(This article was published in the Young Foundation's Porcupines in Winter)
Neighbourhoods have a lot to do with the ideal of organic community, but they should never be confused. Neighbourhood means something at once less nostalgic and more practical: living together in a particular place.
Its nature is imprecise. Administrative boundaries, personal identifications and local patterns often diverge. Recognisable layers include streets and blocks up to a couple of hundred people; home neighbourhoods of a thousand or two; and public neighbourhoods supporting perhaps five or ten thousand, large enough to provide facilities such as a park or playground, a school and surgery, a library or leisure centre and a few shops. Yet neighbourhood often feels like an iceberg nine-tenths obscured below the surface, its visible spur fogged by ghosts of the past.
Gilda O’Neill acknowledges the power of rose-tinted reminiscence in My East End: “We look back and see a warm, cosy place where we all were once safe, where everybody shared, where we sorted out local wrongdoers with a fair, if rough, sort of justice”. Family and Kinship in East London lovingly describes mid-century Bethnal Green as an urban village: “There is a sense of community, that is a feeling of solidarity between people who occupy the common territory, which springs from the fact that people and their families have lived there a long time.”
The foundations were close ties and well-fenced identity: “I was bred and born in Bethnal Green and my parents and their parents before them… I wouldn’t take a threepenny bus ride outside Bethnal Green.” The “one-time villages” submerged by the metropolis lived on in people’s minds and identities: “to some residents the Cambridge Heath Road resembles the Grand Canyon”.
Family and Kinship’s neighbourhoods were based in face-to-face neighbourliness. “Bethnal Greeners are not lonely people: whenever they go for a walk in the street, for a drink in the pub, or for a row on the lake in Victoria Park, they know the faces in the crowd.” The docks, artisanship and manual labour formed occupational bonds. Front doors were open onto the street, which served as a playground where children called women “auntie” regardless of relationship.
This intimate web of relationships really existed, with an accompanying host of problems and constraints. But when change inevitably struck, Bethnal Green could not shape it, any more than the un-enfranchised English could prevent the eighteenth-century enclosure of the commons. The community was disassembled by slum clearances, people scattered into estates and high-rises without consideration for social ties.
Mid-century Bethnal Green was acutely vulnerable. Lacking architectures for common purpose and action, it couldn’t organise to survive.
In this age of ’BBC Neighbours from Hell’, we may feel we’ve lost the neighbourhood of the past. But we can’t just resurrect it. We have to find new seeds for neighbouring, while bearing in mind Family and Kinship’s caution over blueprints: “Even when the town planners have set themselves to create communities anew as well as houses, they have still put their faith in buildings, sometimes speaking as though all that was necessary for neighbourliness was a neighbourhood unit, for community spirit a community centre.”
To live together better in this century than in the last, we need both to understand how things have been and to experiment with how they could be - charting a course that leaves the Scylla of the museum and the Charybdis of the laboratory well to either side.
Neighbourhood history: from hamlets to individuals – and back again?
The story of attempts to socially engineer neighbourhood in Britain stretches into history. The last century reveals the persistence of the idea, some common approaches, and reasons why success was scarce.
As the twentieth century dawned, the settlement movement sought through Victorian moral gentrification to bring middle-class leadership to inner city neighbourhoods. The neighbourhoods of the Garden City blueprints drew inspiration in part from medieval hamlets, with Unwin stressing “the crystallisation of the elements in a village in accordance with a definitely organised life of mutual relations”, “a small corporate life”.
Ebeneezer Howard planned neighbourhoods with their own school, playground, gardens and church. Many emphasised the importance of communal buildings, even health centres as a focus for neighbourhood identity and interaction.
The ‘neighbourhood unit’ concept from the US brought the Garden City into the age of the automobile, designing traffic-insulated zones around the capacity of a central primary school and other facilities a short walk away. Settlements often developed around nodes sustained by travel and exchange: crossroads, markets, harbours and deltas. Far from retrieving locality’s original nature, the neighbourhood unit turned inward to protect against the flux of modernity. The perils can be seen in NIMBYism, gated communities and urban ghettos alike.
Between the wars, large housing estates were raised on the British city fringes away from urban grime. Despite the aspiration to ’Garden Suburbs’, most were fated to become single-class dormitories co-existing tensely with the older villages alongside which they had been parachuted. Some residents rose to the challenge of constructing neighbourhood anew, supporting tenants’ associations and wider community associations. Many did not get that far, or were diverted sooner or later by domestic concerns.
