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Kevin Harris
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‘Supermarkets are crucibles of snobbery’ wrote Harry Wallop, author of a book on ‘how we buy class in modern Britain’. I came across two examples of supermarket snobbery recently – the first of which still has me chuckling. Apparently there is a pseudo-posh neighbourhood in the west midlands where residents are ‘up in arms’ (i.e. community action has been mobilised) because their Tesco is threatened with closure, to be replaced by an Aldi. I’m quite a promiscuous and experienced food shopper meself and I suppose favoured in having branches of most chains within easy reach. Tesco is the nearest but always the very last resort in desperation, largely because I find their implied assumptions about food quality insulting. Call it reverse snobbery if you like. Aldi and Lidl always impress me. I know that for certain things (but not everything I need) I can get unfussy good quality – and without all the extra layers of packaging that certain outlets like to use (naming no names, the phrase ‘Marks and Spencer’ would never come to mind in this context). According to Wallop, drinking coffee is an indicator of social class, and ‘even within coffee there are gradations of snobbery.’ It's probably worth noting though that interest in - even proccupation with - the relative quality of something is not the same as being snobbish about it. My second anecdote came a while ago when I was staying in a guest house and complemented the hostess on the coffee she served at breakfast. She told me I was the third guest recently to have made that observation - since she had switched from buying Waitrose coffee to Aldi’s Italian. Image from Lucas Varela. Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
It’s a while since I wrote about Lost possessions and the reassuring tradition of considerate behaviour towards complete strangers who may have lost things in public places. Now here’s a rare example of community communication where someone apparently announces the end of a search – a dog re-united with its owner. I counted at least six of these identical notices – each of which had been laminated and stapled - in the vicinity where I took this picture. I can’t help thinking that if so much trouble was taken at the conclusion of the episode, then a fair amount of community energy must probably have been mobilised in the initial search. But strangely there’s no reference to any efforts that others might have put in. Previously: How to thank your neighbours Continue reading
Posted Sep 2, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
About a week ago I picked up information concerning two curiosities. First, that the five members of a family that I happen to know, readily share precise location data online and look at what each other is doing during the day, some of them separated geographically by many miles. Some people will find this odd because it sounds like sanctioned tagging. Secondly, I learned from Robert Macfarlane’s delightful book The Old Ways, of the existence of the Formby footprints. The prints, baked hard into soft mud where the beach is now, have emerged on the shore at Formby Point because of environmental conditions and we are told they are approximately 5,000 years old. Among numerous prints, human and animal, it is claimed that the parallel steps of a man and a woman can be made out clearly. (The pic, by Macfarlane himself, is on the Formby Footprints website). By coincidence I was in Formby for a couple of days last week, and spent time on the beach at low tide. The prints are hard to find – conditions change and, having been exposed, it seems they are unlikely to last long – but I saw several and yes, they are exciting to a closet anthropologist like me. I happened to speak to a woman who has lived for nearly fifty years within two miles of this extraordinary find, and who knew nothing about them, so I did not feel too ignorant in my belated learning. The next day in Liverpool, I couldn’t resist this shot of the upturned sole of a shoe that seemed to have been washed up on the dock just outside the Tate Gallery. Paul Carter in his challenging book Dark writing wrote that ‘Our world is composed of the traces of movement’. Carter was asking why so much of our cultures (he begins with cartography) represents the world as static, when our experience of it is mobile. And so I go back to thoughts of that family who have and welcome the capacity to examine each others’ traces constantly, using their smartphones. It seems like a form of voyeurism that, being approved - just as the revelation of ancient footprints on a beach, and seeking them out and gazing at them, is culturally approved - perhaps exemplifies a fundamental human curiosity for the traces of others. Does this echo themes of privacy, curtain-twitching and looking-out for others in the neighbourhood? We still have the instincts of hunters. Continue reading
Posted Aug 29, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
