Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Neighbourhood environment clearly affects neighbourliness For a long time, I've been saying that neighbourliness can be 'designed-out', and asking why it cannot more deliberately be 'designed-in'. The literarure is gradually starting to accumulate and this question gets a little extra feeding from some interesting research recently published in Environment and behavior (subscription, online first). The researchers used measures of the physical environment in ten neighbourhoods in Portland, Oregon, and found 'a greater probability of higher levels of neighborliness as the total number of positive physical-environment characteristics increased.' Judiciously they used the neighbourliness index from the 2003 social capital report on the General Household Survey. Strikingly, the results were unchanged 'after controlling for race, self-reported health, perception of safety, years of neighborhood residence, age of house, market value of house, and proportion of homeowners in neighborhood.' The authors point out that causality is not demonstrated: conceivably, people who are disposed to be neighbourly give rise to neighbourly environments. But it seems more likely that it is the other way round, don't it? The picture I took some years ago in an area called The Roger in Joao Pessoa, Brasil. I've chosen it because it reminds us that there are probably quite a lot of features not solely to do with the physical environment, that influence neighbourhood interactions. Like for example: low volume of cars, favourable weather, people having stuff to do outdoors, dogs, children, impromptu seating arrangements contrived in community spaces and so on.
Loneliness, isolation and social media JRF have published a useful and clear literature and practice review for the Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness programme. It's worth reiterating a few points. As I've noted before - loneliness is not the same as isolation - it's an unwelcome form of isolation which has social (and by extension economic) consequences; loneliness is not age-related (the Gulbenkian Campaign to End Loneliness is focused on people in old age, and I fear this serves to perpetuate the social dismissal of the issue among other age groups); loneliness is quite separate to the sense of belonging or not belonging to a place; and the way we address it could be influenced by the power of social media in strengthening and sustaining local connections. There seems to be a widespread assumption that loneliness is increasing. The Mental Health Foundation's excellent report last year suggested as much but does not seem to confirm it. I think we should be alert but sceptical. As it happens, with a little time to do some catching up over the past few days, I've managed to read one of Keith Hampton's recent papers, on the relationship of internet and mobile phone use to network size and diversity. Among the points made with characteristic thoroughness are the following: reports that social isolation has increased significantly in the USA since 1985 seem to have been exaggerated and in fact isolation may have declined; and there is no evidence that the use of internet or mobile phones diminishes the size or diversity of people's core networks. Specific uses of social media were found to have a positive relationship to network size and diversity. The Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness programme includes a question about new media, but JRF's approach to technology has always been tentative, not to say reluctant. It would be good if they would grab the initiative in this case, and really open up the potential here. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the evidence on local online channels gives us plenty to go on. Previously: Local social ties have weakened, but where's the evidence? Loneliness and mental distress

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