By Germaine R. Halegoua (University of Michigan) and Bonnie J. Johnson (University of Kansas)
In cities around the world, informal mutual aid networks are stepping up to help local communities in the midst of a global pandemic. With stay-at-home orders in effect, neighbors are providing services to other residents such as trips to the grocery store and childcare, sharing food, homemade masks, and other amenities. What are the keys to facilitating this mutual aid? Past studies have shown that during times of crisis neighbors often band together to solve problems or mobilize to support one another and improve quality of life. Even if these collaborations are only temporary, neighbors will work together during times of immediate or urgent need in order to ameliorate or deliberate about political concerns or social problems that affect them directly. Our study indicates that observability is also important to activating innate desires for neighbors to provide mutual aid. For this particular crisis, people are staying at home but they are not necessarily staying inside, they are outside walking their dogs, riding bicycles, gardening, or playing in their front yards. Neighbors can easily observe other neighbors and are able to have brief casual encounters to check in with each other and provide assistance.
However, what if there is no crisis or limited opportunities for passive contact? On an average day, how do neighbors choose or desire to associate with one another? In a time when people routinely use digital media and other communication networks to connect with friends and family, services, and interest-based communities that are geographically distant, what does it mean to be a “neighbor” now? What is the value of living in close proximity to others? Is this tendency to provide mutual aid always nascent among neighbors and can it be harnessed for governance or planning purposes?
In order to address these questions, we conducted interviews about the meaning of “neighbor” and “neighborhood” with 21 residents living in a middle-class neighborhood in a mid-sized midwestern city in the United States. Interviewees were homeowners who ranged in age from early 30s to late 80s. We asked participants what makes an ideal neighborhood and neighbor; what participants expect from their neighborhood and neighbors; perceived benefits and drawbacks of neighborhood, neighborhood associations, and preferred forms of “neighboring” today. We looked for any connections or discrepancies between their descriptions and how government entities and pre-existing scholarly literature view neighbors and neighborhoods.
Although “neighboring” is understood by scholars to take the form of political, social, or economic relationships, we find that none of these categories overlap with how our participants desired to be “good neighbors.” Our findings demonstrate that neighbors are interested in engaging in service-oriented relationships but not in service to city, state, or national governments. Instead of participating in public service or governance, our participants desired to build social capital and sense of community through service to one another. Above all other types of interactions, people in this neighborhood wanted to be able to help each other if they knew their neighbor needed help. Neighbors were willing and wanting to provide small-stakes mutual aid to fellow neighbors — such as giving someone a ride to the store or hospital, mowing lawns or snow removal, providing childcare or baking a casserole if someone is sick — but their capacity for such caring was limited and contingent upon casual interactions with each other instead of formalized encounters that a neighborhood association might provide.
As evidenced in participants’ comments, neighbors would like to connect with one another via common obligation, reciprocal assistance or collaboration, or communal investment in a project or property values that will benefit their neighborhood or domestic space. Neighbors value the ability and potential to work together. However, our participants noted difficulties in acquiring and/or providing information about when neighbors needed help or were willing to help one another. Participants’ preferred method of acquiring information about their neighbors was through observation rather than more direct interaction, such as, knocking on doors, starting conversations, or attending a neighborhood association meeting. Interviewees repeatedly mentioned that they desired more ways of monitoring as well as being seen by their neighbors to know whether someone needed help. It seems that proximity, chance encounters, increased visibility and informal communication are key.
This emphasis on observability has implications for neighborhood and communication technology design. Providing spaces, opportunities, or modes of communication that allow people to know when neighbors need assistance or could provide support may be a revised role of the city planner and/or neighborhood association. Structures in place for the request and response of mutual aid, informal insurance providers (aka neighbors) might make the perceived benefits of neighboring feel more “complete.” These findings also influence the role of planning professionals and neighborhood organizers. Planners and neighborhood associations could focus on facilitating cooperative events (rather than social gatherings) such as clean-up days, garage-sales, or building sidewalks, bike lanes, small greenspaces, bus stops, etc. that create opportunities for regular face-to-face, informal encounters and observations.
Based on this study, the ways that planners and other public policy makers think about neighborhoods may be outmoded. Neighbors and neighborhood collectives may not be standing by as political organizations to interface with policymakers. Public policymakers need to be cognizant of how much to ask of these grassroots communities to avoid mismatches between obligations, expectations, and capabilities for citizen participation and citizen governance. Efforts to engage the neighborhood as an extension of democratic political spheres may be premature, as neighborhood service-oriented relationships are more “private” than “public” investments. However, these networks of mutual aid and the ability of neighbors to see themselves as service providers, as well as recipients of neighborly care, may become platforms for forms of citizenship that precede traditional political or civic activity or models for “inclusive and compassionate governance.”
Instead of relying on a neighborhood organization to provide opportunities for formal social or political engagement, our participants preferred to support their neighbors through practices of “control by helping.” Creating informal service-oriented opportunities for passive contact and to enact practices and ethics of care as neighborhood empowerment rather than focusing on political organizing or social gatherings may be the surest route to creating a sense of community and building social capital for quality neighborhoods.
Germaine R. Halegoua is John D. Evans Development Professor & associate professor of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on digital media and place, urban informatics, and cultural geographies of media. She is the co-editor of the anthology, Locating Emerging Media (Routledge, 2016) and author of The Digital City: Media and the Social Production of Place (NYU Press, 2020) and Smart Cities (MIT Press, 2020).
Bonnie J. Johnson, FAICP is director and associate professor in the Urban Planning Program under the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. Research focuses on the profession of city planning and the roles and ethics of planners. Contributions to the field include the use of new media for neighborhood organizing, creation of the civic bureaucracy model, groundbreaking research on staff reports, and comparative studies of public service professions.