From the time I Ieft home at 18, it took me nearly ten years before I really got to know any of my neighbours. It’s just not how I lived. I moved around different flats, living with different people, I travelled to meet friends, and it never occurred to me to make an effort to meet the other people in my building or street.
I went through some kind of epiphany or conversion around the age of 27, and decided to start making an effort, But it was just that – an effort. It wasn’t something that happened very easily or naturally. I didn’t seem to have a lot in common with these random people. The only communal spaces in our building were the narrow, outdoor balconies along which our front doors were strung. In the summer it was nice to stand outside and gaze at the view, but it was weird to hang out there in the British winter.
Over time I’ve come to believe more and more in the value of knowing our neighbours. It makes home feel more like somewhere we belong and want to return to, it makes it feel safer and happier. But there are other advantages too, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been watching the progress of the Social Integration Commission over this past year.
You might have missed the fact of its existence, so allow me to catch you up. It was set up in the spring of 2014 by an organisation called The Challenge as a way of investigating the state of social integration in modern Britain, the economic costs of a lack of social integration, and to make a set of recommendations which could improve the situation.
There have been some fascinating discoveries. In the UK our children are actually less socially ingregated than older people, which doesn’t say much for how socially mixed our schools are. (Needless to say the new faith schools popping up through the Free Schools initiative aren’t helping the statistics). Despite being much more diverse (in terms of ethnicity and class) than the rest of the country, our biggest cities are less socially integregated – perhaps because it’s easier for large homogenous groups to stick together. Churches and other faith communities are often the best social melting pots and one of the few places where people from different backgrounds interact. And white Brits are the least socially integrated group in the country.
Fascinating. But what do you do with that information?
One of the main reasons that we live where we do is because we put a high value on living alongside and getting to know people who are different from us. (We also feel acutely aware of the dangers of segregation and growing resentment between the different ends of the income spectrum, especially when it’s usually the people in the middle who leave the inner-city). On our estate there are individuals and families from all over the world – Ecuadorians and West Indians, Sierra Leonians and Nigerians, Poles and Spaniards, Indians and Thais. There are people of very different ages, different religions and different income brackets – the private owners and the social tenants live side by side. We’re still struggling to work out how to be good neighbours and build the sense of community people seem to crave but we’re still working out how. All I can come back to is that it takes effort.
But then there are moments – big ones like The Big Lunch, and small ones like running out of milk for Jesse and knowing that Agnieska will bail me out – when it feels incredibly worthwhile. I love how many people in the block know and treasure our little man.
We are on such a learning curve, which is why I was so eager to read the Commission’s recommendations for improving social integration. There are some obvious (and important) ones relating to schools and work-places, but what were their neighbourhood-related suggestions? One easy answer is banning ‘poor doors’ (the practice of creating different entrances for private and social residents within the same development), which I hope is a no-brainer. But they also recommend that planning authorities stipulate that new developments must incorporate plans that will enable different residents to mix (rather than trying to curtail this). Bring back shared spaces!
There is also a laudable but unhelpfully vague recommendation that “people living in diverse areas should be encouraged to meet their neighbours.” Yes! (From the rooftops). Totally! But who will do this encouraging? (Apart from me, obvs). There are schemes afoot to help – Play Streets, Streetbank, The Big Lunch. But it’s not exactly something you can legislate. You can’t make people come to a jumble sale (ahem). It takes time to win trust, and how many of us are willing to spare it?
(A side note: I think meeting the neighbours is a good thing to do whether or not you live in a socially diverse area).
I’ve enjoyed all three of the reports by the Commission (although maybe the economic one was the least exciting), and I’ve discovered that there are all kinds of practical proven reasons why making an effort to build friendships with people who are different to us contributes to our common good as a nation. As a city dweller it’s sobering to read how bad we are at it, despite all the opportunities we have. I’m not sure it has changed much of my thinking. I guess the point of it is to try to influence public policy to create a greater likelihood of social integration across the country, and that is definitely an initiative I’d support. And it fuels our resolution to live where we do and be persistently sociable.
I’d really recommend reading the reports (they’re eminently readable), and would also love to hear any ideas for how to encourage the world to meet their neighbours!