Comment: Strangers into neighbours

Nicola Bacon is one of the Founding Directors of Social Life and a Young Foundation Fellow. She was a Director of the Young Foundation from 2006 to 2012, setting up programmes on wellbeing and resilience, communities and local social innovation.

The start of 2013 has been marked by a deluge of reports about increases in poverty, of food banks collapsing under strain, the threat of the triple dip recession and controversy over the Coalition government’s latest (but not last) attempts to cut the welfare budget.  The reality is that poverty clusters in the places where the local economy has failed, often following industrial collapse. The impact of recession on these marginal areas is harsh: often these places benefited little from the last decade’s prosperity, and will be the slowest to recover if or when the economy strengthens.

There is increasing awareness of the ways that our relationships with our neighbours and friends can have in helping us all manage adversity. New York based sociologist Eric Klinenberg, ten years ago, wrote about the protection that social networks had given some communities in Chicago during the 1995 heatwave. Neighbourhoods which were busy, with vibrant street life and where, consequently, neighbours were more likely to know each other had significantly lower death rates than places that were abandoned and desolate. In the US, this decade old research has new currency in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, as New Yorkers reflect on the role of community networks in the survival and rebuilding of their city.

Can our local social networks, our relationships with our neighbours and others in the local areas, help local communities get by in troubled times? We are seeing the end of the era of large-scale area regeneration programmes that have for the last thirty years targeted the most vulnerable neighbourhoods. This approach – from New Deal for Communities to City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget – was the product of a belief in the big state and the power of target driven intervention. Mainstream thinking today is that this is both politically unpopular, and unaffordable. With no money in sight for a new generation of big infrastructure spending, we now need to find fresh approaches that can be delivered in an age of low public spending and a shrinking state.

If we stand back and look at the legacy of regeneration policy across the UK since the 1980s, it is impossible not to be struck by the tenacity of deprivation and the difficulty of shifting it from those places where it was – and still is – most entrenched. We have to question whether our recent history of tackling place-based deprivation and disadvantage always represented money well spent

The major financial events of 2008 have plunged the global economy into flux. In uncertain times, the characteristics that individuals and institutions need are resilience and adaptability. Not just the resilience that allows people to stoically endure hardship, but the capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity.

“Resilience” is a familiar term in child psychology, and in studies of the environment. It is increasingly becoming central to social policy debate. It is politically flexible, appealing both to those who want the state to retreat, to allow people to sink or swim and resolve their own problems, and to those who believe that the role of government should be to empower individuals and communities. This analysis, part of a continued commitment to address the causes and impacts of poverty and inequality, sees resilience as something that can be boosted and grown; to support people to develop the internal capacities that their life experience has limited.

Boosting resilience demands a detailed understanding of community dynamics and of environmental psychology, as well as traditional skills of community development and design. This centres on the lived experience of residents and the recognition of local strengths and assets – which could be a good local school, strong family networks or dynamic community organisations – as well as local vulnerabilities. There are known pragmatic and tested approaches to building resilience in a local community, centring on building relationships between neighbours, including Big Lunches and local festivals, parents’ involvement in local schools, as well as using new digital technologies, like community websites: the East Dulwich Forum in South London, or Growing Newsome in Huddersfield.

There is a pressing need for practical action to help people who are struggling. Building resilience in neighbourhoods by turning strangers into neighbours is a pragmatic approach. While public spending remains low, we need to find low cost ways to equip people and places facing the greatest inequality with resources that improve their chances to thrive. This cannot fully substitute for the publically funded services and programmes that are needed to support places that are economically marginalized, but at least do something to protect communities facing the sharpest ends of austerity.


The RSA has published a report “Turning strangers into neighbours”



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