Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Looking out for neighbours: resilience, recognition and responsibilities 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...

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