At the end of 2019, it would have seemed implausible to all but the most pessimistic of commentators that the year ahead would see the social horizons of Britons narrow more than at any other point since the Second World War. Yet not 10 months later, this is the stark reality. International travel ground to a halt in March, public transport was running at a fraction of its capacity by April and meeting another household indoors was off the table until June.
As the social frontiers closed in, many were left searching for a new locus for their sense of social belonging. Whilst Zoom quizzes were great – OK, adequate at best – for providing a sense of social interaction, many were needing to look closer to home to fill the void left by communities such as workplaces and friendship groups they had been cut off from. In the end, many Brits turned to their immediate neighbours and local communities for this feeling.
Lockdown turned out to be the catalyst for many Britons to engage with their neighbours and local communities in ways they would not otherwise have considered. Clapping for carers in the early summer sun fostered a sense of togetherness that was not present in many neighbourhoods previously. Using the one permitted hour of exercise each day as an excuse to leave the home left many with a newfound appreciation for local green spaces in their community. Localised initiatives and support groups, emboldened by a combination of technology and the strain placed on traditional distribution networks, sprung up to help those who needed urgent assistance. This all culminated in the local neighbourhood taking on an importance it had not held in years.
Searching for ‘silver linings’ from this awful pandemic can feel insensitive given the scale of the loss suffered by many. This does not, however, mean we should shy away from identifying and preserving pandemic-inspired changes that have potential long-term benefits. I believe this rediscovered (or even for many simply discovered) local community ethos should form a cornerstone of the post-Covid recovery.
There are many ways this can manifest itself. The Devolution Bill, now likely delayed until 2021, is rumoured to call for more power to be centralised and for increases in unitary authorities. This should be resisted, and instead local authorities should be prioritised and empowered. In planning, the ’15-minute neighbourhood’ – conceptualised in Paris and inspiration to similar policies in Newham and Walthamstow – has significant potential to continue to nurture the rebirth of the local community. As individuals as well, we have a responsibility to maintain this positive shift. Recent months have proved a little kindness in the local community can still go a long way, and whilst institutions can help preserve this change, it equally falls upon each of us to ensure that even when our social horizons open once again we continue to find time for those on our doorstep.
Ben Lewis is an account executive at Camargue