Neighbourhoods: a forgotten school of family and social flourishing

How well do you know your neighbours? How much does your neighbourhood mean to you? How many of your needs can you meet within walking distance of your home?

Such questions may be challenging for some of us, but they have been sharpened by Covid lockdowns and environmental concerns.

Beyond that, says social philosopher David Thunder, we should be thinking about the moral, social and economic importance of the neighbourhood.

In a paper delivered at a recent conference of the London-based Home Renaissance Foundation, Dr Thunder argues that our locality is critical to the flourishing of the family and society. In the following interview with MercatorNet he explains why.

MercatorNet: A notable effect of Covid lockdowns – at least the first ones this year – was the greater neighbourliness that many people reported: people meeting others for the first time while walking the streets or local parks, checking elderly neighbours and offering to do shopping, or just singing together from their balconies. What lessons can we take from this phenomenon?

David Thunder: This shows that when there is a strong shared perception of a common need, that can elicit sentiments and behaviours of solidarity. So, a greater sense of neighbourly connection can emerge in times of emergency like a war or pandemic. The problem is, how can we continue to preserve this vivid perception of shared needs even in normal times? That is the great challenge as I see it.

How do you define a neighbourhood?

The term “neighbourhood,” as its etymology suggests, refers to individuals living more or less close to each other. This proximity is not only geographic but social and cultural (sharing a social space and having certain shared cultural landmarks, symbols, and guiding norms), and also psychological-affective (having some sense of mutual affinity, acceptance, or identification).

A functional neighbourhood is populated by a group of individuals and families who together constitute a sort of community (a dysfunctional neighbourhood may be torn apart by toxic strife and division, the negation of “community”). 

It does seem that neighbours and neighbourhoods have become optional extras in recent times. The car, the dual-income family, television and individualised digital media have enlarged our world and reduced our time for local interactions. Isn’t this just the inevitability of change? Are we missing anything vital by living in a global village?

It does seem inevitable, but in reality, it is a phenomenon of social life, and is thus within our power to change. It is a question of lifestyle, and building a certain way of life with others is not impossible. We can choose to live exclusively in a “global village” but that would probably entail losing many close neighbourly contacts and bringing much of our life online.

I believe it is possible to build “intentional” communities and one way to do this is through a religiously inspired organisation -- for those of us who have religious faith. But simply reaching out to neighbours or inviting them into our homes can be an important first step toward building a more tangible and rooted form of community. Schools, universities, and workplaces can also be points of encounter that can be taken advantage of, especially if our colleagues live in our geographic area.

You argue that the neighbourhood is best suited to the role of socialising family members. Couldn’t the school or the church or sports clubs, which tend to serve wider populations, do this equally well?

The school or church or sports club can certainly play an important socialising role. However, what the neighbourhood is uniquely well positioned to do is to socialise people into a bigger, multi-purpose community, in which one encounters a plurality of opinions and ways of life, and one gets a first taste of what it means to be a “citizen” of a city or nation.

The neighbourhood can give one a greater sense of a geographic and social whole. It can serve as a bridge between the home and the larger society. The limited control we have over who our neighbours are reflects the normal conditions of a large society. So, learning to live with that spontaneity and lack of control is a good lesson in citizenship.

Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues found that one of the strongest predictors of economic mobility for lower-income kids of both single and married parents is the share of married-parent families in their community. Is this an example of the “virtuous circle” that can exist in a neighbourhood?

There is a “virtuous circle” in a neighbourhood insofar as strong families bring up children who can contribute responsibly to the life of the neighbourhood, while a critical mass of virtuous and responsible persons inhabiting a neighbourhood reinforce the work of parents. So yes, if economic mobility is accompanied by a virtuous and responsible character, that could be a virtuous circle between home and neighbourhood.

All too often, though, as scholars like Charles Murray have pointed out, urban populations today are segregated by education and income and also ethnicity, producing a more or less “vicious circle” for those in poorer neighbourhoods. How can this be overcome?

There is no quick-fix solution for the problem of segregated, ghettoised neighbourhoods. People in those neighbourhoods, based on my experience living in Philadelphia, have few convincing role models, high rates of absentee fathers, and little hope of progressing in life. This can only be overcome through education and the gradual renewal of family life from the bottom up.

There is no easy or quick solution, but the key is to give young people constructive and enjoyable ways to use their time, better educational opportunities, and hope for the future, and especially to provide more support for families and responsible parenting. Finally, moral renewal is unlikely to work unless it goes hand in hand with some form of investment in jobs and local businesses.

