The loss of community spirit has often been bemoaned as something broken in today’s society. Particularly in cities, knowing your neighbours seems to increasingly be a thing of the past, but has the enforced lockdown revitalised neighbourliness this year? Abi Millar finds out

The loss of community spirit has often been bemoaned as something broken in today’s society. Particularly in cities, knowing your neighbours seems to increasingly be a thing of the past, but has the enforced lockdown revitalised neighbourliness this year? Abi Millar finds out

Over the past few decades, a sad trend has emerged in our cities: neighbourliness is on the decline. In years gone by, a person might have known everyone on their street, at least to the extent of having someone to water their plants while they were on holiday. More recently, the image of a thriving neighbourhood – children playing in the streets and everyone coming together for a potluck dinner – has come to seem like a relic of a halcyon past.

In one UK-based study from 2018, 68% of participants described their neighbours as ‘strangers’. Half said they did not feel part of a ‘good neighbourly community’ while only 7% of those polled said they regularly socialised with their neighbours. Data from the Office of National Statistics bears this out: in 2017-2018, 62% of respondents agreed they belonged to their local area, down from 69% in 2014-15.

A similar story holds true elsewhere. One in five Australians have never met their neighbours, despite the ideals propagated by the schmaltzy soap of the same name. In Singapore, just 23% said they exchanged greetings with their neighbours more than three times a week, with the kampung (village) spirit reportedly in its death throes.

There are many reasons for this trend, each of which would probably merit a sociology thesis in its own right. But to name a few, people are living in cities rather than towns, renting rather than buying, and working long hours with a long commute. The decline in localism has seemed inescapable for some time.

That was the case, at any rate, until Covid-19. By April 2020, half the world’s population had been forced into some form of lockdown. With travel bans in force, and teleworking replacing the office commute, people were asked to stay at home in all but essential circumstances. Meanwhile, we were hearing galling stories about the people around us – people who were vulnerable, people who were lonely, people who couldn’t leave their homes to buy food.

The upshot was an entirely different approach to local life. According to a study called ‘Apart but not Alone’, published by researchers in Bristol, UK, community spirit experienced a resurgence during lockdown.

Study author Michele Biddle, of UWE Bristol, said: “Lockdown seemed to have provided that opportunity or nudge for people who don’t usually get involved in their neighbourhood to get involved.

It was great to read so many stories of how neighbours were coming together and supporting one another creatively. It was particularly heartening that older people were offering support as well, despite being classed as vulnerable.”

The support has taken the form of organised initiatives, as when the NHS Volunteer Responders’ recruitment drive recruited 750,000 people in just three days, or Clap for Carers got us banging our pans every Thursday. Australia saw a craze known as ‘Spoonville’, in which ‘villages’ of spoons, styled as people, popped up on patches of grass as a way of keeping children engaged with their communities.

Local charities and volunteer groups have helped any way they can. This might mean donating locally grown produce to poorer families; offering free cycling lessons; playing concerts outside people’s doorsteps; teaching online classes to children, or sewing face masks for healthcare workers.

There have also been countless acts of solidarity and kindness on an individual scale. Local Facebook groups have been filled with posts detailing who needs help and how to provide it. Many people have cooked food for their neighbours, or picked up prescriptions. Unable to meet up with family and friends, some of us got to know the others in our apartment blocks for the first time.

People are living in cities rather than towns, renting rather than buying, working long hours with a long commute. The decline in localism has seemed inescapable

Bloom & Wild, the flower company, saw a clear increase in gift-giving during the pandemic, with many people sending flowers “just because”. It recently conducted research trying to find the most thoughtful places in the UK.

“The concept of community has arguably never been more important,” says Bloom & Wild’s head of brand, Marisa Thomas. “In the UK and around the world, people have shown unparalleled kindness in one of the most testing times of our generation. We were interested to find out which communities gave back the most, and could therefore be deemed the most thoughtful.”

