In days gone, when people lived in settled communities and identified strongly with the locality, neighbours knew each other and were expected to behave in certain ways: if not in a friendly manner or through reciprocal exchanges, then as part of a world with familiarities and ties mediating local animosities and disputes. Neighbouring was a way of life and a compulsion, a habit or a reason to get out, or an ordeal for the outsider. Today, this is not an expectation of neighbouring. People live next to each other largely as strangers, in places that hardly hold together as communities of common fate or interest, without much contact, often moving on to somewhere else. In an age mediated by all manner of real-time intimate contact with people far away, even the most sedentary subjects dwell in worlds of multiple affiliation and feeling. This is what travel, the internet, television, mobile phones and advertising, alongside the intimacies of materialism, religion and ideology have permitted. Neighbours or strangers who find themselves in the same space can ignore each other, avoid being inquisitive except in indifferent or suspicious ways, or even up sticks when necessary.

The neighbour is just the person next door, and neighbouring is no longer a required art of living with others. This is all the more so when private ownership makes people proprietary. The intensity of neighbourly self-interest and indifference is probably particularly high in cities, where the majority of people, living as they do in suburbs, high-rise flats, or inner city areas, dwell in multiple worlds of connectivity, move on frequently, and work hard at negotiating the complexities of urban living.

Should we allow neighbouring to become a culture of self-interest and social avoidance, an ethic of indifference towards cohabitants? The danger here is to court isolationist ways of living with difference, turning neighbourhoods into zones of discipline. Additionally, this way of living provides a further excuse to accept the 9/11 culture of aversion to difference, which tells us to be wary of, discipline, or eject the disruptive neighbour: the asylum seeker, the Muslim, the beggar, the welfare scrounger, the dissident, the immigrant, the one who does not fit. The logical extension of this culture – backed by elaborate systems of surveillance and vilification of the stranger – is that the neighbourhood becomes a place of fear and suspicion of the other.

It is this kind of possibility that has prompted a policy quest for neighbourliness and mixed community, for places where people from different backgrounds can meet and perhaps even build interdependencies. Emblematic of this desire is a policy turn towards mixed neighbourhoods, twinned schools, housing schemes that promote visibility and contact, and projects to build bridges or facilitate contact between strangers. I have my doubts about whether such engineering can work in a society of multiple identities and affiliations. Greater exposure to neighbours could breed more intimacy but also more hate, while designing environments of shared interests and sympathies strays uncomfortably close to the ethos of gated communities that we tend not to like. However, an ethic of good neighbouring that builds sensibilities around real habits of modern urban living may be worth exploring. Three such sensibilities come to mind.

The first is a sensibility of respectful distance. Immediate neighbours who share a garden fence or a common entrance should learn to ignore difference – bodily, cultural and ideological – and also not to expect too much from each other. Instead, they could learn to keep the peace, by understanding that they share a fragile dividing line. A politeness of the party wall or privet hedge can be structured around small things: respectful greeting, taking in the neighbour’s mail, keeping the noise down. Of course, the reality is often the opposite, punctuated by complaints of unruly behaviour, disputes over who pays for common repairs, and sly encroachment. Reversing this is not easy, and bad relations are often a quirk of fate (you cannot choose your neighbours), but the combination of being able to call in the authorities as a last resort, schooling in the manners of the party wall, and social regulation through the two additional sensibilities discussed below, might do the trick. Who knows, respectful distance might even lead to studied care.

The second sensibility has to do with care for the neighbourhood. Bad relations are pushed to the margins when people in a neighbourhood feel strongly about the local patch, especially when they work together to protect it. This is what happens when volunteers work to clean up public spaces, make streets safe, or set up local amenities for children. Through these acts, people take responsibility for their neighbourhood, an ethic that may even turn into studied care for one’s neighbours. Of course, many of the residents will not play ball, and all too frequently it is the same old people who come out. The challenge lies in finding ways of cultivating interest in the local commons among the disinterested, perhaps through the promise of small rewards and projects that capture the imagination.

The third sensibility concerns the aesthetic of place. Architects, planners and social reformers have long understood the impact of good design, green spaces, busy streets, functioning services, low-key surveillance, and human-scale development on civic behaviour. The aesthetic of place comes with no clear guarantees – slums can yield feelings of solidarity, and pristine suburbs strong feelings of aversion. Chances are, however, that in a decent neighbourhood with plentiful signs of social life in public space, neighbourly relations may turn for the better, as people appreciate the commons shared by everyone, nod unthinkingly to the passer-by, come out when the aesthetic is threatened, and think again before making someone’s life miserable. None of this is reducible to place aesthetics, but when such an atmosphere combines with a strong sense of place identification, a new alchemy of living with difference might be catalysed, where neighbours see each other as part of a community.

Download PDF