Ruth Durant told this story of Watling, built in the mid-1920s. At first it was “nothing but bricks and mortar and acres of mud”, with workers commuting back to their old jobs, many feeling isolated by the space between their new dwellings. The Residents’ Association, their first organisation, was founded within nine months of the first arrival. After establishing the Watling Resident paper which rapidly achieved near-universal circulation, they defended Watling and campaigned for schools, transport, post-office, playing-fields and a park, while lobbying for those in distress.
The Association “virtually formed a nucleus of local government”, less as authority than as advocate and gathering-place. It established subgroups (horticultural, sporting, dramatic, a children’s league, a nursing association) and a Community Centre building fund. Yet within a year and a half hobby groups were disaffiliating, political and religious divisions arose and the Association faded. One resident said, “We have gone into our shells”.
After the Second World War two motors of social change were revving: one propelling people toward a market of spiky individualism, the other sucking power toward the national centre. In planning they manifested themselves through the chequered story of the New Towns and their low-density neighbourhoods, and in the post-war public housing estates shaped by Whitehall incentives.
Until the start of the inter-war depression, almost all local public services were developed and run by local government. Thereafter, central guidance and grant in aid grew as local autonomy diminished. The post-war national agenda, seeking uniformity of provision, drew more power toward the centre. The second half of the twentieth century saw a precipitous decline in local public autonomy: money, power and ideas alike.
The cathedrals of the local public realm – the baths, the parks filled with bandstands and hothouses – flourished when there were few private facilities at home. But people wanted private gardens and bathrooms, and planners delivered them. Starved of inhabitance and funds, the local commons began to evaporate.
Norman Dennis dissected “The Popularity of the Neighbourhood Community Idea” in 1958, ascribing it to wishful thinking and nostalgia for Merrie England. He argued that modern life had broken the “social-system local community”. Work, public services, leisure and retail had been taken out of the domestic locality, both physically and in terms of their governance. Without that neighbourhood social system, opportunities for interaction, common activities and experiences will be fragmentary, effective organisation a fruitless dream.
The local commons – the ensemble of local spaces, services, organisations and social relations – was stretched thin between the pulls of state centralisation and piecemeal private living. But the hollowing out of strategic local authorities under siege, together with the rotting of local representative politics, created a chilly climate for reviving neighbourhoods.
In the seventies the next wave of community development foundered again, as new community associations discovered authorities could not or would not respond. A prophetic Michael Young proposed a new wave of urban parishes for self-governing neighbourhoods in 1970, founding an Association of Neighbourhood Councils.
Young's research indicated (by no means uniquely) that people’s sense of belonging attached more closely to neighbourhoods of a few thousand people than to local authority areas that would soon grow even larger. He thought real if limited powers at neighbourhood level could provide fresh underpinnings for a responsive democracy. But these seeds fell largely on stony ground: power was to be hoarded, not shared.
By the 1980s, disillusioned community activists had started to colonise local government. In some places they began decentralising to neighbourhoods, reshaping services around local need. After establishing neighbourhood offices and forums Birmingham, goaded by Young, proposed to establish 94 parishes across the city – only to be rebuffed by the Boundaries Commission. Meanwhile from Shipley to South Somerset, webs of area coordinators, neighbourhood forums and parishes were growing tentatively together.
The neighbourhood offices of early-eighties Walsall were praised vividly by Jeremy Seabrook for reviving apocalyptic housing estates abandoned to the rats (horrors familiar to this day – see our Glasgow case study). Residents steal, fight, destroy and cannibalise furniture and heaters: these are places of survival, not life. One neighbourhood officer moved in as the headman of Goscote and through will, authority and occasional brute force, cut the crime rate by a reported 98 per cent within months.
This Labour project aimed to rebuild working-class solidarity, but suffered from over-idealism and segregration from mainstream services. Crucified in the national media, it didn’t last.
It was in Tower Hamlets that one of the most controversial experiments took place from the mid-1980s, and its ghost still haunts the neighbourhood idea. The Liberals’ manifesto trumpeted boldly, “it gives power back to the hamlets around the tower; it turns local government upside down, abandons centralised bureaucracy, and returns to the old ‘parish’ concept.”
