Over the last few years, we have seen an exponential growth in the evidence that neighborhoods are the unit of social change. If we want to disrupt the forces of concentrated inequity, we have to think not at an issue level or individual level, or program level, but at a neighborhood level.
Place impacts life outcomes. There are a lot of great books, articles, and maps that dig into the impact that place and neighborhood can have on life outcomes. An area that is lacking, however, is the crucial role that social-relational connections play in repairing the fabric of a place. We’ve found the book Fragile Neighborhoods, by Seth Kaplan, to be an incredible resource, and we sat down with him to talk about it.
Why Do Neighborhoods Matter?
“First of all, there’s plenty of data that will tell you that where you live will determine your whole life trajectory,” says Seth. This includes health, lifespan, loneliness, and much more. In our personal lives, we usually look for a particular kind of neighborhood to live using lots of criteria, but we don’t always include this emphasis when we’re working toward change.
Seth says we miss the important metrics that contribute to the difference in neighborhood outcomes. We typically don’t measure relationships or the nature of institutions in a neighborhood. We measure safety, but not proximity to a library or a good place for people to congregate. In order to see real change, we need to mine a different type of data, make it available to all, and then hold people accountable for these outcomes.
What is Social Poverty?
The concept of social poverty is one that Seth addresses in his book. “We are mostly trying to solve our relationships or social problems in material or policy ways,” Seth says. For example, deaths of despair or depression, polarization, mistrust, rising suicide, loneliness and isolation, racial inequality – Seth says these are relationship problems. However, we only think about improving these in a material way. “It’s really important to separate these dynamics,” Seth says. He emphasizes that even “well-off neighborhoods can be socially poor.” Even for those who are materially poor, being relationally rich can lead to much better outcomes.
Without better systems and institutions to address these issues, Seth says, even those who are materially well off will be vulnerable. He notes how life has shifted to an emphasis on networks rather than on proximity. In the past, we were constrained by our location, but now, people are constrained by their network. This helps some and hinders others.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Seth explains that there’s an overwhelming focus on issues at both the national level and the individual level. People generally look at material and policy reasons for inequities. However, the things that matter are actually systems and structures on the local level. “You have to take off one set of glasses and put another set on,” Seth says.
If people were convinced the local issues matter, and that their patriotic duty was to make their place (neighborhood) better, we could make a great impact. If we change our aspirations about what we should be invested in (our time and resources) and funnel it to very practical local matters, Seth says, “We’re going to be much richer in terms of personal relationships.” He adds, “If you work local, you can actually see the people you helped.”
How Can We Rebuild Social and Structural Mechanisms Within a Neighborhood?
Seth says we need to examine both structural and institutional issues. Flourishing neighborhoods need structures like transportation, good schools, and mixed income housing. They also need institutions like marriage, supportive inter-family dynamics, and both formal and informal ways to connect folks in a sense of community (like civic institutions and houses of worship).
“What we need first and foremost is institutions that can incubate relationships, that can nurture social cohesion, and that can foster collective action and capacity,” Seth says. Once people are connected in this way, they can say “We know each other, we relate to each other, we work with each other,” says Seth, and it “makes problems more manageable.”
Is This Really Necessary?
It’s easy to write off this type of social emphasis as something fluffy or unnecessary, but the data tells a different story. Seth’s book emphasizes the power of collective efficacy. Once people have connectedness, they can feel a sense of common destiny – and understand that they share the outcomes of what’s happening in their neighborhoods. This is a powerful way to spark change.
At the Lupton Center, the training and consulting arm of Focused Community Strategies, we partner with people who are interested in engaging in this work of place-based community engagement. Interested to learn more about what we offer? We’d love to connect with you.