In time of shifting economic fortunes, the flexible use and re-use of space and buildings can play a valuable part in helping local businesses and other agencies to survive and flourish. It sometimes seems as if ‘temporary use’ is a contemporary phenomenon associated with the 2008 economic recession. This may not be true, but there’s certainly been a significant recent emphasis on how planners can use redundant spaces and assets to help local economies and town centres resist the depression and thrive. The spin-off benefits – often associated with arts, third sector organisations and community development – are not trivial either, as was illustrated in the Compendium for the Civic Economy for instance. Now we have some research, recommendations and a charter to show our local planners and regen officials, thanks to the SEEDS project (‘Stimulating Enterprising Environments for Development and Sustainability’), a European Regional Development Fund initiative. The argument is that temporary use and re-use should not be seen as a short-term sticking plaster solution, but has to be written into town and city planning if local economies are to grow and thrive; and this requires something of a mindset shift among planners and policy-makers. So it’s a bit like the old problem of formalising the informal – make ephemerality a permanent feature of policy and practice. Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Here’s an unfortunate article by Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian, describing Preston’s 1960s bus station as ‘majestic’ and deriding a new alternative design. No, it’s not a spoof. Preston bus station is among the more unpleasant environments I’ve had to spend time in and I know I’m not alone in having had that experience. Through a link to one of Wainwright’s previous articles, I find a picture caption claiming that ‘Preston Bus Station is rightly recognised as one of the country’s most dramatic public buildings of its time.’ ‘Rightly recognised’? Well it may be among the most dramatic, given much of the architecture we had to put up with from those years, but it’s not healthy to go on about it. What we have here, I suspect, is another example of the Robin Hood Gardens phenomenon, where architects tell ordinary people that they have no taste. RHG was manifestly a disaster and a disgrace to civilisation, but architects were telling us to the death that it was some kind of masterpiece. There's a regrettable professional closed-ranks-refusal to accept that brutalism was a mistake. In a postscript on RHG I noted ‘What's most depressing about it though is that the louder the architects clamour, the less faith the rest of us can have that they will in future pay due account to what it's like to live there.’ It’s the old problem of architects seeing their output as objects defined by a mathematical aesthetic and not as occupied space that plays a part - often a huge part - in the everyday lives of people who (guess what?) can't afford penthouses and chauffeurs. People deserve public space that affords a sense of humanity. I don't understand why this is still such a problem. Image from Continue reading
Posted Aug 18, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
The latest PSI report on children’s independent mobility covers data from 16 countries and ranks England seventh among them. The study found that the greatest degree of independent mobility was granted to children in Finland, where the majority of children aged eight are allowed to cross main roads, travel home from school and go out after dark alone. The report includes this fascinating table showing variations in perceptions of whether neighbours look out for children in their area. The findings for several countries, including England and Australia, are noticeably mixed: but most striking to me are the very low levels of disagreement with the proposition in Japan and France. However, it seems that 'looking out for others' - desirable though we may think it is as a factor in quality of life - does not correlate with measures of children’s independent mobility: ‘Of the three factors examined, traffic seems to be the strongest factor affecting the granting of independent mobility, with ‘strangers’ showing a weak effect and community supervision not being a factor.’ Continue reading
Posted Aug 12, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
On the subject of the Other and the shame of Calais, here's Frankie Boyle in yesterday’s Guardian: “If we can look at another human being and categorise them as 'illegal', or that chilling American word 'alien', then what has become of our own humanity? To support policies that dehumanise others is to dehumanise yourself. I think most people resist that, but are pressed towards it by an increasingly sadistic elite. If you’re worried about threats to your way of life, look to the people who are selling your public services out from under you. The people who will destroy this society are already here: printing their own money, printing their own newspapers, and responding to undesirables at the gates by releasing the hounds.” Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I set up Local Level in July 2005 and in some ways it’s surprising to find that we're still going in spite of the recession – indeed we've won three new contracts in the past couple of weeks, in addition to several ongoing, so business could be described as healthy. (But I can still justifiably describe it as an unintentionally non-profit organisation). Looking back, I’m struck by three things: The diversity of the work we’ve covered without (I sincerely hope) losing sight for a moment of our values and principles - empowerment, equalities, inclusion, collaboration, and shared learning. Their meaning has been reinforced and refined by so many of the inspiring people we’ve worked with. The lack of improvement in the processes of public sector procurement – still a focus for a lot of poor information-sharing, grotesquely exaggerated bureaucratic caution, and questionable (sometimes downright lamentable) project briefs. The importance of having worked with a range of consortia, associates and other companies, from solo operators to large consultancies. Apart from helping to ensure work this has served to share knowledge and experience, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. There ought to be an award for best client over this ten year period, but I find it impossible to decide from this list. Perhaps rashly I'll narrow it down to seven, and if there were a cake, they could share it: The British Council – thank you Sarah Metcalfe Caloundra City Libraries, Queensland - thank you Louise Bauer and Gail Robinson Fontys University, Eindhoven – thank you Jan Steyaert Shipley College and Shipley Streets Ahead – thank you Margaret Robson and Jonathan Hayes Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham – thank you Angus McCabe Watford Council for Voluntary Services – thank you Bob Jones WoodGreen Community Services, Toronto – thank you Diane Dyson. I don't think we should read too much into the fact that three of these are overseas clients, but it's curious. There are fewer candidates for the 'Worst Client' award. These will not be revealed just yet. Finally I want to thank the various good folk who have been ready to call themselves Local Level associates and with whom I have worked on projects over the years: Martin Dudley (pretty much from day one, thanks for the support mate), Bev Carter, Cathy Herman, John Vincent, Rebecca Linley, Hugh Flouch, Sarah Chapman, Linda Constable, Alison Gilchrist, and Jackie Black. I do not include the many inspiring colleagues with whom I have worked under some other aegis, who are rather too numerous to mention, but my thanks go to them all. My sincere apologies if I have left anyone of this list, let me know and I can remedy it. (I ought also to offer sincere apologies to anyone who is on the list and doesn’t want to be: ditto!) Here's to another ten years, if I'm spared. Continue reading
Posted Jul 2, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I had a fascinating conversation the other day with Tobias Jones, author of A place of refuge and this recent Observer article on communal living. I am in quiet awe of what Tobias and his family have achieved at Windsor Hill Wood and how they have gone about it. I’m also hugely impressed by the openness of his thinking and the clarity of his writing. Tobias is exploring commonalities in different approaches to ‘community,’ from communalism to community development to neighbouring in its most manifest - and presumably least manifest - forms. As I understand it, he is searching for ways of strengthening those commonalities. We scratched the surface of a few issues. While I would have my doubts about attempting to package insights into evidence of a lasting contemporary grassroots movement – I’d love to be proved wrong – I think there is much to be said for a more systematic sharing of understanding. I look forward to what Tobias is writing next, an essay for New Statesman. Just thinking about communal living in comparison with neighbouring is helpful. The amateur anthropologist in me is immediately muttering about how communal living is where we all came from: in the evolution of humankind, neighbouring is a rather more recent way of organising social relations. Tobias neatly offers communal living as ‘an alliance with the past to critique the present in the hope of a better future.’ This lived experience of time eludes most of us, however neighbourly our locality. In the contemporary neighbourhood context, it is much harder to remain immersed in ways of doing things that are mutual and sustainable. Allotment gardeners might have a grasp of it, commuters are less likely to. We struggle to appreciate how to do things sustainably in the sense of reducing emotional and spiritual damage as well as environmental damage. It’s no coincidence that gardeners do most of what they do outdoors, and commuters do most of what they do indoors or cocooned in vehicles. We often get the pace of living wrong and we lose much of the vocabulary of stewardship. I’m reminded of a quote from the wonderful Erri de Luca: ‘Holy man of Africa, I think, you come to impart your wisdom to a European savage who follows the moon on the calendar and the clouds on the radio and can’t read a word without an alphabet.’ Communalism comes with the category heading ‘Lifestyle’: neighbouring does not. I note also that the settlement co-residents described by Tobias are there at least partly to establish or regain a sense of stability in their lives. The context of neighbouring is different: much of it is about asserting and retaining – and often defending – stability. Tobias and his family welcome ‘visitors’ – some for a day or two, some for months: this is about transience – again, acknowledging the natural passage of time, not the generally implied permanence of neighbourhood relations. There is much to be learned I think from this path... Continue reading
