Why Does Place Matter?

This article was first published by Urban Times in April 2012.

The idea of ‘community’ has gone in and out of fashion in the past few decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, commentators on globalization suggested that places, and, in particular, cities would no longer matter if people and organizations could be connected anywhere and everywhere.

Two decades of change has shown this picture to be only partially accurate. Global connectedness has transformed the way businesses operate, and how people relate to each other and to places. Yet, cities have become more, not less, significant.

Sociologist Saskia Sassen, argues that globalization has intensified the importance of place as specialised industries – banking, technology, biotech and others – have become concentrated in particular areas; generally a handful of major cities. Clusters of specialised industries create demand for highly skilled professionals, but they also create demand for a whole range of administrative jobs and service industries.  Globalization theorists focus on the mobility of specialised industries and their elite workers.  Sassen argues this is one-sided and more emphasis should be given to the local impacts of global networks.

Sassen’s perspective is important because it is a reminder that cities have a complex social life, which, for the most part, is rooted in particular places and defined by the people who live and work in them. Most city dwellers spend a considerable part of their lives in roughly the same place. Therefore, the quality of that place matters – the range and affordability of housing, the job opportunities, the schools, healthcare and public transport – because it shapes day-to-day life and long-term opportunities.

Yet what makes a bricks-and-mortar neighbourhood into a flourishing community is more than these big-ticket items.  There are other, more subtle, factors that shape how safe, inclusive, cohesive and supportive a place feels, and how attached to that place people become. The Young Foundation has been researching how people understand community for over 50-years, and for the past three, the Foundation’s Future Communities programme has been thinking specifically about what makes some communities thrive and others fail.

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.

Research by the Young Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others, shows that few of us want an open-door policy for our neighbours, but at the same time we appreciate the importance of ‘weak ties’ in the community: familiar faces on the street and in local shops, people we recognise at the school gate, a park we feel safe in, help to increase our sense of security and belonging and build trust. Objectively, this kind of informal neighbourhood interaction makes a difference – providing local news, access to informal help like babysitting, help with shopping, or neighbours swapping keys – but perhaps more importantly, it creates connections between people from different backgrounds and can aid the breaking down of barriers.

The Young Foundation’s research on belonginghas explored the idea of ‘feedback circuits’. Individuals instinctively sense acceptance from groups such as family, colleagues, the neighbourhood, and society, through informal feedback circuits that can either reinforce a sense of belonging or make individuals feel excluded.  These include friends and family networks, access to local networks and groups, opportunities for democratic participation and the availability of affordable housing and appropriate employment. The reputation of a neighbourhood, and media messages about class, ethnicity, faith and social background are also taken into account When applied to a local setting, such as an inner-city housing estate, this is a useful tool for thinking about how the quality of the material, social and political environment can signal to long-standing residents that they are no longer valued.

Debates about urban sustainability tend to focus on improving the built environment – making it greener, more efficient, less energy intensive. However, as both urban populations and the challenges of making liveable cities grow, a radical shift is needed.  Much more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding the social life of cities – how government, public agencies and urban planners can design spaces, but more importantly, services to help neighbourhoods flourish socially.

Unraveling what makes a place work means understanding and examining the particular social life of that community and the multitude of influences – past and present – that shape it. What is the history of a neighbourhood?  Is its story one of growth or decline? What is its spatial relationship to the rest of the city? How is a place understood and defined by its residents, and in relation to neighbouring places?  Is it integrated?  Segregated? Socially excluded?  Politically engaged?  What is its reputation today and in the past?  What are the aspirations of current residents?  Who is likely to live there in the future and what will they need?

These are challenging questions for many public agencies to deal with, especially in light of local government and public sector job cuts.  Yet objectively these things matter, and they are essential to understand if urban sustainability is a genuine policy goal. The riots of 2011 are a reminder that understanding the subtle and specific dynamics of social life in urban neighbourhoods, and the role they play in the social life of cities, is an under-valued and under-examined dimension of sustainability… one that we must focus more attention on.

Post by Saffron Woodcraft, Founding Director, Social Life.