Designing neighbourhoods for cohesion — You can’t build cohesion the same way you create division and polarisation.

10 min readJun 24, 2021

Over the last few years we have seen how easy it has been to create divisions in society. Influencing how people feel about other people can be done very effectively through using broadcast methods, through all the various media -with people at home and online. We have all experienced these campaigns over extended periods of time with messages that are specifically designed to create widespread misunderstanding and mistrust in people who are different from ourselves, different in who we are, what we think and where we come from.

Building social cohesion, nurturing relationships and co-operation, understanding and friendship across our many differences needs much much more than top down broadcast campaigns.

This needs relationships to be built between people.

Building social cohesion needs people to leave the comfort of their homes, or the segmented spaces of clubs, work, services etc — to venture out into new types of shared social spaces. It needs conversation and productivity for the context and opportunity for friendship and trust to flourish between people.

So the first point is that social cohesion cannot be built without people leaving their house and becoming actively engaged with people who live side by side with them in their neighbourhoods — and that are amazingly and wonderfully different to them.

This is very logical when it is described in this way. It makes complete sense that you can’t create social cohesion and cooperation between people whilst staying at home.

Unfortunately it also sounds easy, and it really isn’t. Anyone who has every worked in any community, deploying any kind of community building approach, will know first hand how very difficult this idea is. Despite hearing from 100s of communities across the UK in my research over the last decade, where people have been saying time and time again that they want to live in a way which makes friendship building across their neighbourhoods a practical reality, we haven’t organised our societies in a way that makes this easy.

In fact we have done the exact opposite. We are organised for segmentation and separation — and it will take wholesale restructuring of our neighbourhoods to make this type of connection, collaboration and relationship building possible, not by some people, some of the time, but by everyone, every day. And not by simply by talking about cohesion either, but by doing cohesion at every possibile opportunity.

Richard Sennett, in his book ‘Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation’, makes the case for learning how to cooperate across our differences. He highlights that modern society has weakened cooperation through inequality, labour patterns and separation. Sennett describes a ‘demanding and difficult kind of co-operation’ that ‘tries to join people who have separate or conflicting interests, who do not feel good about each other, who are unequal, or who simply do not understand one another.’ One of the most important points from Sennett’s writing on this is that ‘hard cooperation’ is a skill, that needs to only to be learned, at a time when we have become de-skilled at cooperation, but that this learning is achieved through practicing cooperation.

Here’s why it is so difficult with our current structures.

There are three major reasons why it is so difficult to create relationships across differences in our neighbourhoods:

1.The first is the human condition, more specifically our responses to social interactions that are created over time by previous negative experiences of prejudice.

2.The second is logistical, there aren’t enough opportunities to be in shared spaces regularly with diverse groups of people on an equal footing.

3. And building on the first two, the third is the enormous challenge of achieving real inclusivity and diversity in the same room.

And this is where the Participatory City Approach really comes into its own — because it has been designed throughout to overcome exactly these challenges. There is no other single approach that I know of that has shown to be effective at achieving these high levels of repeat, inclusive, large scale participation, with people from diverse backgrounds, on an equal footing.

It is the only approach I know that systematically co-creates a vast number of diverse practical opportunities, of every conceivable size and shape, as close as possible to where people live, built into the grain of everyday life.

And it is the only approach I know that is this successful at inviting and supporting individuals to overcome their most natural of human instincts — to stay away from social risk.

Outlined below are each of these 3 main reasons in more detail and how the Participatory City Approach is designed specifically to create the opportunities, invitations and participation culture that encourages people to take part for the first time, and to have good experiences to keep coming back time and again.

1. Overcoming previous negative experiences of prejudice

There must hardly be a person alive today who hasn’t experienced prejudice of one kind or another. Prejudice against colour, culture, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender, class, disability or economic status. Prejudice against personal struggles, like homelessness, or poverty or mental health or substance addiction, unemployment or illiteracy. The list is long. Many people also experience several different prejudices at the same time.

There are many negative impacts to experiencing prejudice, but one of the strongest effects of exposure to prejudice is that we can develop a protective response to external threats that can lead to varying degrees of a response called hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is an increased sensory sensitivity to detect social threat in the environment. Over time this sensitivity also changes the way we act with and around other people, and can lead to further isolation and loneliness, as we can become more awkward or socially reactive to any signs of exclusion or rejection. John Cacioppo in his book Loneliness, describes the neurological, physical and psychological impacts of both a negative feedback loop, and the positive feedback loops that can be created with social connection. “A well-regulated, socially contented person sends social signals that are more harmonious and more in sync with the rest of the environment. Not surprisingly, the signals he or she receives back are more harmonious and better synchronised as well.’ When we are isolated for extended periods, such as we have experienced during covid lockdowns, we also get de-skilled socially.

Not wanting to expose ourselves to social risk of prejudice or rejection is a natural (and smart) protective human response — but we need to finds ways to be together in diverse configurations if we are to counteract the systematic efforts to create division and distrust we currently experience through the media. We need to develop effective ways to invite, encourage and support people to come to new spaces to meet new people who are different from one other.

2. Lack of opportunities

In most neighbourhoods in the UK there are in fact very few opportunities to spend time with a cross section of people. Most neighbourhood social activities are segmented in one way or another, very few provide an opportunity to spend even short periods of time doing practical common denominator activity across ages, cultures, religions etc, on an equal footing, peer-to-peer. And if the audience for an activity isn’t segmented, then the activity itself is very often highly specific, or worse very exclusive.