Posted Jun 29, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Here’s a real delight – a new book by Riika Kuittinen on street craft as a global art movement. It covers guerrilla gardening, yarnbombing, light graffiti, street sculpture and so on. Packed with uplifting inventiveness – like this example from the work of Mark Jenkins - it sends a very clear message about creativity in the public realm and the resilience of a democratic approach to art. ‘Street craft is interwoven with the unexpected, offering a prism through which the everyday environment can be perceived differently.’ These artworks are usually un-commissioned, seldom legal, ‘donated’ to the public on the streets, generally removed without trace once they have been documented for display on the world wide web. They are often playful, sometimes challenging, occasionally provocative. They offer what Kuittinen calls an ‘intimacy of experience’ while reflecting the ordinary universal context of the street. Of course, the book is not riddled with examples of bad street craft, and yet such examples doubtless exist. But the ephemerality is the defense here: if we come across mediocrity on a local pavement, we’re not likely to be stuck with it – unlike so much municipally-funded public art. So is this is an art movement (Kuittinen describes it as a 'fluid genre') that can resist the assimilators? Needless to say, wealthy people and trendy commercial enterprises want to own some of it (we think of Banksy’s stencils appearing at auction), completely missing the point. Am I being over-optimistic to suppose that street craft at its best will remain just out-of-reach of global capitalism and the high art industry? Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
This man’s pointed finger could be a gesture drawing his companion’s attention to the passing Google vehicle. To me, it looks more like a sharp accusation pointed at Google for the sense of intrusion he feels. The chevrons, contrasting with the wheelchair by implying freedom of movement in all directions; and the blurred faces – a dull concession to the tatty notion of ‘privacy in public’ that some of us grew up with – emphasise the layers of symbolism in this image. And there’s another. The location is on a seafront in southern England, where in previous centuries members of ‘society’ would have promenaded at certain times in order to ‘be seen’. Continue reading
Posted May 25, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
According to Children and Young People Now, Barnardo’s analysis of Department for Education figures show that annual expenditure on children’s centres fell by 35 per cent between 2010 and 2015. This is not entirely surprising. But I note that in a recent general election, people voted for more of the same. It strikes me as simply barbaric. Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
There I was, needing to write something about resilience and not looking forward to it. I distrust the careless fashionable use of the term in community development and regeneration. When a respected publisher begins the blurb for a new book with a sentence like this – ‘”Resilience” has become one of the first fully fledged academic and political buzzwords of the 21st century’ – I reach for my scepticism. Then into my mailbox someone drops a link to a curious mixture of blog posts on the theme of ‘How do you measure resilience in cities? How would you know if your city or your community was resilient?’ Scrolling through, I’ve found myself returning to a piece by Tom Henfrey from Bristol. Part of his concern is with the sociological use of the term without any appreciation of the scientific understanding of resilience in the ecological study of complex systems. This may be an accusation that can fairly be leveled at academics; but in defense of practitioners it seems to me wholly reasonable to be thinking about, say, ‘resilient communities’ just as we talk about people who show resilience in the face of disadvantage. Wholly reasonable – up to a point. The problem is that the language has been appropriated and is tainted. As Henfrey notes: ‘Most treatments of urban resilience are overtly or covertly complicit with the appropriation of the concept by conservative forces seeking to reinforce inequalities of wealth and power.’ He elaborates on this with reference to the notion of resilient cities: ‘In their current form, cities inherently lack resilience. They depend on throughputs of matter and energy that are utterly unsustainable, and consequently endure only because they externalise the consequent social and ecological damage: in other words by systematically undermining resilience elsewhere. Their primary function—reflecting the main, unstated, policy goal of almost every government in the world—is to ensure that wealth and power accrue disproportionately to those who already have both in excess, at everyone else’s expense. An inevitable consequence of increasing inequity is to intensify resource flows to even less sustainable levels, further undermining resilience in the city itself, its constituent subsystems, and connected systems elsewhere.’ Indeed: if we use the term, there’s a risk of doing so in collusion with forces and ideologies that seek to embed ‘resilience’ within the status quo. This in turn – to develop Henfrey’s point - effectively undermines other forms of resilience. I wonder if we should be talking about ‘counter-resilience’? – the capacity of those without access to wealth or power to resist, in positive ways, the imposition of resilience. Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
