Nachbarschaft Franz-Klühs-Straße
3 August 2020

Neighbourliness in times of crisis

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Recent months have shown just how important solidarity and neighbourliness are in times of crisis. The urban sociologist, Dr Jan Üblacker, talks to us about the conditions of functioning neighbourliness and the interaction of social and economic components. Why the expectations of the residents and the basic conditions of a neighbourhood are dependent on each other and the significance of digital technologies and their interpretation content, are further topics covered in this discussion.


The importance of neighbourliness and solidarity

An interview on the topic of neighbourliness with the urban sociologist, Dr Jan Üblacker:

How important is neighbourliness in times of crisis such as the latest Corona pandemic?

Minor and major crises can be viewed as an opportunity for the neighbourhood to grow together. A pipe burst in the basement of a multi-dwelling building initially affects all, producing a need for joint action, from which a sense of community can in turn grow. An unexpected rent rise can also trigger a demonstration of mutual  solidarity among the residents and bring about joint action regarding the landlords. During the contact restrictions of the Corona pandemic there were many reports of mutual help among neighbours. The readiness to provide neighbourly help definitely appears to exist, and this is also underlined by several older and current studies.

However, under certain basic conditions, changes can also lead to intolerance and conflicts in the neighbourhood. This can begin with small things, such as new neighbours who speak with the “wrong” dialect or who represent standards and values that meet with rejection.

Neighbourliness in relation to social and non-residential structures

What significance do social and non-residential structures have?

In urban research we assume that spatial proximity increases the likelihood of contact between people. Accordingly, to a certain extent, the social structure of the population in the immediate living environment – this means, for example, the income, the educational level or the personal status of the neighbours – determines who we can encounter randomly and with whom we develop neighbourly contacts. Whether these contacts actually occur depends on the one hand, on how the persons perceive each other, and on the other on public and non-residential structures, which provide an occasion for encounter. These are, for example, parks, squares, cafés, bars, clubs, schools or daycare centres. A community-building potential is attributed to these so-called “third-party locations”. However, they require precise attention and scrutiny: Who meets whom there? Are certain groups excluded? These locations can both strengthen and overcome demarcation processes.

Promoting neighbourliness through digitalisation

How can digitalisation promote an effective neighbourhood?

Firstly, it is necessary to clarify more precisely, what “digitalisation” actually means. A manageable definition would be, for example, new information and communication technologies, which are only made possible by a combination of mobile terminals (smartphones), a permanent internet connection and sensors. Many of these technologies enable more immediate and direct communication between persons, which appears to take place detached from spatial distances. In fact, many neighbours use messenger services and groups in the social media to communicate in and about their neighbourhood. The recent past has shown that it is these technologies that can be very useful when there is a need to avoid physical contact and nonetheless communicate in the environment and to offer help.

In general, new technologies are not equally accessible to all social groups, and these groups do not use them and, accordingly, benefit from them in the same way. This in turn has an effect on existing social inequalities. How precisely this situation presents itself in individual neighbourhoods depends on a large number of individual and contextual factors. More research is definitely necessary!

Another aspect of the discussion concerning digitalisation and neighbourliness is the change in communication about the residential environment. Due to the emergence of social media, everybody is now able to communicate publicly about events in their neighbourhood. However, the message cannot only be seen by those who are also in the neighbourhood, but also by all users of the same service. They in turn distribute the message further and possibly add their own interpretive framework. Above all, normative polarising events, for example, political demonstrations or certain crimes, have the potential to trigger such message streams and thus draw nationwide attention to the location.

Functioning neighbourhoods

“This also makes it clear that neighbourliness and neighbourhood cannot only be thought of from the perspective of the residents, but also from the view of temporary users.”

What constitutes a neighbourly functioning neighbourhood?

