That’s all fine and good for London, but how do we make places in cities to which people move to be as far apart as possible? (Yes, I don’t believe people move to Olympia because it’s an urban wonderland.)
Community is a complex idea in an urban setting, especially a diverse city like London where proximity between neighbours doesn’t necessarily create a community. Community means something different to everyone, its boundaries are hard (some would say even impossible) to define, and the idea of being part of a place-based community matters more at some stages of life than others: young families and older people put greater value on their local community than others, for obvious reasons.
Yet, for many people, where they live is an important site of social interaction and a fundamental part of their identity: a place of family and friendship networks and connections to wider ethnic or faith communities, sometimes a place of work, and to a greater or lesser degree, community-based networks and relationships. Communities play a fundamental role in our sense of belonging, identity and local well-being. The UK’s Citizenship Survey (2010) shows that 76% of people feel they belong strongly to the neighbourhood they live in. Research on social capital and well-being suggests that everyday interactions with friends, family and neighbours play a crucial role in sustaining a sense of community but can be extremely fragile. Even subtle changes at local level like the closure of a local shop or disappearance of a playgroup or lunch club, can have a significant impact on community spirit and community well-being.
How well these local relationships work to support individuals and enable the community to come together in a time of crisis, or in response to an external threat (planning and urban regeneration being a common motivator), makes a difference to the social life of the neighbourhoods. No one can be forced to be good neighbours or to become friends, but there is evidence to suggest that the strength of local social networks is related to a number of social outcomes, from the health of residents to levels of crime. Stronger networks generally create stronger communities.