If you were designing a neighbourhood from scratch, what essential features would it have?

As I argue in the paper, it needs to be geographically cohesive, with commercial and residential buildings in close proximity, and it needs to have most relevant amenities and leisure centres within walking distance, to foster a pedestrian culture and build social capital.

Members of the neighbourhood should have genuine say over its design and development. There is also an intangible aspect, which has to do with the moral fabric of the neighbourhood. This is difficult to plan for, as it is a function of the quality of family life and the type of education received by residents of the neighbourhood inside and outside the home.

Do you know of any urban developments that have been designed with at least some of those things in mind?

Yes, I know of some “intentional communities” designed like this, one in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a sort of self-contained mini-town. I also know of a completely self-governing community in India, that receives some public funding but is essentially self-regulating in most of its internal affairs.

A personal initiative that gave rise to a significant collective action is the “social streets” movement in Italy, which aimed to use social media technology to connect neighbours and crowd-fund for neighbourhood projects.

Some of your ideas, attractive as they are, seem a bit revolutionary – for instance, decentralising taxation and fiscal decisions even beyond existing local government structures; offering tax incentives for locally owned and operated businesses; and a voucher system to allow people choice in areas such as education and health care. Are people in general -- not to mention economists and politicians -- ready for that?

In my experience, people who have power are very slow to renounce it. So, unless there is a very strong demand for these sorts of changes, and a fairly significant crisis in the existing system, these changes are unlikely to happen. But It is useful, I think, to be aware of what is needed to make the political and taxation system more responsive to ordinary citizens’ needs.

It seems that anyone serious about mitigating the effects of climate change and protecting the natural environment should be backing your local approach. What do you think?

Ultimately, if you want to convince citizens to change their behaviour, you need them to buy in to your cause. Lasting and sustainable change can only be achieved, normally, if it is integrated into the everyday routine of citizens. Otherwise it may seem like a distant, unrealisable dream. 

Ultimately, of course, the renewal you are proposing is in our individual hands: we can all be better neighbours. What are some of your ideas about this?

Here are some ideas from my paper:

1. Promote a stronger social network within your own neighbourhood by inviting some of your neighbours to your home for a dinner party or simply inviting them over for a drink. This first “ice-breaker” can set the tone for the next 5-10 years. If nobody reaches out in this way, neighbours may slide into anonymity, barely knowing each other’s names.

2. Prioritise local businesses with roots in the neighbourhood when you choose whose products and services to patronise, even if you can find the same products and services marginally cheaper on Amazon or some other global corporation. Local businesses are an integral part of the social ecology of the neighbourhood. They develop a bond of loyalty and trust with local customers, and help prevent commerce from sliding into depersonalised consumerism or the blind pursuit of material acquisition for its own sake.

Local businesses put a human face on commercial transactions, and some of the proceeds of such businesses may be put back into community projects. But local businesses may not be sustainable if people only aim to minimise their economic costs. People are justified in seeking to bring down their cost of living, but this legitimate goal should be tempered by the value of promoting a strong social fabric and quality of life in one’s neighbourhood.

3. Support families in your neighbourhood in whatever way you can, whether through your counsel if you are an experienced parent, through babysitting exchanges to give parents a night off, or by supporting or organising leisure events geared toward families.

Families provide children with their first role models and make a decisive impact on their psychological and moral development. The health of the family is therefore a predictor of the health of the neighbourhood.

Parents are vitally important role models for their children. But it is sometimes forgotten that parents themselves need role models, and this is not possible if families live in self-contained bubbles with minimal interaction with other families in the area.

4. Consider ways you can become more than just a rational consumer and/or a “law-abiding citizen.” In particular, consider ways you can actively promote the common good of your neighbourhood, through public service, participation in decision-making organs, donations to local initiatives, or launching some initiative that might contribute to the renewal of your neighbourhood.

5. If you have children, gradually introduce them into the social life of the neighbourhood by encouraging them to participate in summer camps or other civil society structures that help to educate children and develop their social skills. This can be facilitated through formal schooling, but even if you homeschool your children, it is worth thinking about ways they can participate more fully in the life of their neighbourhood and become aware of their neighbourly responsibilities.

* Dr Thunder’s paper, “The ‘Neighbourhood’ as a Pivotal Element of the Infrastructure of a Flourishing Society”, was presented at the 5th International and Interdisciplinary Conference of the Home Renaissance Foundation (London): Happy Homes, Happy Society? The contribution of domestic life in a time of social changes. Short video introductions to his and other papers can be seen at the conference home page.


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