True to their word, they dismantled functional organisation and announced that all decisions would be taken in seven neighbourhood committees, supported by local offices from which services would be delivered to populations of around 24,000. Lively consultative forums were attached, often constituted from tenant and association leaders, though block elections were held in Bow and Poplar. Successes included innovative cross-disciplinary working and one-stop shops, rent arrears reduced dramatically, and entrepreneurial capital programmes. The atmosphere was hyper-politicised. Turnout surged dramatically, more than 15 per cent.
Yet social services suffered from a lack of flexibility and other decisions from the near-absence of central custodianship. Rivalries grew, obstructing joint tendering. Conflicts over scarce public housing grew with right-to-buy and the growth of the Bengali population. Sons-and-daughters policies took on racial overtones, and the anger of the white working class was harnessed to a new breed of populist paternalism. Many place the BNP’s victory on the Isle of Dogs in 1993 at the Liberals’ door.
What went wrong? The imagined hamlets they called upon, the organic community of Family and Kinship, corresponded too little to a present day of fractured neighbourhoods where conflict flared between and within races. Too many of the rotten borough’s traditions were continued in a system where councillors were barons. Representing the majority as the community proved not to lead to living well together. The emphasis on historic identity and natural roots slid toward blood and soil, faith and fear.
Understanding neighbourhoods: local systems and the local public realm
We can learn from this history. ’Natural’ identity is a potent brew, in particular when organic community starts to fragment. By nature it shuts people out. But it is not the only starting point for togetherness in neighbourhoods. Instead we can begin from the living realities. We can explore neighbourhood’s social patterns, the common threats and opportunities, the spaces where conflicts flare and accommodations are reached. Understanding and building on the common ways a neighbourhood shapes residents’ lives can provide practical grounds for coming together to transform it.
This was the approach of the Chicago School from the 1920s on. Using ethnography and quantitative analysis, they anatomised Chicago’s ’urban ecology’ of neighbourhoods on lines still reflected in its governance today. Building on ideas of niche colonisation and succession, they found the city sorted into distinct neighbourhoods of differing character – stable communities, twilight zones of transition, affluent suburbs and ‘gold coasts’. Frederick Thrasher traced the formation of youth gangs among ‘our kids’ playing in twilight neighbourhoods to local causes, including poverty, fast turnover, heterogeneity and disorder. This understanding was put into practice, for example, by reforming gangs into Scout troupes, inspiring the Chicago Area Project and much subsequent youth work.
Today we have increasingly solid data about neighbourhood effects. Crime rates correlate to neighbourhood poverty and social disorganisation. Educational and youth outcomes are influenced by neighbourhood socio-economics, collective socialisation and social capital. A recent report suggests that inequalities in infant mortality and life expectancy are widening, and the latter can drop by years from one street to another.
In deprived neighbourhoods, social problems flock together – crime, delinquency and disorder, infant mortality, child abuse, few job opportunities, run-down local services and credit and debt difficulties. Neighbourhoods can slide suddenly and dramatically when dereliction, housing voids or population transience reach a certain ’tipping point’.
Arguments still rage around cause and consequence. Is living in neighbourhoods creating these effects, or are poor families sorted together? The common-sense answer is both. Bad neighbourhoods hurt the poor most. At the extreme they become prisons that shut residents away from opportunity, even hope.
In today’s Britain poverty is becoming more locally concentrated, in part through vicious circles between the housing and education markets. The fact that local social systems are open to larger processes makes understanding their internal dynamics even more pressing.
People often see neighbourhood through visible public problems: anti-social behaviour and youth delinquency, derelict sites, dark, dirty and frightening streets, dangerous traffic, bland and anonymous environments and overgrown parks have all risen up the list of popular concern.
Local action can make a real difference. Research suggests that ;collective efficacy; (bringing together trust, norms and local control by citizens, for instance in preventing public disorder or truancy) can pay dramatic dividends. Collective-efficacy neighbourhoods have been found in one study to have a 40 per cent lower homicide rate. In another, the risk of low birth weight for poorly-educated women living in well-organised neighbourhoods was almost two and a half times less than for highly-educated women living in poorly-organised neighbourhoods.
