The Social Flow

This article was first published in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2013. 

By Nicola Bacon

Municipal planners must consider how residents will be affected when building and developing new urban areas.

It is a constant source of amazement to me how successfully people in cities as dense and stressful as London routinely navigate crowded, claustrophobia-inducing situations. Think about the tube, Hoxton on a summer evening, the South Bank on New Year’s Eve, Peckham’s Rye Lane on a Saturday afternoon: walking through these environments requires the skill to weave between strangers and avoid collisions. Yet conflict and arguments are infrequent. Recognition of these capabilities – in projects like Michael Landy’s ‘Acts of Kindness’, which celebrates everyday compassion and generosity on the London Underground – is rare, in London and elsewhere.

But when we consider the institutions and people who govern our cities, who decide how they should be run and shaped, this sort of empathy and deftness can be less apparent. The failure of city administrations to relate the complexity of everyday human experience to spatial planning is not news. Different examples are cited across the globe: in the UK, the mass housing of the 1960s and 1970s; the clearance of neighbourhoods in Seoul; and the building of new apartment blocks in Buenos Aires in spite of the protests of community activists: ‘Basta de Demoler!’ (‘Stop the Demolitions!’).

The explanations offered for these failures range from poor political choices to whim and even malice. But we need to recognise how difficult it can be to get this right; that mistakes are often made despite good intentions and understanding and navigating city life is challenging. Increasing diversity, inequality andpublic sector austerity are making this task both harder and more important.

The social life of cities – the way that residents relate to each other and to their local neighbourhoods and communities – shapes how individuals experience urban life. People’s sense of belonging, resilience and connectedness to others affects their well-being and quality of life, their capacity to act individually and collectively, and a community’s level of crime, health and educational achievement.

City authorities must help people feel comfortable with others whom they think of as ‘different’, to share space as well as cling to the familiar. Urban residents tend to cluster with people they consider to be like themselves, spatially segregating cities by social class and background. Recently arrived migrants to a city come together in the same way as the middle classes in the suburbs. One of the tasks of living in a city is to learn to get on with difference. Institutions can ensure that all residents can access public spaces, schools, libraries and parks, and that housing and planning policy create socially mixed neighbourhoods.

Another facet of urban life that can be shaped is our sense of belonging. Our attachment to neighbourhoods is created by personal experience, but also by the events that happen there, the rhythms and rituals of a place. These can be spectacular, like Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, or linked to traditions of protest like the May Day rallies on Tyneside in the north of England. They tend to grow organically, but can be nurtured by city planning. The Mayor of Paris introduced the ‘Paris Plages’ – fake beaches on the river – as a way of making Paris more bearable during August for those left behind by the annual holiday exodus. They are now well loved by tourists and Parisians alike.

But people make cities, more so than institutions. They have a way of adapting and improving how structures are used. Look at London’s South Bank, where, since the 1970s, generations of skateboarders have taken over the undercroft beneath the Royal Festival Hall, turning it into a colourful concrete space that comes alive in a way that was never imagined by the original designers and planners. In Caracas, Venezuela, squatters occupied an abandoned 45-storey tower block after construction stopped following the collapse of the country’s economy in 1994. Almost 20 years later, Torre David is a home and a community for hundreds of families. City administrations’ instinct is often to quash this sort of unofficial change of use, but this risks losing the creativity and energy that makes cities thrive, and undermining residents’ capacity to help themselves. Protests at plans to redevelop London’s South Bank, and the debate about whether the skateboarders should move to another site, are ongoing.

Cities have always been complicated entities and are becoming more so, as the movement of people within nations and across the globe increases and economic pressures highlight inequality. As different groups migrate into new neighbourhoods they create their own sense of belonging. Change becomes contested and tensions emerge over who wins and who loses. My organisation, Social Life, has seen this in its work in Brixton, south London, where different generations of incomers compete to shape the space. Debate becomes polarised. Does Brixton belong to oldercommunities (both black and white)? Or to newly arrived, more affluent residents, whose presence is exemplified by the newly regenerated market and the thriving restaurant and bar scene?

