October 25, 2019
Ideas for delivery
Everyone lauded the initiative of Scottish Government when it published one of the first ever strategies by a national government to combat loneliness and social isolation. The real challenge, however, comes in designing and delivering actions on the ground that will make a real difference to people’s lives. An excellent briefing on this issue from Local Government Information Unit highlighting some innovative ideas and approaches that have been pursued around the country. At the end of the day this national strategy will need community led delivery.
Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to develop a national strategy to tackle social isolation. Launched in December 2018, A Connected Scotland sets a strategic vision to recognise and tackle loneliness and isolation as one of the major public health issues of our time.
There is a wealth of research on the effects of social isolation and loneliness, but there is a significant evidence-gap around how to tackle it effectively. Reviews of the effectiveness of interventions to reduce loneliness highlight that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There are also differences of opinion about the relative impact of interventions that work at an individual or community level.
We know that loneliness and social isolation affects people at all life stages. 20 to 80 per cent of adolescents report often feeling lonely, compared to 40 to 50 per cent of older people. Researchers have also found particular groups of people to be at risk; immigrants, the unemployed, lone parents, people with long term mental health problems and disabilities, carers and people living in poverty. There are clear links between health and social inequality and loneliness with many risk factors unequally distributed across society. It is both a population level problem – identified by the RSA as one of the five New Giants of economic and social need – and a highly personal experience.
What is clear – and what is set out in the national strategy – is that everyone can contribute to creating the conditions that encourage kindness and enable inclusive communities to thrive. People who experience a connection, however fleeting, feel happier and more connected to others.
This briefing highlights projects and activities from across the UK with a primary or secondary aim of tackling social isolation. Many interventions are new and are not as well tested as familiar schemes targeted at reducing loneliness, such as befriending. They all aim, however, to provide a practical way for people to be connected and to feel happier. A common theme is both the importance of facilitating cross-sectoral partnerships and engaging local communities fully in the design and delivery of interventions.
The Restaurant that Makes Mistakes
Inspired by a pop-up restaurant in Tokyo, Channel 4’s Restaurant that Makes Mistakes partnered with the Alzheimer’s Society and Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, to show that people living with dementia can make a valuable contribution to society. The restaurant was run for five weeks by volunteers, all diagnosed with forms of dementia and aged between 23 and 67. The series, like its sister production Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds, aimed to challenge public perceptions around social isolation and economic and social value.
Play Out Streets
Play out streets was started by two parents in Bristol concerned about their children’s isolation from their own neighbourhood. Compared to their own childhoods in the 1970s, the mothers thought their children were spending more time indoors, inactive and isolated. It seemed that the physical and social environment had changed to the extent that it no longer felt safe or acceptable to let their children simply ‘play out’. Closing a street to through traffic changes the atmosphere and both adults and children are encouraged to view the street as it should be – a social space for people rather than cars.
Play Streets enable people who could be feeling isolated at home to meet and chat to their neighbours in an informal setting. Playing Out Survey Reports have found that 91% of residents know more people on their street as a result of the scheme, with 84% feeling they belong more in their neighbourhood. The survey also reported that play out street closures lead to other social activities such as Christmas parties, sharing food and drink and community clean ups. 57 UK councils have now adopted a ‘Temporary Play Street’ policy and there is evidence of multiple benefits to communities with the University of Bristol finding that Play Streets could make a meaningful contribution to health.
Efficiency in our interactions – such as contactless payments, automated phone systems and self-service tills – have decreased everyday opportunities to interact with other people. While for some people the prospect of fully automated shops, such as Amazon Go, is welcome, many people find technology is decreasing the quality as well as the frequency of contact with others. This has prompted a supermarket in Vlijmen in the Netherlands to launch a ‘chat checkout’ for shoppers who would like to talk and take a bit more time to do their shopping without worry of inconveniencing others. The chat checkout complements a ‘coffee corner’ at the supermarket where people can stop for a drink and chat to representatives from community groups and organisations.
