The Big Lunch 2010 and the importance of “social capital”

The Big Lunch 2010 - Sudbourne Road“I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors” (Hanifan, L. J. 1916)

Last Sunday, 18th July, the residents of Sudbourne Road, Brixton, gathered to celebrate “The Big Lunch 2010”. Under appropriately blue skies our sleepy, if perfectly formed, slice of south London was transformed for an afternoon into a theatre of food, music, dancing, playing, face painting, badge making, ice cream slurping and neighbourly celebration.

Pre-dating the now ubiquitous “Big Society”, TBL is – like all good ideas – a very simple one. By encouraging neighbours and communities to come together and socialise within the simple construct of a street party, they believe we can:

  • Build and improve community spirit and engagement
  • Make the third of us who live alone feel happier, closer and… friendlier
  • Conquer our natural shyness, to open our curtains, doors and minds and look out for one another
  • Share stories, skills and tools, so we all end up richer in every sense
  • Discover common ground across age, class, faith, race and the garden fence.
  • And you know what. It might just work.

    I’ve lived on this street for over two years.  It’s a beautiful place. Yet we only knew the wonderful couple who rent the flat below us and our neighbours to the right. And really, that was it before last Sunday. And it’s interesting how that seems entirely acceptable for so long. How you can live in such close proximity to so many people and yet live so very far apart.

    I won’t deny to being a little bit cynical when Lucy Sherwood (our fearless leader for 2010) dropped the first of the leaflets for this year’s event through the door. It’s just easier that way it seems. But I couldn’t help but notice that as the day grew closer the greater my anticipation – and hopes – grew. The evolutionary psychologist in me would have diagnosed this as the natural reaction of any innately social animal, but it was also in part triggered by my long held interest in behavioural psychology – particularly when concerned with collective/group behaviour – both in the workplace and in society at large. In particular, two of my favorite studies on the role and importance of community or social capital, kept playing out in my mind.

    In 1995 Robert Putnam published a groundbreaking study of the growing fragmentation and associated dislocation of community and group life in America. Initially published as an article in the Journal of Democracy ““Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, a book of the same name in 2000 went on to be a bestseller.  According to Putnam, social capital “refers to the collective value of all ‘social networks‘ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”. According to Putnam, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. Putnam’s studies of modern American life led him to conclude that social capital is declining in the United States. This is seen in lower levels of trust in government and lower levels of civic participation. Putnam also says that television and urban sprawl have had a significant role in making America far less ‘connected’. Putnam believes that social capital can be measured by the amount of trust and “reciprocity” in a community or between individuals.

    Anyone familiar with life in N. Ireland or wider United Kingdom will recognise that the trends described by Puttnam are mirrored here. As The Big Lunch website itself reminds us:

  • Two million more single person households are forecast by 2019.
  • We have more rich, poor and ethnic ghettos than ever before.
  • There has been a 7% annual drop in trust between neighbours from 2003-05.
  • Social trust in the UK halved and now among the lowest in Europe.
  • While there are subtleties to be recognised with regard to some disadvantages and inequalities associated with the creation and distribution of ‘social capital’, in the main commentators agree that it can be an extremely positive force – increasing civic and political participation (“The Big Society“), contributing to our personal and collective mental well-being (The New Economics Foundation) as well as improving our physical health and life expectancy.

    Those of you who have read Malcolm Gladwell‘s excellent Outliers, will be familiar with what has become known as “The Roseto Effect”.  In the mid 1960’s medical researchers – led by Stewart Wolf (a physician) – were drawn to Roseto (a close-knit Italian-American community Pennsylvania) by a fascinating but puzzling statistic: defying medical logic, Rosetans died of heart attacks at a rate only half that of the rest of America. The men of the village smoked and drank wine without moderation. They worked out their days doing hard manual labor in nearby slate quarries. The Mediterranean diet, with its preference for olive oil rather than animal fats, had to be compromised as poor immigrants couldn’t afford to import cooking oil from their homeland and so instead they fried their sausages and browned their meatballs in lard (don’t we all?). Yet, they retained unusually healthy hearts in spite of their unhealthy diet and lifestyle. The question was: How?

    In “The Power of Clan”, a report on studies conducted by Wolf and John Bruhn (a sociologist) over a broad period of time from 1935 to 1984, they found that mutual respect and cooperation contribute to the health and welfare of a community and its inhabitants while a lack of concern for others and self indulgence have the opposite effect.

    Studying the history of Roseto, they found that early immigrants were shunned by the English and Welsh who dominated this corner of eastern Pennsylvania. As a result, the Rosetans turned inward and built their own culture of cooperation and community.

    “People are nourished by other people,” said Wolf, noting that the characteristics of tight-knit community are better predictors of healthy hearts than are low levels of serum cholesterol or tobacco use. He explained that an isolated individual may be overwhelmed by the problems of everyday life. Such a person internalized that feeling as stress which, in turn, can adversely affect everything from blood pressure to kidney function. That, however, is much less likely to be the outcome when a person is surrounded by caring friends, neighbors and relatives. The sense of being supported reduces stress and the disease stress engenders.

    More recently studies in both the USA and here by the BMJ have confirmed the correlation between an active social life/set of social connections and longer life expectancy.

    And though it my not have felt that way as  I hoovered up Sudbourne Road’s finest samosa’s, jerk chicken, potato salad, sausages, ice cream and baked goods; there was an undeniable feeling of hope, optimism and yes, “well being” (personal an collective) as the evening drew to a close.

    New neighbours had been met; interesting conversations held; ideas on matters of interest to the local community – schooling and local planning applications in particular – were exchanged; histories shared; new friendships made. We appear – and it’s a shame on me that this was even remotely a surprise – to live among wonderful people with shared aspirations, hopes and fears for our street, their families and themelves.

    And so in the midst of all the semantic scuffles about The Big Society (or more locally known as Lambeth’s “Co-Operative Council”), what it is and what it might/must become it was a delightful thought that something as simple as a set of street parties, held across the UK, bringing neighbours together one day in July, might just be doing more for all of us than David Cameron’s band of merry social architects as yet.

    “People are nourished by other people”.  That’s the Big Lunch. Literally and metaphorically.

    Long may it run.

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    1. #1 by Shane Carmichael on September 16, 2010 - 12:00 am

      Thanks Chris. Much appreciated. Central/Local Gov should consider subsidising as many as possible for their first year in my opinion to get them off the ground. The impact is truly remarkable with long term benefits for local people and local governance. Should be a central ‘quick win’ tenet of all current ‘Big Society’ or ‘Co-operative Council’ initiatives.

      Great to hear you were leading the charge in NI. Exactly what we need. Our street is so engaged with it that we’re looking at holding an Xmas get together as well. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and all that.

      Anyway – hope all is well with you. Regards to the good people of E Belfast and keep the omments coming – I have a few posts you may be interested in under ‘N Ireland’ and ‘Government’. I’d certainly welcome your views/feedback.

      In any event – take good care.


    2. #2 by Chris Lyttle MLA on September 15, 2010 - 11:13 pm

      Thank you for your interesting article Shane.

      I am not sure how many ‘Big Lunches’ took place in Northern Ireland on Sunday 18th July; however, you might be glad to know that I participated in one at Shaw Street in East Belfast.

      Best regards,

      Chris Lyttle MLA

    3. #3 by Anne-Marie on July 30, 2010 - 5:25 pm

      Lucy Sherwood (our fearless leader for 2010) was a total hero! It was a fantastic day enjoyed by many.

      And who said “Community is dead”? Rubbish!

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