When space becomes contested it threatens people’s sense of security, their homes and their lifestyles. Disagreements become inflamed. The protests in Taksim Square in Istanbul this summer were sparked by outrage at the replacement of Gezi Park with a shopping mall.

City authorities have to keep up with change at the neighbourhood level in order to do their broader strategic jobs. To stay on top of – and ideally one step ahead of – the complications of city life, they need to develop their understanding of social relationships, improve their social skills, become more sensitised and empathetic to both the vulnerabilities and the strengths of their populations, and improve their knowledge of what the options for intervention can be.

Insight needs to permeate their work, from strategic planning to data gathering. Swedish cities, for example, are becoming increasingly diverse and, in the city of Malmö in the south of the country, more than 40% of the population are first- or second-generation immigrants. Coming mainly from different Muslim backgrounds, these citizens were often attracted by Malmö’s open-arms policy towards refugees. Half a century ago, only about 5% of Malmo’s population was foreignborn. Accommodating diversity raises profound challenges for Swedish welfare institutions, which were developed to meet the needs of a homogeneous population whose people share values and early life experiences. Swedish data on volunteering focuses around membership of föreningar – the church, trade unions and welfare societies – which were the formal civilsociety institutions of the 20th century. Swedish data does not count participation in less formal community associations, so fails to capture the activities of those who come from different traditions of community activism. This makes it difficult for city managers to understand community dynamics in the most diverse areas and can make institutions insensitive to both the needs, and the strengths, of the non-Swedish-born population.

City managers need to find ways of understanding the reality of people’s lives. This means asking people what they would like and what they think, but also observing what people do. There is a well-known disconnect between our aspirations and wants, and what we say we think will make us happy. The literature on happiness and well-being demonstrates that, when asked, most people say they would like a foreign holiday or new possessions to be happy, but the evidence is that what actually makes people happy is much more mundane: gardening, dancing and having friends, for example.

Family and Kinship in East London, Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s classic study of working-class life, published more than 50 years ago, documents conversations with people living in post-war Bethnal Green, documenting the rich social relationships and social capacity in a community that was being broken up and moved to new housing estates in Essex or further out of the East End. The conflict between notions of ‘progress’ in the built environment and respect for the strengths of the existing communities resurfaces in every urban development, as do the tensions between existing communities and newcomers. Young and Willmott’s work reminds us of the need to take the lived experience of people as our starting point, rather than our ideas of how we would like places to look.

In Chicago, Social Life has been working with the University of Chicago as part of that institution’s programme of action to become a ‘better neighbour’ to the South Side neighbourhoods that surround it. Social Life used ‘social design’ methods to understand how South Side communities could boost their resilience, and what role digital technologies could play in this.

Working with design exercises and ‘personas’ (fictional South Side residents), a group of community organisers, public sector officials and representatives of the private sector came up with an idea to help people feel safer. In south Chicago’s neighbourhoods, gun crime is chillingly high. Speaking to teenagers on university summer programmes, we realised the extent to which living against this extreme backdrop of violence pervades every aspect of life. Communities can only be more resilient when they feel safer, and the app we designed together will help build ‘survival resilience’, the quality that enables people to manage difficult situations.

In countries where the state is retrenching and government money is scarce, austerity puts a new imperative on the need to work with the grain of communities and neighbourhoods. Scarce resources mean that trade-offs need to be made between different imperfect options, requiring dialogue and negotiation. The public money that used to be available to support struggling neighbourhoods and the vulnerable people who live in them, cushioning the impact of change, is now in short supply.

For urban leaders, taking the time to pay close attention to the collective social life of their cities may seem trivial compared with million-dollar property deals. It may also feel like a loss of authority, as working with the grain of communities demands compromises between the interests of those who live in and use the space now and those who plan for the future. However, the long game – designing cities that work for everyone and that help people thrive – can only be won if cities can learn to become as adept and fleet of foot, and as good at living with urban complexity, as the people who live in them.