This week Collaborate Intern George Fraser explores the potential of public services to empower citizens in shaping the cities around them.
As London ploughs towards its two thousandth birthday, it still shines as bright as ever as a globally attractive hub to the young professional. With economic and cultural activity bustling without restraint 24 hours a day, the lure of opportunity to play some part in decisions that shape the future of humanity is irresistible for many. London though, in the same way as many of its rival ‘megacities’, has always had a tough time defending itself with regards to the idea of real quality of life. A defining characteristic of a city the size of London is that around a third of its millions of inhabitants ironically feel a sense of loneliness and isolation. Does something need to be done about this?
Part of the essence of the brand of London has most certainly been, rather than in some naïve attempt to brush its darker side under the carpet and away from prying eyes, to put it to work as what one might Britishly call ‘grit’. This inner soul has always been open for all to see. From the piercing gothic spires of Augustus Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, Robert Louis Stephenson’s gruesome tale of Jekyll & Hyde, to haunting melodic urban soundscapes of Burial, part of the glistening attraction of London has been its willingness to embrace its darker side, and for its inhabitants to join in and hopefully laugh about it later. Perhaps this is that intangible x-factor that people who have both loved and hated London cannot summon in explanation. After all, as one of the fastest growing cities in the developed world, it seems misery really does love company.
However, by looking at the results of recent polls on everything from a sense of community to feelings of isolation, it seems that in the modern world of connectedness, social media and an insatiable desire to ‘share’ anything and everything about our lives, London may be in danger of losing what has always been its jewel in the crown. It may no longer be keeping it real. As a human hive tipped as one of the world’s potentially leading ‘smart cities’, where uber-connectedness and insta-communication allow revolutionary ideas to thrive and reproduce, surely having a population that actually feels connected is a somewhat vital prerequisite?
In true London style the cure for this isolated sensation has always been to simply work harder. In 2012 Downing Street advisor David Halpern was famously mocked for his claim that retiring later could be an effective way to avoid loneliness that was common for elderly people. However, in a serious attempt to tackle this problem which affects not just those who have retired, but also increasingly the younger working population responsible for keeping the city lights flickering on, people are starting to call for big changes to the way we perceive much needed social support frameworks. Recent findings by the Mental Health Foundation show that 60% of people between 18 and 34 felt periods of loneliness from time to time, compared to 35% of older citizens in Britain. When we see the concentration of this age group living in big cities such as London it comes as little surprise.
In the recent polling of public service perception following UK-wide government cuts it was evident that although some public services such as refuse collection and parks had actually improved, those areas concerned with social aspects of life such as care for the elderly were perceived to have really suffered. This illustrates that although an increased concentration on the frontline services may well be able to yield increased efficiencies in some cases, the sheer complexity of social support needs is a major hurdle. For somewhere like London, an extremely high population density and a diverse spread of wealth and cultures makes targeting support to those that need it from a government budget spreadsheet a seemingly insurmountable task.
This is where the value of cross-sector action is undeniable. Charities such as Home-Start have had significant successes in providing support for single mothers in the city who, although they have various opportunities to meet with other mothers, find that they cannot rely on someone who is busy raising their own children to provide them with much-needed companionship. Home-Start runs social events and provides home visits that give mothers that feeling of connection to the wider society. Mayor of London Boris Johnson has put his support behind Team London schemes that encourages Londoners to make an effort to help their community in areas ranging from providing library services to having tea with an elderly person. All activities designed to increase the feelings of connectedness. London has seen a big rise in people living alone, and whilst the elderly make up a large percentage them, the number of lone retirees has not changed. This points towards an increase in young people moving longer distances away from their family home often from outside London, to live alone in the big city that may provide in spades when it comes to career opportunity, but often falls short in terms of social accessibility.
Often young professionals moving to London claim that whilst they feel there are great things going on around them, they find it hard to make friends outside of working environments to actually enjoy them with. There is an overwhelming impression that London is a city of great extremes, where the haves and have-nots walk amongst each other on a daily basis. We often hear of the financial inequalities and the difficulty in tackling them, but what is perhaps even more serious a problem is that of social inequality. There are those who have an established network of friends living in the city that they might see on at a weekly basis, and those who rely solely on work colleagues for their social interaction. The second category has seen a vast increase in recent years with the rapid rise in population drawn to London purely for work and often unable to adapt or find time to spare to build stronger, life-long social connections.
When we look at big cities, this type of finding doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. Indeed, others around the world have similar problems, especially when it comes to those no longer in work. In Beijing, where the waiting list for one of the retirement homes is famously over a hundred years long, they even passed a law that threatens a prison sentence for those that fail to visit their parents. However, in London where we have seen the positive effects of social engagement work so well as in the community spirit of the 2012 Olympic Games, and in various volunteer schemes that aim to integrate all comers, there is surely a grasp of what is the right approach to social support. That is one that connects all parts of society – and with something more than just a broadband internet cable.
George Fraser is currently interning with Collaborate as part of his MA in International Studies at Goldsmiths University of London. He has experience working for the Department for International Development at the British Embassy in Jakarta, dealing with Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami relief in Banda Aceh. His interests include political journalism and the role it plays in shaping government policy.