It has become a cliché to present cities as the driving force to solve many contemporary challenges. Yet, while urbanization has been a constant trend those last decades and metropolis get bigger and bigger, loneliness in cities follows the same pace. As author George Monbiot writes it in a thought-provoking tribune "Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day ; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity ."
On the other side, there is a positive relationship between life satisfaction and individuals´ feelings of belonging to their community and whether they know their neighbours . A growing body of research echoes this and shows that people are most likely to feel secure and happy when they have regular contact with their neighbours. In a context of yet remaining individualisation, how to solve this quest of neighbourly life? How can we then strengthen a sense of community belonging in neighbourhoods and within residential buildings? Several recent and creative initiatives try to address this issue, both with traditional means and with the help of social networks. What can we learn from them?
A call for soft actions against social isolation
It is tempting to look at cities´ role against social isolation only in terms of planning, provision of transport and services. However, while density, social cohesion, access to public transport, etc, certainly contributes to creating more liveable cities , those conditions are not sufficient to create links between people and a sense of belonging to a community. In today´s metropolis, soft actions are just as necessary.
Vancouver, Canada, has been one of the first cities to tackle up front a perceived crisis of urban loneliness. Despite critics´views over such an extension of public bodies´ role, the municipality has indeed created an "engaged city task force", arguing that "if one looks at where the problems are in this city, a lot of roads point back to engagement" ( read the article here ). The task force focuses on four priority issues and among them "Enabling community connections at a neighbourhood level". As part of their missions, they created a block party guide and supported more than 150 community parties in 2014.
In Seoul, Korea, the municipality has launched in 2012 a "sharing city" initiative, which we have presented in a recent article . While the program aims to tackle several pressing problems, loneliness is certainly a key priority for the city who ranks highest in the OECD list in terms of suicide rates. Among other projects, the municipality supports initiatives within buildings, encouraging inhabitants to develop connections while sharing everyday objects. Shared housing program have also been encouraged and the new phase of Seoul sharing city should focus even more on such projects, raising hopes for better intergenerational links within the population.
Local services as platforms for regular encounters
The creation of local hubs of services appear as a growing trend and their relative success may be explained by the fact that they address local needs and serve de facto as meeting points for local communities. Indeed, while local social events can contribute to triggering social interactions, the presence of local objects and services in a neighbourhood gives an opportunity for more regular and spontaneous encounters. In Nantes, the composting station built by Les Idéelles og les Ekovores thus serves two purposes: reduce and recycle food wastes produced by the 40 households using it and create an opportunity for people to meet.
In Paris, Lulu dans ma rue (Lulu in my street) seeks to replace the old "concierge" by gathering people who can sell their services to other residents in a local area. With prices ranging from 5€ for 20 minutes, the "lulus" - whether independent workers, retired people or students living in the area - can offer services such as baby-sitting, pick up packages or clothes at the laundromat, walk the dog, deliver food, clean your flat, etc. According to the founder of Lulu dans ma rue, its immediate success partly can be explained by its social dimension and the fact that it contributes to creating links between neighbours.
In some ways, local cooperatives serve the same purpose. In Copenhagen, København Fødevareællesskab is a popular organization (more than 5.000 members after 5 years of existence), who makes local and organic fruits and vegetables affordable by removing all intermediaries between farmers and consumers. People are indeed involved in packing and distributing the products. While the first purpose of the organization has to do with sustainability and access to good products for all, it also supports connections between people of all ages, origins and social classes living in the same area. The long standing tradition for cooperatives in Denmark results indeed in a broad participation of people and the obligation of working together a few hours once every 5 weeks strengthen connections with people from the same neighbourhood as well as a feeling of local belonging.
The revival and power of social networks
Despite the urge to meet and (re)create connections with neighbours, people seem to have lost the habit of knocking spontaneously at each others doors. Social media may be an answer to address this paradox. Indeed, those last years, several start-ups have tried to build hyperlocal social networks but most of them got their fingers burnt due to the reality of the market . However, with mobile apps and the sharing economy gaining ground, such local networks are becoming more and more widespread phenomenons .
Peerby.com facilitates the sharing of household objects with neighbours. It has processed more than 100,000 transactions since its creation in 2012 in Amsterdam, has more than $1 billion worth of items in its database and expects to have 500,000 members signed up by the end of 2015, according to its founder, Daan Weddepohl ( read more about it here ). Its financial future remains however uncertain due to the number of similar services popping-up. In France for example, one can name Ma-residence.fr , Mon p´ti voisinage , Freemo , Un voisin épatant or Peuplade.fr . The focus of those services varies, from supporting interactions within a local community to niche services such as getting meals cooked by neighbours or sharing ownership of ones´ pets ! Started in 2003, Peuplade.fr has been progressively abandonned. In spring 2015, this local social network was launched again, first in three cities - Grenoble, Marseille et Paris -, and with a more focussed and simple platform. Grégoire Even, one of its founder argues that it has the potential to support another lifestyle , with a greater focus on local life and consumption. However, while the network is quite active in the 20th arrondissement in Paris , where two of the co-founders live, it remains a challenge to attract and, most importantly, retain active users. Indeed from a user´s perspective, isn´t it easier to just rely on existing social media, such as Facebook?
"Eyes in the street" : a street mirror to keep an eye on passer-bys
Finally, while the ability of such platforms to facilitate contacts and help between locals is often praised, they also raise harsh criticisms. NextDoor , who is leading the field in the US, is a service gathering local communities online, facilitating discussions, exchange of tips, etc, within neighbourhood boundaries that people adjust themselves. However, it appears that area cleanliness, maintenance and safety issues are among the key topics discussed on the platform, who is being criticized as a kind of "local sousveillance platform". People indeed seem to have taken the habits of reporting on the platform whenever they see unusual strangers wandering in "their streets". The pattern is not that surprising. Urban literature on safety and feeling of safety have for long highlighted the fact that "neighbourhood watch" and "eyes in the street" were the best ways to keep a local area safe. Yet, displacing local sousveillance on social medias certainly gives it another scale, which may be more harmful, as it reinforces links between neighbours (also) by pointing and excluding non-local ways of being.