The importance of chatting to strangers underpins the Be More Us project from the Campaign to End Loneliness, by building small moments of connection.
Grove Community Gardening
Charities and local authorities have a long history of using gardening to bring people and communities together. In recent years, community-led movements have grown across the UK around allotments, community gardens and foraging, with a focus on health and wellbeing, inclusion and reducing social isolation. In many areas, local authorities have made land available for community growing but the pressure of development or ownership issues can present challenges.
Grove Community Garden demonstrates that community gardening can happen anywhere with a mobile garden making temporary use of two unused urban development sites. One part of the garden is dedicated to pallet bed units that can be moved by forklift and give residents the chance to grow their own vegetables, fruit and herbs in an inclusive and supportive environment. Tools and equipment are available in a coded box. The rest of the garden is a shared communal space, offering social, cultural and environmental activities. The mobile garden also participates in the Power of Food festival which showcases community food growing in Edinburgh and its social impact.
Good Gym is based around integrating social connections into everyday activities and exercise. The charity was set up to harness the energy expended in gyms across the country to help people experiencing social isolation. Volunteers can participate in group runs to complete a community activity, such as gardening or painting or can volunteer for one-off tasks, such as running to buy groceries or change a light bulb. Volunteers can also commit to a weekly run to visit an older person, who acts as their coach and motivation for a cup of tea and a chat once a week. The project gives members a reason to run different routes and helps tackle social isolation through intergenerational support and mentoring. From a local authority perspective, this type of project also has the potential to differentiate council run leisure services from commercial gyms and to reposition the role of exercise in reducing social isolation.
Placemaking and the planning system is often overlooked in discourse around social isolation. This is in contrast to the body of evidence available linking the quality of neighbourhoods and perceptions of isolation and loneliness. Streets which are well designed and well maintained encourage people to use local amenities and engage with local services. Creating and supporting walkable neighbourhoods where people want to spend time is a key objective of the planning system. Regeneration and transforming under-utilised areas in communities, such as creating new community cafes, art spaces or gardens is a well evidenced approach to increasing community cohesion and individual participation.
Physical infrastructure such as community centres, parks, greenspaces and traffic free paths are the foundations of a community. Local authorities have a role in ensuring that these are delivered when new neighbourhoods are created. There is also a need to promote the added social value of in person services to the private sector such as post-offices, banks and ATMs, particularly in rural areas.
Small-scale interventions in the local environment can have a big impact on reducing social isolation. In Somerset, two ‘chat benches’ – public seating with signs inviting people to stop and chat – have been installed by the police with a specific aim of tackling loneliness. Parklets, are another relatively low-cost way to improve the local environment and support informal social interaction. Planning for and creating a parklet is a way for local authorities, local businesses and residents to work together to reimagine how a street supports the community. Parklet projects in the UK and USA have led to other cross-sectoral partnerships and initiatives and opened up conversations around opportunities to increase the social impact of small businesses.
Social isolation is a complex issue at both a societal and individual level. Poverty and deprivation changes the way people form relationships. The modern focus on individual economic success and digital communication is juxtaposed against a vision of active, vibrant communities offering support and activities accessible to all. There is a lack of evidence about how to overcome barriers to participation and which interventions offer the best chance of success in preventing and tackling social isolation, but there is not a lack of activity. The barriers raised by poverty, ill health, caring responsibilities and limited or no access to accessible transport are profound. Yet communities across the UK are increasing social capital during a time of widespread inequality; delivering activities to bring people together in a natural way that meets their social needs. Many interventions are relatively low cost and local authorities play an important strategic role. Local government is well placed to make the connections between existing activities and resources and to raise public awareness of social isolation and what is on offer in the community. Designing kindness into our culture, communities and ways of working can be as straightforward as telling people they are welcome to come on their own, that they are not alone.