Opportunities to build social networks

Canadian Michael Woolcock famously remarked: ‘the well connected are more likely to be hired, housed, healthy and happy'. Strong local networks give access to many benefits, from informal childcare through to watering the plants and feeding the cat when you are on holiday. They also underpin people's attachment to an area.

A think-piece for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Neighbouring in contemporary Britain found that:

  • Neighbouring is still important - although its dynamics have changed as people have become more mobile and the time people spend in their locality has decreased
  • How much people interact and support each other as neighbours is influenced by a complex and wide range of factors including: the design of the built environment, crime, levels of trust, neighbourhood governance, the demography of an area, local shops or cafés
  • Neighbourhoods where there are children, nurseries or primary schools, elderly people or a high percentage of home-owners tend to be more neighbourly than others
  • Recent migration, language barriers, crime, litter and poor neighbourhood governance are instead some of the factors that may inhibit residents' sense of neighbourliness
  • Although the evidence is limited, there are grounds to suggest that some practical actions could facilitate neighbourliness. These include: better designed and maintained spaces for social encounter (from parks to health centres); developing homes more conducive to socializing through porches and front gardens; providing places for meeting and interaction between children and families through extended schools, local street parties, or other opportunities for people to connect, such as internet based local information-sharing services. The best approach may be to create a framework of conditions that help residents to be neighbourly when and if they want to be

"Policy needs to acknowledge the importance of social networks and social cohesion, and of feelings of security and safety. In this study, people expressed attachment to the communities in which they lived and to their networks of families and friends, rather than to the physical places. The qualitative research found that social and family networks and their feelings of safety were what helped to retain people in deprived areas. Policies that aid the development of social networks or of feelings of security are likely to aid attachment."

The influence of neighbourhood deprivation on people's attachment to places
Mark Livingston, Nick Bailey and Ade Kearns (May 2008)

The importance of building social networks between groups - related to what is sometimes called ‘bridging social capital' is very relevant where new housing settlements bring together people from different backgrounds - age, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, culture, or social class.

Spice - Time Banking

Spice began life as an institute within the University of Wales, Newport. Over a 6 year period the community credit systems developed became increasingly successful in achieving neighbourhood cohesion and engaging people in community services.

Read more about Spice

Find out about time banking

The evidence of what happens in the past, from the New Town which rehoused people from relatively homogeneous grounds, to more contemporary attempts to manipulate the social mix on new developments, illustrates some of the benefits of mixing people from different backgrounds (although this needs to be implemented carefully), and some of the pitfalls of developing communities that target a homogenous group.

"The tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property mix appeared to have improved the relative desirability of the three study areas, allowing people to distance themselves from the prejudice that is frequently faced by those living on council estates. In this way the areas provided a higher quality of life and an opportunity for tenants to break out of the spiral associated with concentrated disadvantage that some had experienced elsewhere.

The studies also include examples of mixed tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property developments that did not work so well. In one, social rented housing disproportionately consisted of very large five- or six-bedroomed properties, concentrated together, and this became a focal point for complaints about behaviour and nuisance. The design of the scheme had failed to mix property sizes and to recognise the problems that could arise from a concentration of particular types of home liable to cause tensions."

Mixed communities: success and sustainability, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2006)

CLG evaluation of the New Town experience

The problems that occur in areas where there is low social capitalGlossary: the networks and trust between people that help a community work together towards shared objectives are well documented: from high crime and anti-social behaviour, to poor quality public realm and resident dissatisfaction. The mental health problems that can be generated by social isolation are less well recognised.

What is 'new town blues'?