This is fun. Stuart Heritage in the Guardian speculates that Mark Zuckerberg’s acquisition of properties neighbouring his own house, in order to ensure a degree of privacy, might just be a consequence of what he has unleashed… ‘This is the man who created Facebook, remember. When Zuckerberg looks down at the fruits of his creation, what does he see? The very worst of humanity, that’s what. Narcissists. Drunks. Racists. Joke stealers. Complainers. People who wouldn’t know the difference between “their” and “there” if you wrote it on a cricket bat and attacked them with it. If you spent your day endlessly scrolling through 1.3 billion soul-deadening hen party photo uploads and infinite multilingual variations of “U OK hun?”, you’d want to run as far away from people as you could too.’ An alternative view might be that Zuckerberg has played a role in helping people communicate and just wants a bit of peace and quiet. I’ve no idea. But I’d hazard a guess that he is frustrated that he may never again have an idea to compare with the one he had at the age of 21. Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Yesterday evening I had a charity doorknocker. I’m always courteous but never encouraging with these people. It helps if they appear when I’m obviously cooking but it doesn’t help if they don’t get the message; nor if, when I mention that I give to certain charities in a deliberate way over periods of time, full stop, they don’t get that message either. True to the standard, this one used the phrase ‘I’m not asking for money’ almost immediately and then proceeded to suggest I gave 20p per day ‘like your amazing neighbours’. It’s possible he knows something I don’t, but I suspect not. If I’d had the patience, perhaps I might have asked him (a) where he lives, and (b) in what ways he has been amazed by my neighbours – things that have perhaps eluded me all these years. But unbeknown to this man and his well-trained phoney positivity, my neighbours are fairly special because a lot of informal mutual support goes on amongst us. There’s nothing unique about that of course, but it is noteworthy. What was striking about last night’s encounter was how it illustrates the gulf between informal neighbourly support and philanthropy. People think of them as close together on the pro-social spectrum; and our government likes to promote this notion because it suits them that philanthropy serves to reinforce disempowerment. But having a clown delivering this sort of patter on my doorstep will remain for me a symbol of the ideological contrast. Continue reading
Posted May 15, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
The baseline report for the SMILEY evaluation of community development and digital inclusion (Social Media Initiatives in Local East York), co-authored by Alison Gilchrist and myself, is now available here. The report explores the results of a survey carried out in Derwenthorpe and the neighbouring areas of Tang Hall and Osbaldwick. Joseph Rowntree Foundation is developing a programme to deliver digital inclusion interventions and support existing digital inclusion initiatives in these areas. Our role is to assess the impact of the programme activities, which are intended to support the development of social links and networks between residents within and between these three localities. Our results suggest a sharp contrast between those who recognise and appreciate the potential of digital media to contribute to local life, and those who do not. We found that for almost half of those who have been involved in a local community issue, this has come about as a direct result of online contact ('once', 'a few times', or 'often'). But at the same time, a significant 40 per cent of respondents did not see any potential in local community uses of the internet, either through connecting with active local groups, or as a way of raising and influencing local issues. In several respects we found that approximately 20 per cent of respondents seem to experience digital exclusion. For example, eighteen per cent say they are ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ comfortable trying out new digital technologies twenty-two per cent say they lack, or lack confidence in, their online digital skills one person in five does not expect that the internet could help them to keep in touch with friends or social contacts locally. The baseline survey was conducted between November 2014 and January 2015. It was carried out by five community researchers in Derwenthorpe and the surrounding areas. Download the full report. There’s more on the SMILEY project here. Our evaluation will go on to examine if and how JRF's interventions lead to the improvement of digital skills and literacy, generate a positive online identity for the area, and support community development and the integration of Derwenthorpe residents with neighbouring communities. Continue reading
Posted May 11, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
