The Covid-19 pandemic has had a strange effect on how people relate to their neighbours. Lockdown measures have confined previously mobile citizens to their immediate environments, greatly increasing the time spent in proximity to those sharing them. Yet social distancing measures make some many aspects of British ‘neighbouring’ newly fraught with anxiety: chats over the fence must be surreally distant, and crossing the threshold is completely ruled out. Ordinary good deeds like taking deliveries have become novel acts of service for self-isolating neighbours. In both their sudden prominence and their odd absence, we have learned to appreciate afresh our neighbours’ value.
There is widespread perception in Britain that ‘neighbourliness’ (an atmosphere arising from having and being good neighbours) has been eroded in recent decades in an alleged weakening of ‘sense of community’. This has been challenged; positive expressions of neighbouring during the pandemic further question the declinist narrative. Yet what is clear is that neighbouring has emerged in recent decades as a distinct kind of social relation. Various kinds of ‘churn’ – social mix, gentrification, internal and external immigration – have left many people living beyond immediate proximity to friends or extended family. Seventy years ago one’s neighbours overlapped heavily with kinship circles. No longer easily assimilable into more traditional forms of solidarity and support, neighbouring in contemporary society now requires support and cultivation.
We need to do much more, in urban planning and digital provision, to promote neighbourliness. Our current strategies – whether a traditional neighbourhood association or an app like Nextdoor – are limited by their voluntary and ad hoc nature. We should conceive of neighbourliness as a vital but non-inevitable community asset, and foster it with new forms of social infrastructure, to which access should be universal without being compulsory – like access to the road.