Data proves that everybody really does need good neighbours

May 19, 2021

A recent report highlights the importance of strong community infrastructure and neighbourliness explains our founder, Katharine Hibbert.

Saying that it’s nice to be on good terms with your neighbours is a bit like saying you enjoy eating chocolate – so unsurprising it doesn’t really deserve to be mentioned.  But a new paper from Cambridge University argues that strong community links are so important that they can be a matter of life and death in a crisis like the pandemic we’re living through. The researchers also argue that the infrastructure that supports them, in the form of the physical places where people meet and the staff and volunteers who activate them, deserve far more government support than they currently get.

During the pandemic more mutual aid groups were set up in areas of the UK with more social infrastructure, researchers from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy found.  That means that volunteers were more likely to pull groups together to help the most isolated and vulnerable community members in areas with more places like pubs, cafes, swimming pools and libraries.  While the researchers don’t have proof of causation, and the research was focused on towns rather than cities and rural areas, the correlation may be because community infrastructure enables people from a mixture of backgrounds to mingle on a regular basis, breaking down barriers and encouraging people to feel a sense of solidarity. 

The researchers also pointed to in-depth research by sociologist Eric Klinenberg into a 1995 heat wave in Chicago.  When temperatures got dangerously hot, more than 700 people died, and these deaths disproportionately occurred in areas with worse social infrastructure.  This correlation was much stronger than the link with poverty or population age.  Klinenberg argues that places which encourage regular, informal social interaction among a wide pool of people support greater trust and make it easier for neighbours to check on one another and to look out for those who may be more vulnerable – and in difficult times, this saves lives. 

When physical infrastructure promotes community cohesion

Greater involvement in local projects can also create a stronger sense of belonging in a community and feeling proud of it, the Cambridge researchers argue.  At the new Museum of Making, which will open in an 18th century silk mill in Derby this month, people living nearby volunteered to clean 11,000 bricks from the original factory which have been incorporated into the new design.  Meanwhile, volunteers have created England’s only community pub on a council estate in Brighton, bringing a closed-down pub back into use as The Bevy, which in normal times hosts dementia clubs and arts and crafts sessions as well as being open for food and drink, run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers.  During the pandemic, the pub switched to providing meals on wheels to local elderly residents.

The Cambridge researchers argue that this kind of community involvement – plus the beautiful finished museum and friendly pub – can make a significant contribution to boosting local pride and the feeling of having a stake in the fortunes of the area.  This in turn may make it easier for policy-makers and charities to tap into local sentiment and create interventions which are genuinely wanted and needed, rather than trying to fix problems without an engaged community that can give meaningful feedback on what is and isn’t wanted.

Quantifying neighbourliness

But more research is needed to provide rock-solid economic data to feed into policy-making, to ensure that the places and people that foster local ties and a sense of connectedness get the support they need.  The researchers echoed the call by former Bank of England head Andy Haldane for a greater focus on quantifying the value of neighbourliness, volunteering and civic pride.  We all know we like it, but if we can’t point to its value in pounds, shillings and pence, it risks being an afterthought when the government makes decisions.

At Dot Dot Dot, we see the value of neighbourliness, volunteering and community involvement every day, and we get a lot of satisfaction from cooperating with the venues and projects which create the volunteering opportunities our guardians get involved with.  For example, it has been great to support our Newham guardians to get involved with the community-building efforts created by Civic, an organisation that is working to breathe life into local high streets. Guardians have volunteered alongside local residents to create a fruit and veg pop-up shop, a podcast and rehearsal room and a hub for making scrubs for doctors and nurses – efforts with tangible direct benefits, but which also help to build neighbourly relationships and local pride. Likewise, the guardians we house through our partnership with Poplar HARCA have been volunteering to host dance classes in a local community centre and delivering food parcels as part of a local mutual aid effort. 

We wholeheartedly echo the researchers’ call for more investment in and acknowledgement of places and people who make all of this possible.  It’s also great to see academic evidence of what we know from experience – that all of the effort our guardians make to contribute to good causes and local communities is far more than just a nice to have.

If you’re interested in neighbourliness and giving back to your community, you can apply to become a property guardian with us.

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