Big cities have failed us. It’s time to think about smarter, healthier neighbourhoods

Large cities have always thrived as places of connectivity – it’s what makes them places where people choose to live and work. 

However COVID-19 has revealed that it is these very characteristics which make cities most vulnerable to pandemics. What we have seen throughout the UK is the value of collective intelligence, not at a city scale, but at the scale of the neighbourhood. Mutual aid, volunteering, local WhatsApp and Facebook groups have provided the benefits of local collective intelligence in urban areas.

During COVID there has been an unprecedented rise in neighbourliness, which is in stark contrast to recent years. A 2018 survey showed that 68 per cent of people would describe their neighbours as ‘strangers’.

Knowing your neighbours isn’t just a nicety but a form of social support network whose benefits are revealed in times of crisis and it’s important to understand that they work at a neighbourhood scale. Jane Jacobs, the famous urbanist highlighted how this local ‘social capital’ - the everyday activities and interactions that occur in a neighbourhood - build up a network of relationships that provide a foundation for mutual trust, shared efforts and resilience in times of trouble.

The connections made at neighbourhood and street level during COVID have been for many a coping mechanism for social isolation, and the majority of these connections have been digital; the internet and social media. The pandemic could provide the final shift in how technology is used in smart cities to one that is primarily about building communities. 

Technology used locally can enable cities to become more neighbourly and places of mutual support. For example, video calling with friends and family has doubled during COVID with seven in 10 UK adults online now making weekly video calls. 

Digital services can also provide access to relevant information, health professionals and peer support and it can help manage conditions and improve health and wellbeing. Yet, according to a study by Citizens Online in February this year, of 6,691 GP surgeries in England more than half had less than 30% of patients registered for online services.

COVID brought an upsurge of local and neighbourhood organising in the UK. There are now over 4,000 mutual aid groups nationally, in both rural and urban areas. Mutual aid groups have created a hyperlocal infrastructure of care that includes diverse digital platforms and applications, as well as physical media such as leaflets and posters.

This success suggests it is time to refocus on ‘hyperlocal’ neighbourhoods; where technology helps to build vital social capital - the ties that provide mutual support in times of need. 

A project in the city of Plymouth has been working at a neighbourhood scale to build mutual support. Working in the Stonehouse neighbourhood, where statistics show residents are likely to die 15 years before those in more affluent parts of the city, they have taken a hyperlocal approach during COVID to connect people. Through Borrow Don’t Buy, a ‘library of things’, they have taken donations of unwanted digital devices and distributed them to local people in need. 

Working with the University of Plymouth they have installed free neighbourhood Wi-Fi to support those without access to the internet. Another pilot programme in the city has trialled a model of ‘digital prescribing’; identifying people with health problems who lack digital skills and can’t afford devices. In providing the device, a gateway for support opens, in the form of a follow-up telephone call and advice as to how to use the technology for their own health needs.

We need to think beyond cities, and look at how we use technology to help us be healthier at a neighbourhood scale. When it’s part of building networks of local mutual support. COVID has shown us that cities can be isolating places, but when we think on the scale of the neighbourhood and the street, we can use technology to build healthier neighbourhoods. Humanising technology and enabling neighbours to be socially connected not just through a digital connection, can help to address the stark health inequalities in our cities that have been exposed through COVID. 

Professor Katharine Willis

Professor Willis is Professor of Smart Cities and Communities and part of the Centre for Health Technology at the University of Plymouth. She leads on the UKRI-funded Centre for Health Technology Pop-up.

Over the last two decades she has worked to understand how technology could support communities and contribute to better connections to space and place. Her recent research addresses issues of digital and social inclusion in smart cities, and aims to provide guidance as to how we can use digital connectivity to create smarter neighbourhoods.

Find out more about Professor Katharine Willis.

The Old Normal: Our Future Health 

The Centre for Health Technology brings together researchers with over 30 years of evidence-based research experience in health and technology. Together, they work to enable innovative healthcare solutions that reduce the pressure on services, support healthy ageing in our communities and stimulate an economy of wellbeing that benefits all. 

In this series, they share their views on the current state of health and care in the UK, and what its future could look like.