A golden thread links the objective dynamics of the neighbourhood system to the local public realm – the ensemble of common local spaces, services, buildings, practices, judgments, landmarks and authority. From the school-gate to the front door, this is where we come together, and where we can start to improve the commons: cleaning up the park, joining a neighbourhood watch, taking over a derelict pub or setting up a kids’ football league.
The local public realm can be brutal, vestigial or idyllic. It is the visible tenth of the neighbourhood iceberg. Here the public becomes personal, and private and common interests (safety, leisure, cleanliness, sociability, family, learning and hope) can not just conflict but converge. But in many neighbourhoods today in Britain, we have little opportunity actively to make these connections.
The facts about our neighbourhoods are becoming increasingly transparent: just take ChicagoCrime.org, which uses GoogleMaps to provide easily understood layers of street-level police data, and for which a London analogue is in development. Over the next decade, private-public geographical information systems will flood us with waves of neighbourhood information.
Such data in the hands of individuals and communities holds great potential for identifying shared problems. But as a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation study warns, there are accompanying risks. The market trend will be to reveal the sensational first (other GoogleMaps show registered sex offenders locally).
Neighbourhood data may precipitate crises of governance. The problems they reveal can be addressed through a limited range of paths: voice, choice, direct action or exit. If datasets are largely tailored to individual rather than collective judgment, and governance frameworks cannot swiftly organise a common response, the default options may be exit or anarchy. For this Pandora’s Box to do more good than harm, we must act fast to frame this knowledge and enable neighbourhoods to respond together.
21st century neighbours: adoption and welcome
“Love thy neighbour as thyself” is followed in Leviticus by a less-remembered challenge, “love the stranger as thyself”. Are they so different today?
Revisiting Georg Simmel’s description of the stranger, I am struck by its relevance to contemporary neighbouring. Simmel finds the stranger not outside but within the local group. At once near and far, he is a “potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going.”
Research has shown that “weak ties” are becoming increasingly important in neighbourhoods, helping to provide a “feeling of home”, “security” and “practical as well as social support”. We are starting to see these links providing building blocks for overlapping local association, just as extended family, work and identity once did.
The vital foundations of neighbourhood in today’s Britain are proximity and commonality. A more open kind of neighbourliness between people who begin as strangers can be hard – in particular should unfamiliar sights, smells and noise assail the senses. But it is starting to look increasingly relevant and viable. It involves recognising that alongside the friction of immediate proximity, we share with our neighbours something absolute and human and something locally common. (Often also something small and surprising: a love of geraniums, a TV soap, high blood pressure.)
When the possibilities of commonness stretch to the horizon, the emerging human way of coping is to identify and affirm a handful of those possibilities. The choice of neighbouring proves both appealing and practical.
About two-thirds of us say we feel a real sense of belonging to our neighbourhood, meaning also that we owe something of ourselves to it. A similar majority say they want to participate in making their locality better. Surveys indicate that the proportion of people who thought that in their neighbourhood “people help each other out” rather than “going their own way” fell from 1984 to 1992, but has risen since the mid-90s; trust in neighbours is also rising.
Residential mobility may be lower today, especially by contrast to the urbanisations of recent centuries. Data suggests that almost two-thirds of home moves are only within a five-mile radius. When we do move, we can adopt our new neighbourhoods, and they us. This process of identification is assisted by street-level actions: welcoming new arrivals, helping them get a grip on what’s where and who’s who.
Gilda O’Neill quotes an old EastEnder who says of Neighbourhood Watch, “I’m in it, but I think it’s sad. You used to look out for one another because it’s just what you did – the right thing to do. What’s happened to people?”
But today neighbourliness is a matter of will as much as fate. We need to exchange nostalgia for purpose, recognising (for instance) that most Neighbourhood Watches involve only a few people, limiting their success and radius of trust, and thinking how we could bring more people in.
Community can be built afresh, as this testimony about Telegraph Hill indicates: “I love it here. I had a rootless childhood, and I love the very strong sense of community that the children have. It’s like a village in the centre of London, it has that kind of support system.”
Almost forty years ago, researchers described Sparkbrook in Birmingham as a twilight zone. But in Balsall Heath (one of its ethnically diverse neighbourhoods and for long a prostitution hotspot), campaigning, mutual aid and governance have built common norms and institutions over two decades. Through neighbourhood wardens, community gardening, volunteer street-cleaning and reopening the front desk of the local ’nick’, people are starting to take responsibility for their proximity.
