Guest Blog: a helping hand to restore community spirit

Martin GrahamMartin Graham is founder of Street Associations, an organisation which helps communities set up their own street associations.

Anyone visiting Just Act probably already has a conviction that community is a good thing – and a sense that we could do with restoring it to where we live.  After all, one hears it every so often that 50 years ago “everyone knew everyone” and yet now “I hardly know anyone”.

But why should this be?  What has happened, that has driven us to live so separately from those who live around us?

Why do we live separately?

I’ve found some clues talking to people as we launched street associations with them, or spoke to neighbours about the difference it has made.

One lady told me that for years she had wanted to be friends with the lady across the road, but “felt scared to approach her”.  Then, through the street association, they became good friends and it turned out that the lady across the road had for years wanted to be her friend, but felt scared to approach her!

One GP, a member of another street association, said to me: “People live their own lives and you don’t want to intrude”.  And I think that’s the big issue.

Somehow, our culture has developed in a way that tells us that we shouldn’t invade other people’s private space.  They may not want contact, we shouldn’t impose and we don’t want to be thought of as a busy-body.

If we don’t know how we’d be received, maybe it’s easier to keep ourselves to ourselves and just nod politely when we pass a neighbour. But the Mental Health Foundation have published a report claiming that one in ten of us (11%) say that we often feel lonely .

How can a street association help out?

Some of us could do with a helping hand from a neighbour from time to time, such as a lift to a doctor’s appointment or help with a bit of DIY; people who are new to an area often feel they can’t ‘break in’; sometimes retired or unemployed people have lots to contribute but no social group to enjoy what they have to offer.

As I talked to people in street associations, one of the most common things to hear was that the new association gave people a sense of permission to engage with others on their street.

And people now feel able both to offer help and to ask for it.

How do street associations work?

A small core group of maybe eight residents typically meet once a month and dream up exciting/fun/weird things to do together, from a quiz night to a barbecue or a ‘frock swap’. Every event brings opportunities to get together without it seeming ‘wrong’.

According to a survey of Street Associations members, the result has been that, within a year, the average resident got to know 16 new people, and 44% said it had helped them personally to feel less lonely and isolated.

No less than 99% said the street was friendlier as a result, 67% said it felt safer and 98% said it had brought the generations together.

Comments included:

  • “Much more friendly and OK to say hello to others”.
  • “A great community spirit.  A family feeling of concern and fun”.
  • “The street is a much friendlier place to live in now.  People smile more now when you pass them on the street and I think you’re more inclined to help a neighbour out with a problem because you no longer think of them as strangers”.

Now, that shows that we can change a culture, make a really positive difference (offering what can be a lifeline for some) and bring people together.

You can find out more about Street Associations here including how to get your free starter pack.


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