They looked at five different metrics (number of registered charities; number of volunteering opportunities; number of community gardening schemes; recycling rate; and electric car ownership) to give each city a ranking. While there were some clear front runners (Swindon, Bath, Oxford, and Milton Keynes), Thomas feels that community spirit has increased across the board.

“In particular, we’ve been super impressed by the number of local fundraisers that people have been organising,” she says. “For instance, we’ve noticed a huge amount of charity coffee mornings, and sponsored cycles and fun runs, in rural parts of the country, while in our cities, strangers have been quick to help those vulnerable individuals in any way they can.

Dr Kellie Payne, Research and Policy Manager for the Campaign to End Loneliness, points out that many of the usual obstacles to neighbourliness did not apply.

“When we talk about barriers to getting to know people, often not having anything in common is a barrier,” she says. “With the lockdown, it gave us all something in common. Facing this obstacle together brought people together in a unique way.”

When we talk about barriers to getting to know people, often not having anything in common is a barrier. With the lockdown, it gives us all something in common

Like many charities, The Campaign to End Loneliness has been extremely busy this year. Despite all the heartwarming stories in the press, it’s hardly surprising that loneliness increased over lockdown – and Covid restrictions have posed unique challenges for volunteers seeking to make a difference.

“UCL has collected data on loneliness during Covid, and they found that the people who felt loneliest prior to Covid had even higher levels of loneliness,” says Payne. “A large part of that is older people – over-70s were told to shelter, so there were lots of grandparents who weren’t able to see their grandchildren. But another interesting finding is that there were a lot of young people who were lonely. Since March, being a student is a higher risk factor for loneliness than usual.”

It’s clear that the pressures of lockdown did not hit each person equally. Living alone, or (as per many younger people) in house shares, was a more isolating proposition than living in a family home. Young people are also more likely to be itinerant, more likely to be renters, and less likely to see their accommodation as a permanent base where they can forge community ties.

Younger people, however, did have the advantage of being digitally savvy, meaning they could compensate to some extent by using tools like Zoom. The older generation was uniquely vulnerable in this regard.

“A big part of how people adapted was the ability to replace face-to-face contact with online contact,” says Payne. “A lot of people were able to do that really well, but there are many people aged 80 and over who don’t have access to the internet or don’t have a smartphone. So there was a digital divide that really showed itself in this situation.”

In the pre-Covid era, volunteers could simply visit an elderly person in their home, making them a cup of tea and chatting with them in their kitchen. During lockdown, befriending services have needed to take place over the phone, which is less than ideal – you can’t rely on visual cues to see how the person is doing, nor can you smile to lift the mood. Conversations also tended to take a very negative tone as lockdown wore on, putting volunteers at risk of burnout.

“Over the course of the lockdown we’ve been hosting some virtual meetings around Covid and the impacts on volunteer services,” says Payne. “It comes back to the challenge that everybody faced – how do you provide similar services when you’re not meeting face to face? In Kent and Surrey, there were a couple of county councils that bought iPads for older people who were at risk of not being connected, so they could see their care workers via tablet and contact their family and friends.”

Clearly, we shouldn’t place too rose-tinted a lens over the newfound localism of lockdown. As much as we might like to talk about ‘blitz spirit’, many people have suffered greatly this year and will continue to do as the pandemic wears on.

What’s more, there is now a sense of real fatigue in the air, and some signs that the collective mindset of early lockdown is reverting to something more individualistic and suspicious. The UK Government has explicitly advised the public that they should snitch on their neighbours if they catch them breaking rules. It’s hard to think of anything less community spirited.

However, with the pandemic set to continue, and no end in sight to the restrictions, we all have the power to eschew that ‘every man for himself’ narrative and remember our interdependence.

“We’re the ones who can solve loneliness,” says Payne. “It’s those small moments of connection and reaching out that can help people, and we all have the capacity to do that.”

We’re the ones who can solve loneliness. It’s those small moments of connection and reaching out that can help people, and we all have the capacity to do that

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