That depends on the individual needs and expectations of the neighbours and the basic structural conditions of the neighbourhood. And precisely what one understands “neighbourly functioning” to mean. For a family with children, a neighbourhood can “function neighbourly” if child daycare centres and schools are within walking distance and other families, which whom they can views and experiences, live nearby. They value a safe and quiet residential environment, so that their children can play in the street. Neighbours with low incomes, on the other hand, may be bothered about too high rents in the neighbourhood, because their remaining budget is insufficient to use the infrastructures available locally and therefore, their social participation is limited. Viewed from this perspective, the neighbourhood “functions” less well for them. For the homeless, on the other hand, a “neighbourly functioning” neighbourhood may possibly be characterised by the fact that they are tolerated in the public spaces and may even be greeted kindly.

This also makes it clear that neighbourliness and neighbourhood cannot only be thought of from the perspective of the residents, but also from the view of temporary users. The situation becomes particularly complex if we imagine the preceding examples, not only as three separate locations, but as one and the same neighbourhood. It can then namely entirely possible that the different needs and expectations of the groups come into conflict with each other and have to be negotiated.

Aspects of a functioning neighbourhood

Which aspect – social, economic or sustainability – is most elemental for a neighbourly functioning neighbourhood?

That surely depends on the perspectives of the respective stakeholders. I personally am mainly interested in the interactions between social and economic aspects and how these affect living together in the neighbourhoods. It is relatively clear that economic processes influence living together in the neighbourhoods. For example, the occupancy practices of the owners or subsidised asking rents also decide which persons can live in which neighbourhoods. Whether and for whom the neighbourhood then “functions” in what sense is conditioned by these processes but is not determined by them. This means that ultimately, the local social constellations and practices also decide how the neighbourhood is constituted.

The neighbourhood of the future

In your opinion, how can neighbourliness function in the future?

I can unfortunately only make assumptions. I think that ultimately, it is important for everybody to think about the kind of neighbourhood they would like to live in and then to act accordingly. This not only concerns the neighbours themselves, but also the city’s politicians, the housing companies and municipal administrations. In addition, it is not the case that neighbourliness is not already “functioning”. Only that it functions differently in some places than in others.

Forecasts of future developments

“Who still remembers the Bubble Tea shops and what happens to the innumerable bank branches, if an increasing number of people use online banking? The bar and club culture in many towns and cities is facing an existential crisis due to the Corona-related shutdown. What will be left of it in a year’s time and what new ideas will emerge to replace it?“

Which neighbourhood structures will be lost, which new ones will develop?

The past has shown that it is very difficult to make such predictions. For a while, it was assumed that the neighbourhood and local facilities would loose their significance due to global networking. Now the help networks created in some places during the Corona pandemic have taught us, and not for the first time, that the neighbourhood is indeed important.

In the most general sense, it can be said that major social changes always also affect the cities, districts and neighbourhoods. Which changes emerge where and how depends on very many different factors and are therefore difficult to predict. For example, developments on the financial markets can result in changes in the management and investment behaviour of housing companies and as a result their rents rise or they disinvest in housing stocks.

Local businesses are also subject to certain industry and consumer trends. Who still remembers the Bubble Tea shops and what happens to the innumerable bank branches, if an increasing number of people use online banking? The bar and club culture in many towns and cities is facing an existential crisis due to the Corona-related shutdown. What will be left of it in a year’s time and what new ideas will emerge to replace it? The particular feature of business infrastructure is that, in addition to its economic function, in many neighbourhoods and for many residents it also conveys local ties and certain cultural values. Which often makes it even the more tragic for the neighbourhood when such locations are lost.

Not least, social change naturally also leaves its marks behind in the districts and neighbourhoods. In older field studies, interview excerpts can be found in which long-time residents show their irritation with the frequent absence of their single and childless neighbours who have recently moved into the area. Such and similar statements very nicely document the respective prevailing standards and values and show us that they are also in a state of continuous change. This example comes from a Hamburg study of several colleagues in the late 1980s.

Exchange as the basis for the neighbourhood of the future

Which fundamentals have to be laid today?

I cannot tell anyone what they must or should do. I can only invite them to enter into exchange with urban, district and neighbourhood researchers about their findings and to discuss with them their significance for the respective local context and beyond.

Thank you for talking with us!

Cover photo: Franz-Klühs-Straße © Johannes Schneeweiß


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