A couple of weeks ago I turned on my phone at about seven o’clock and it rang almost immediately. BBC Radio London - had I seen the pictures in the papers of the candy-striped house in Kensington? They gave me a few seconds on air without time to say anything meaningful, but since then there’s been a new twist to the story. The owner, a property developer called Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring, found that there had been objections from neighbours to her modest plans to demolish the building and replace it with a five-storey house, including a two-storey basement – nothing much, swimming pool, media centre, that sort of thing. Planning permission was originally approved but then withdrawn after objections. It is believed that the deck-chair décor was a statement of revenge at this decision. One resident was reported as saying ‘Without sounding very pretentious, it isn’t very Kensington.’ Of course it’s entertaining to hear about squabbles among the Haves, and it did strike me that the house might not look out of place in Amsterdam. Also I’d like to note that the owner didn’t paint her house: she had workers do it for her. But this story exposes serious issues of ownership and privacy which as a society we struggle to deal with. The first point to make is that if you create the cultural conditions in which houses are treated as commodities, you are going to get people treating houses as commodities. Logically this could mean total disregard for the interests of anyone else in the vicinity. Writing in the Sunday Times(£), India Knight argued that a neighbourhood ‘needs as much, if not more, maintenance than the housing it contains. If you want to live somewhere “nice” – clean, friendly, well-maintained, cheerful – then you need to play a part in making it so.’ What this means is that we need to do away completely with assumptions that the individual owner has the right to do what they like with their house. I’ve discussed this sort of thing before with regard to Christmas decorations and the constraints that home-owner associations can impose on residents. The space around the house affects others in all sorts of ways and their views have to be taken into account when changes are proposed, temporary or not. How we do that is another matter, and from the little I knew at the time of this story I couldn’t see how the authorities could stop or have stopped the resolute Kensington developer from having her house painted whatever colours she chose. Well it turns out that the house is situated in a conservation area and planning law has something called a Section 215 Notice, tada! One of these has been served (I love the language): “The owner has the right to appeal the notice by 5 June in the magistrates courts but, if no appeal is forthcoming, the owner must repaint the front elevation white and carry out repairs to the windows by 3 July. “If... Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Back in the early 90s I got disillusioned with being part of a circus of people talking about those who experience exclusion, too frequently in their absence. I tried (largely unsuccessfully) to get funding for what I called ‘Voices’ projects, whereby people’s own experiences were recorded and this constituted the text, with or without context. At one point I had a list of eight or ten sub-projects, but funders could not be persuaded. The nearest I came was with a project in Derry, Northern Ireland, but I don’t know what happened to the small amount of content created. More recently, I was part of a successful example, A series of doors, presenting the experiences of young people in poverty. It’s tempting to say now that ‘Liverpool has done it’, because a range of Liverpuddlian agencies have worked together to produce the Getting by? report. And they’ve done it supremely well. Try and get your hands on the hard copy. The project has documented 12 months in the lives of 30 families living in poverty in Liverpool where one or both parents are working. The website has included video clips as well as monitoring the political context and providing a clever connection between sources of help and advice, and the advisors’ take on the provision of that support. The report shows what you’d expect: these families are invariably hard-working, financially astute, and often enormously resourceful, but still have insufficient means to raise themselves out of poverty. And these are families with paid employment. The foreword quotes Beatrice Webb up-front: ‘Poverty is not due to a weakness of individual character, but is a problem of social structure and economic mismanagement.’ With a frankly unpromising general election in view, what chance that those who are in positions to do something about the social structure and the management of the economy will take any notice? Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I’ve been reviewing the documentation for a number of Good Neighbour schemes recently, as part of a process and impact evaluation that I'm working on. The descriptions of what schemes offer is generally very consistent: in addition to the universal offer of transport to hospitals and shops etc, they often include reference to helping with basic household tasks like ‘changing a light-bulb’. It happens that I’ve also had builders in recently, and had to go with them to buy various bits and pieces including ceiling lights for the bathroom. The lights that have now been fitted have an estimated life, I’m told, of 35,000 hours. At an average of, say, an hour-per-day, they can be expected to last around 95 years. Hoorah for technological progress. But as I get older, there’s one less reason to have a volunteer come round and check on me while doing handy things about the house. What we have here is another variation on what I have called Kev's Automatic Door Principle, which notes that ‘there are distinct advantages to using technology to open doors for us: especially for people who use wheelchairs, also of course if you are overloaded with luggage; but automatic doors do not have to be held open for the lady with the stick just behind you, or for that bloke with the buggy just approaching. This is technology confiscating tiny social interactions.’ I mentioned another instance - external security boxes – here. And just to be clear, I am not suggesting that there aren’t technological advances helping us in the opposite direction. Continue reading
Posted Apr 9, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I set out for a run at about five this morning, and wobbled round the corner up towards some nearby almshouses. In the faint light from at least 50 metres I thought I could make out a figure at one of the doors. As I drew closer I realised it was an elderly lady, on her doorstep, bent over and reaching down for something. 'Excuse me' says I, 'are you alright?' Then I saw a pack of potatoes on the ground below a couple of steps. The woman stood in her nightie holding onto the doorframe, groping at and failing to grasp the pack (which presumably had been left by the milkman) and was in danger of toppling forward onto the path. I passed her the spuds. And conscious that, déshabillé at that hour, she probably wouldn’t want to engage in any more conversation than I would, I moved on with just a few words. She thanked me laughing and said ‘Don’t get old’. Incidentally, if you're one of these people who assumes that when you're sleeping, so is everyone else around you, you might be surprised. Neighbourhood encounters happen at all hours. Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
JRF’s programme on risk and trust in everyday relationships was designed to break new ground and it has done so, with a range of stimulating papers. The latest is Landscapes of helping, an absorbing report on informal helping – ‘kindliness’ - at local level, by Meg Allen, Helen Spandler, Yvonne Prendergast and Lynn Frogget. It’s based on an extended case study in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Perhaps because the theme overlaps strongly with issues of neighbouring and neighbourliness, I was privileged to have sight of a draft of this report. I admire the way the authors have drawn out a number of mechanisms that foster kindliness while simultaneously contributing to neighbourliness and sociality. These they describe as: Making kindliness palatable Nurturing bonders and bridgers ‘Creating a shared myth’ and ‘Building common cause’ Third spaces and ‘Hubs of helping’ as ‘ways of connecting communities’; and Creating kinder economies. Some of this we know about: for instance, community development practice and the literature of social capital already give us insights into how bonding and bridging capital can be nurtured, and we know quite a bit about third places, or think we do. But the first and last in the above list are striking as barely-charted areas for potential enquiry. Talking of barely-charted areas for enquiry, this paper helps us realise how little the notion of kindliness is discussed, reflected on or researched. Here’s how the authors came through the entangling thicket of definition – acknowledging several difficulties in distinguishing concepts: ‘It was often difficult to identify boundaries between help within the family and outside; and low level help between neighbours could easily transform into longer-term more intensive support and care. We also found it difficult to distinguish between informal and more formalised (or semi-formal) help and our exploration of kindliness involved going through, and observing, semi-formal organisations who often mediate more informal relationships. ‘Similarly, while we started this research trying to distinguish between giving and receiving help, we increasingly realised that this distinction was hard to sustain. In everyday life it is not always possible, or desirable, to separate out the needs of the self and the needs of others (Munn-Giddings, 2001). People practise kindliness, not only to help others, but to help themselves, and to improve the communities in which they live.’ Ah, I recognise this part of the landscape: we’re back at the corner of Altruism Avenue and Reciprocity Road. And it’s good to know that informal and semi-formal relations in neighbourhoods are receiving a bit of attention at last. While JRF continue pursuing their programme, my good friend Alison Gilchrist has recently won a Plowden Fellowship to explore the theme of ‘informality’ in relation to good governance and social justice. And less gloriously, I’m currently working on a project for Nesta to produce a process evaluation and impact evaluation of Good Neighbour schemes. More on that in due course. Continue reading