3. Diverse people in the same room

For the reasons above it is very challenging to achieve diversity in the same room. You can put up Everyone Welcome signs, and we do that as a matter of course, but you have to design every detail right, the communications, the structures, the cultures etc, and these details need to be fully synchronised and infused with inclusivity principles firmly embedded, if you are to be successful at attracting diverse groups of people into the same rooms.

The Participatory City Approach and designing with the Inclusivity Principles

The key way that Every One Every Day ensures inclusive participation is by building the whole practical participation systems around people and their capabilities — not around institutional agendas. We achieve the high levels of inclusive participation by co-creating with residents the widest possible diversity of opportunities we can, as frequently as possible, as close to where people live as possible. Practical activity that is properly co-created with residents will always be diverse in its nature. People have so many skills, so many ideas, so many interests, that there will almost be as many types of practical activities as there are people.

For practical participation to be really inclusive the diversity of the ecosystem of opportunities needs to include the type of activities, the locations, the time of day and week; the degree of confidence, commitment and time required; the skills needed; how physically accessible; how welcoming of children, how well communicated and promoted (see Inviting, welcoming and including everyone for more on this), how inviting, welcoming and enjoyable the atmosphere. All these factors add up. Below is our analysis of inclusion principles and what specific barriers they aim to overcome.

The left hand columns include the practical barriers. The right hand columns include the in-person barriers. You can see from this analysis that many of the practical barriers are overcome with a small number of design factors. While the in-person barriers, such as social anxiety, stigmatisation or negative previous experience of community involvement, require many more design factors working well together.

Why designing large scale social infrastructure for social cohesion in Barking and Dagenham is so important (and is also important everywhere else too)

The borough’s history is well known to many. In 2006 the Guardian reported Welcome to Barking — new far right capital of Britain as the BNP gained a political foothold in the borough.

But at the 2010 election the BNP were defeated by an extraordinary anti-fascism campaign led by local politicians that are still leading the council today, including Darren Rodwell (Leader) and Saima Ashraff (Deputy Leader) and many others.

As outlined in the paper New East New Thinking the leadership is mindful of this history and determined to ensure the situation doesn’t arise again —

“we felt an overwhelming desire to develop a new model of community engagement, built on regular and frequent contact with our citizens.”

… and why they have invested and continue to invest in keeping the contact with and between residents as frequent as possible.

“Could you imagine, everyone talking to each other! It’s amazing… you can knock on someone’s door and have a chat, have a cup of tea. Which wasn’t happening before… it’s good that [Every One Every Day] has come. I know that it’s not only my experience but other people’s experience too… they live in the neighbourhood but have not been engaged with their neighbours before in the way that they are now. They’re both here doing projects together, and talking about life outside of here, family lives, kids, schooling. It’s making an impact on happy living in the neighbourhood.” Barking and Dagenham resident

“I had maybe four friends in Barking that I knew had the same interests as me, and now it’s in the hundreds. I’ve met people with all different interests, all different careers, and hobbies and pasts and people that have lived all over the world, and speak different languages and experienced different cultures, and know so many different things, and I would have never have met those people if it wasn’t for the Barking [Every One Every Day] shop.” Barking and Dagenham resident

In summary, building social cohesion across differences requires a lot. It requires the co-creation of a vast number of diverse of opportunities, it requires that these are widely and well communicated, and requires the individual to overcome their most natural of human instincts to stay away from social risk. And when all that is achieved the time that people spend together, on an equal footing, doing hands on activities together, has to be enjoyable and productive. It has to be creative and fun. It has to be friendly, welcoming and inclusive.

Because only if it is all these things will people come back and participate again, and this has to happen for relationships of friendship and trust to form over the long term.

Why social cohesion is the core foundational outcome for the Participatory City Approach

We have spent a lot of time gathering data and researching the many outcomes that peer-to-peer practical participation creates. We have approached this very systematically and rigorously and this has led to an evolving detailed framework of outcomes.

Based on detailed evaluations from participants across projects and across different time frames we have developed a good idea how outcomes are achieved, small actions adding up over time, and the different categories of outcomes.

We see many many outcomes being achieved in this way, people learning, making and working together in the same spaces on an equal footing — and across diverse backgrounds — achieving outcomes for people, places and planet — e.g. health and mental health, thriving contexts for families, children and young people, learning for developing new skills and livelihoods, taking care of nature, and living more sustainably.

And because so many of these outcomes are important, and because we aren’t at the research stage yet to quantify and rank these many impacts — — its logical to make all these outcomes appear equal.

However, having taken a moment to stand back, and look at this approach in the wider context in which we are working in 2021 we strongly believe that creating social cohesion, creating bridging social capital and creating co-operation stands out as the most important aspect of the Participatory City Approach. The process was revealed to us by residents in their research evaluations - of first creating a sense of individual agency and then collective agency, that builds cohesion into the fabric of how we live.

This is certainly the key starting point for the entire design, and the most compelling reason of all we believe to invest in making this approach a reality of everyday living in the future, in every city in the world.

Not only do we think it the most important design principle for re-organising how we live and work together, but also that it is uniquely created using this approach.




Founder Participatory City | Ashoka Fellow #depolarising @ParticipatoryC @everyone_org @AshokaUK