial muscles. It's not about 'state-enforced smiles' although of course it is inevitably part of the debate on the extent of the changing role of the state: 'The Port Phillip city government ... wants those who live in the community after the present generation have gone to have the same opportunities for a good quality of life. To protect that quality of life, it has to be able to measure all the varied aspects that contribute to it, and friendliness is one of them.' Quite right and about time too: quality of life is not just about services and money, there's a debate about social capital been going on out there. In an age of high mobility, the perceived friendliness of a locality and anticipations of civility among strangers are related to all sorts of factors from the perception of individual safety to the potential for local economic stability. (On another theme, in theory it raises again the question of the desirability of using religious or other costume in order to hide the face; and the implications for our experience of the public realm). It would be a mistake to see the Port Phillips 'smile in the street' exercise as an isolated initiative, and Singer makes clear that other activities such as the organisation of street parties belong in the same programme. A propos, Streets Alive's Chris Gittins sent me this comment: 'Smiling sounds easy but if you are strangers as neighbours where do you start? Well, a neighbours' street party is a good idea. Having met at least once over a BBQ people are more comfortable about smiling in the first place. This sort of Aussie politics is very welcome as UK politics is mostly about problem solving and not generating goodwill or prevention.' One final thought: how long before a local authority in the UK tries something similar, and uses CCTV cameras instead of human beings, for the counting exercise?

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