Londoners actively celebrate the fact that we come from all corners of the world, and in the main, we “rub along” fine. But many of us come from places where people talk to each other on trains and buses, chat in every queue and waiting room and give and receive help from their neighbours as a matter of course. Surely we can aim for more than avoiding conflict and enjoying each others food and music?
Could we set our sights on a more ambitious goal? Could London become a place where neighbourliness flourishes, where people know the people who live around them, with opportunities for new people to be welcomed into the area?
I lead a project called The U at The Young Foundation, which brings neighbours together to learn something useful and get to know each other. In our early days, we asked people what sort of neighbourhood they wanted to live in. We found that most of us want to live in places where we enjoy a sense of belonging, where we recognise each other as safe and decent, willing to help if needed. Many of us, particularly young people prefer the casual relationships of familiarity and recognition over anything more demanding. We want to belong to a web of social connections, some strong and deep, many casual and apparently superficial, but with the capacity to grow into bonds of friendship as our circumstances and life-stage change. Could London become a city renowned for its neighbourliness, where people routinely nod and smile as they pass in the street?
These apparently insignificant interactions matter. The better our social connections, the happier and healthier we are. It might be hard to believe that having friends and knowing the people around us leads to improved life satisfaction, longer life, fewer eating and sleeping problems, fewer mental health problems – but the mountain of evidence including from Nobel prize-winning economists makes all this hard to ignore. A recent UCL report found that supportive social relationships can also have a direct effect on health: older people with lower levels of support have significantly higher blood pressure and higher levels of inflammation. The upcoming Mayor’s London Mental Health Report will estimate that 1,071,795 adults in London are affected by common mental health issues like anxiety or depression and that the capital spends more than £9 billion every year on treating mental ill health.
All this makes a clear economic case for a city investing in supporting social connections – the money we’d save in health and mental health services, not to say social care, would be justification enough. But social connections do more than save us money, they reduce isolation, make our communities safer and provide a sense of belonging. They make us happier.
Neighbourliness can only flourish where people have opportunities to meet and have the chance to chat. Perhaps there was a time in this city when every neighbourhood had a church, a working men’s club, a launderette or a pub where people had a chance to meet those outside their immediate circle of family and close friends. Clearly those institutions no longer have much relevance..
But even in today’s highly mobile communities, people chat to those they barely know. For some, it’s chatting with other parents at the school gate; for others the regular exchanges at our street markets, ranging from the long-established ones in Queens Road, Brixton, Deptford, and the newer ones like Chatsworth Road in Hackney, Maltby Street in Bermondsey, and Woodgrange Marketplace in Newham.
The Jubilee street parties of last year were an unlikely hit in boroughs like Hounslow and Barking, with residents (re)discovering the joy of sharing a communal celebration. The Big Lunch brings ever greater numbers together each year to share food on a June Sunday. Streetbank.com helps neighbours to share tools, equipment and skills.
Over the last two years The U has brought together 1400 people in 7 neighbourhoods in and around London to learn, laugh and share stories. And as you’d expect, we’ve connected old people with students, people looking for work with people in busy jobs, the newly arrived with the long-established and every other combination reflecting the diversity of our city – and we’ve found Londoners are enthusiastic about this type of interaction. Over half our participants report bumping into each other again, nodding, smiling and chatting
Colleagues at the Intel Collaborative Institute at UCL have been exploring ways of using low-tech installations to foster connections. They have fitted a bus stop with a two posts with speakers three meters apart. When pressed together, the speakers offer up a joke. The posts are too far apart for one person to be able to activate it on their own – two people have to agree to hit the posts at the same time. They laugh together, or share a grimace – and the ice is broken. They share a moment of connection, often continuing to have a conversation and no doubt next time they see each other, they’ll chat again.
A city that prioritised social connections would spread these activities and look for ever more opportunities to give people reason to meet the folk who live around them. London could become the city where people from every corner of the world not only jostle alongside each other as we do now, but a place where people feel they belong because they routinely chat to the people they meet on the street and at the bus stop.