The streets and parks of London have been overrun during the recent heat wave. At first glance, it would appear that everyone is outside soaking up the rays and socialising. But sadly this is not the case. As many as 760 people in the UK have died as a result of the heat. We will never know how many for certain, but it is likely that several of those deaths could have been prevented by a simple visit from a friend or a neighbour.
In his blog, Matthew Taylor cites a well-known ethnographic study on the Chicago heat wave of 1995. Rather than the likely factors of age and poverty, the study found that social isolation was the strongest contributor to the increased death toll. He advises, “To reduce deaths and serious illness, local authorities ought urgently to be considering which of their neighbourhoods have the highest levels of social isolation and lowest levels of casual sociability and seeking urgently to mobilise citizens to knock on doors and make contact with those who may be most isolated and thus vulnerable.”
At The U, we couldn’t agree more. We have been working to build new connections and bolster neighbourliness in communities around the UK for two years. This past weekend we hosted celebration events to mark the end of our projects in Chesham and Barking & Dagenham. In true U style the events offered fun activities for people to share skills and information, in an effort to reinforce the positive social connections made during the project. When we set up shop in a community, we bring together diverse groups of local people who might not ordinarily meet and offer them short, lively (and free) sessions to learn a practical skill such as first aid or managing disputes. We find that people leave these sessions as neighbours rather than strangers. They’re much more in the frame of mind to go check on the people down the street during a heat wave or other minor crisis. These sessions also offer an opportunity for those that might otherwise feel isolated to make some neighbourly ties.
Robert is a member of a local mental health support group in Barking, and was recently made redundant. He learned about The U when we delivered a Practising Positivity session for the group a couple of months ago. He was struck by the value of the experience and was motivated to volunteer with us as a Host to deliver his own sessions in the area. Robert said “I’m really grateful for my experience with The U. It’s kept me busy and up and about and out of the house.”
It’s no surprise that social connections are one of the strongest indicators for health and well-being. For Robert, the support and camaraderie of his fellow Hosts was a source of strength and motivation in a very difficult time. But even more informal connections, such as a nod between neighbours in the stairwell, can have huge benefits for communities. It has been well documented that people are much more likely to help someone in an emergency if they simply recognise them.
So as the heat abates and the thunderstorms roll on, don’t forget about your neighbours.