Thursday, 18 September 2008

What’s missing is communication, not information Once again it seems like there's no substitute for getting a mix of good people from different sectors together in a room around a common theme. With help from Tom Bolton at CABE and a few friends I pulled together a meeting yesterday to discuss neighbourhood communication. We had about 25 folk in the room and buzzy contributions were coming in from techies, academics, reps from third sector orgs, start-ups, community development, architects and others. What sparked it was a growing sense that the social potential of neighbourhood online networks is frustratingly unrealised - various DIY and off-the-shelf systems are around and awareness is increasing. But there's no sense that commercially-rewarding levels of activity are emerging in ways that will strengthen local social capital and community cohesion. Of course, it helps to have a knotty cross-sectoral problem to get into. I tried to capture some of it in a short issues paper here. Partly it's a problem of scale. Keith Hampton has been arguing for some years that in terms of developing local social ties, small-scale, around 150-200 units, is significant. But the commercial imperative requires a level of directory-type information provision and advertising, necessarily covering a broader area and over-stretching the principle of very local identity or neighbourhood coherence. So can these two scales be reconciled sustainably? And what about governance? We inhabit neighbourhoods that are wretchedly scarce of structured opportunities (and expectations) to contribute to local democracy. Top-down government initiatives heralded as promoting community empowerment are, understandably, treated with scepticism; but where are the models of locally-developed neighbourhood networks that include a layer of the most local governance? For instance, has anyone developed street rep arrangements underlaid with a simple effective online communication system? Shipley Streets Ahead dipped their toes in this a while back but seemed to withdraw nervously. I suspect partly it's because information, rather than communication, is still seen as the answer. (Or as James Halloran titled a seminal paper 25 years ago, information is the answer, but what is the question?) And at this point I have to add the proviso that this would mean properly accountable, locally-grown representative arrangements where residents define the role themselves: this should be obvious but sometimes isn't, which in itself is telling. Perhaps this is not just an opportunity for entrepreneurs but also a gap in the strategies of housing associations. This is very definitely work in progress but maybe the argument is something like this: for various reasons there is a crisis of local social connections which causes evident damage examples of local communication (post-its on windscreens, notes on lamp-posts, message graffiti and so on) point to the inadequacies of existing communication channels, especially in contexts of high mobility and the erosion of local life online networks can augment (not replace) other channels of communication and stimulate more interaction (I never understood why this should ever have been in doubt) we need to find out what research has been done and where the gaps are, showcase good...
Social interaction and traffic: essential evidence This is the new essential graphic detailing the impact of traffic on social relations. Nearly forty years ago Appleyard's Livable streets research was published, including the now famous illustration of the impact implied of light, medium and heavy traffic on social interaction. Working in San Francisco, Appleyard found that on 'light' street (2,000 vehicles a day) inhabitants had three times as many local friends and twice as many acquaintances as those on 'heavy' street (16,000 vehicles a day). Quite often in recent years I've referred to his material in presentations and provocatively suggested that we don't really need research like this because we all know it, it's obvious. All we need is the graphic. No-one ever mentions that the research was methodologically scimpy (only 12 residents in each block were interviewed) and there are nuances (eg to do with the location of corner-shops and the age of residents on the different streets) that tend to be overlooked. But hey, basically we know it, and all we really needed was the illustration. Not true of course, because there's a difference between something being self-evidently true, and people taking any notice of it. So we should all be thankful that Josh Hart came over from San Francisco to Bristol to replicate and develop similar work. Judging from some of the coverage today (Guardian, BBC, Daily Mail even) it looks like the message is immaculately timed and could have the impact it deserves. Hart's study looked at three streets in north Bristol with light, medium and heavy traffic. He found that motor traffic has a 'considerable negative impact on quality of life, particularly for residents living beside heavy motor traffic flows'. Hart selected streets measured at 140, 8420, and 21,130 vehicles per day. He considered vegetation, parking, reported crashes, noise levels, pavement width, building setback and various other factors; and he interviewed ten households on either side of each street. And guess what, traffic makes a huge difference. We all knew it, now we can point to it and quote from it. The report is full of detail that sparks insight, like this graphic for instance, showing the variation in social connections by street. Nice job Josh. What we need next: two or three replications of this study, plus a couple of before-and-after social network analyses of home zones. As I've said before, it's a disgrace that we're not evaluating home zones properly. And it will be revealing to see if this material is referred to during the main political party conferences in the next couple of weeks. You can get hold of Hart's full report, Driven to excess, via the news page at the University of West of England.

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