21st century neighbourhoods: question, gather, decide, transform
As we start to explore our interconnectedness, a kind of "individual solidarity" may be emerging - a far side of individualism, with real strengths in comparison with the past. "You asking me what I think of Bethnal Green is like asking a countryman what he thinks of the country... I suppose when you've always lived here you like it," said one Family and Kinship interviewee.
Today we may be less rooted in our neighbourhoods; but like Simmel’s stranger, we are more inclined to query. Residents praised the Walsall neighbourhood offices because they “started people asking questions” not limited by bureaucracy, debunking the myths about how things work.
The first step to empowerment is simple questioning. Why is that park dangerous? What could we do about it? Questions need to connect to real change. In this respect the decentralisation of power from central to local authorities, alongside gathering recognition of the bottom-up view, could open up previously frustrated possibilities for neighbourhood governance.
Emile Durkheim announced at the end of the 19th century, “The patriotism of the parish has become an archaism that cannot be restored at will”. Was he right? There can and should be no return to the unquestioning togetherness of hamlet life, as the film The Village has illustrated. But today people are willing in many places to get involved. Given time, tools and the right balance of challenge and cooperation with public authorities, they can transform our physical and social fabric.
The emerging toolkit connects the old and proven (friends’ groups, petitions, common ownership) to the new and fast-evolving (the convergence of hyper-local civic media and social software with mobile networks offers new grounds for a local public sphere). National policy can offer underpinnings, for instance by helping extended schools flourish and encouraging community-based and affordable housing. Youth services are just one example of a national challenge that requires a neighbourhood base.
The jigsaw is in pieces and we need to see it whole. Britain today is sorely lacking in neighbourhood arrangements, let alone democratic ones building well-being in the round. The lowest tier of executive government in Britain serves an average population of 118,500, more than ten times as large as benchmarks in the US and continental Europe. We have correspondingly fewer democratic representatives and less local ownership of problems and solutions. A proliferation of service-specific consultation fails to plug the holes.
From this unhelpful situation, we may be able to leapfrog to frameworks that are more fit for modern purpose. They should be simple, flexible and holistic, enabling citizens to get involved on one issue while connecting it to the bigger picture.
The areas of promise for neighbourhood governance are clear: advocacy and representation, bringing local actors together around priorities, asking questions and scrutinising public authorities, influencing or taking decisions, and helping to provide more mutual and responsive local services. At any time our thousands of diverse neighbourhoods will benefit from constellations involving one, a handful or all of these activities.
Promising experiments are being conducted in neighbourhood management, bringing together residents and service providers in a number of cities. Councillors are being reborn as community advocates. Parish or neighbourhood councils can draw on and diversify their traditions of representative, direct and participatory democracy, plumbing into more constructive dialogue with local government and local services.
Neighbourhood hubs can provide a gathering-place and anchor for local association, strengthening capacity for when it’s needed (as Watling’s community centre hoped to, and super-churches in the USA recently have). Community assets, services and precepts can generate funds to be ploughed back into the neighbourhood. Local enquiries can take stock and propose changes.
Modest but real powers can be established by devolution, compact or legislation, including financial powers, rights to initiate action, to buy land and buildings and to hold authorities to account. Risks such as corruption, fragmentation, collapse and inefficiency are real, but can be managed. Not everything should be put in neighbourhood hands.
Rather than organic communities tied together in a ‘small corporate life’, we can aspire toward welcoming neighbourhoods home to a kaleidoscope of individuals and groups, each with the opportunity to come together and shape what they share for the better. This demands architectures that link leadership with a participative respect. Especially in urban areas, many people will opt out of local public reflection and decision-making most of the time, and that’s fine. If opportunities are opened up fairly, the circle of trust may start to grow.
In neighbourhood two exciting possibilities are writ small: peaceful co-existence, and systems of public authority that are genuinely public, meaning swift and effective response to the hopes and interests of society. We find ourselves on the first rung of a long ladder. Recognising what they have in common, neighbourhoods can live together in a neighbourly fashion. Nations live in neighbourhoods too, from border conflicts to cooperating regions.
Ideals of welcoming, mutual aid, respect and shared stewardship all have purchase on the global stage. But we can start by just sorting out the muddy local common.