Posted Mar 20, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
Many years ago, oh before your time surely, as a student of information science I recall a moment of minor enlightenment when I understood a key point about information in a consumer society: information consumes, and what it consumes is attention. Several decades on I have just been intrigued by this article by Matthew B Crawford in the NYT. He posits an ‘attentional commons’ on the grounds that there is ‘a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed.’ The short-hand term for this legitimised aggression is spam, e.g. all those spam phone calls you may still get, and the spam snail-mail through the door, the interference from the charity salesperson on the high street, spam information on public display boards and so on. Crawford’s article feels like a worthy but desperate rear-guard salvo attempting to defend the collective during the assault on privacy. Is anyone interested? Part of the problem perhaps is that in a fierce battle around private attention intensified by personal networking technologies, to most people, collective social relations don’t seem such a big deal. Crawford suggests: ‘Of course, you can seal yourself off by putting on noise-canceling headphones, staring at a smartphone or opening a novel. But what is lost is the public space that is required for sociability, the kind that depends on people not being self-enclosed.’ Did we really have our own right to silence that it was possible to ‘sacrifice’? A couple of hundred years ago, strolling in London, you’d have been bombarded with spam of all sorts, with peddlers and beggars and tradespeople flinging demands and offers of all kinds at you. Go back further in history and reflect on any urban context, and you have to wonder how we can have come to assume a right not to be addressed. The class system did that, to an extent, otherwise there was an assumed right to spam others. Personally (ha) I would love to have the right not to be addressed, but I suspect it is a weak twentieth century social construct, and not robust enough to defend societies against the exclusionary momentum symbolised by gated communities, for example. And I wonder if Crawford has been paying attention, if I may put it like that. There is a counter-argument, and I fancy Keith Hampton would be pointing this out gently – people are more likely to spend time together in public spaces than they were 30 years ago. Something is going on here, and it may have to do with the shift from societies with strong normative centres to societies that are almost chaotically diverse. Try not to take it personally. As I noted some time ago, we still haven’t done our thinking about the changing nature of privacy. Continue reading
Posted Mar 14, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
I came across this quick-and-dirty advert outside a high street pub. In view of previous reports on the criminality of pavement chalking, is this form of communication permissible in commercial terms during recession? I'm sure the current government would approve of the enterprise. Previously: Pavement chalking anarchy again Pavement chalking: this time seen in a positive light Pavement chalking epidemic? Footnote on pavement chalking 'If it can be washed away, it's not graffiti. But' Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
A quick heads-UP for Julian Dobson's book, out now. How to save our town centres, published by Policy Press, "delves below the surface of empty buildings and ‘shop local’ campaigns to focus on the real issues: how the relationship between people and places is changing, how business is done and who benefits, and how the use and ownership of land affects us all." Knowing Julian it will be insightful, original, very well-informed, and well-written. How to Save Our Town Centres, published by Policy Press in February 2015, delves below the surface of empty buildings and ‘shop local’ campaigns to focus on the real issues: how the relationship between people and places is changing, how business is done and who benefits, and how the use and ownership of land affects us all. - See more at: How to Save Our Town Centres, published by Policy Press in February 2015, delves below the surface of empty buildings and ‘shop local’ campaigns to focus on the real issues: how the relationship between people and places is changing, how business is done and who benefits, and how the use and ownership of land affects us all. - See more at: How to Save Our Town Centres, published by Policy Press in February 2015, delves below the surface of empty buildings and ‘shop local’ campaigns to focus on the real issues: how the relationship between people and places is changing, how business is done and who benefits, and how the use and ownership of land affects us all. - See more at: Continue reading
Posted Feb 18, 2015 at Neighbourhoods
From the research point of view, stark honesty is always reassuring, however negative. I’ve just been going through some comments in a questionnaire survey and came across this little gem: Q. ‘To what extent do you tend to get involved in local community issues?’ A. ‘I can't be bothered. Nothing has really motivated me to get involved.’ OK, can we have the next question please? Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2015 at Neighbourhoods