Evidence suggests that social capital is important for people’s wellbeing. However, creating social capital in communities, especially in today’s economic climate, can be a challenge. The Big Lunch was created to provide a little “human warmth” through community meals that would be enjoyable social occasions and which also serve a more serious purpose of bringing neighbours together, creating new relationships and strengthening community relations. Laura Wilkes of the LGiU has been analysing the impact of The Big Lunch and presents the positive findings here.
We’ve all heard of the rather opaque concept, social capital. The central idea of social capital is that people benefit by being a part of interactive networks – whether they are networks of friendship, neighbourhood or interest. Networks can be informal, such as groups of people who gather once a week in their pub for a quiz; or formal networks, like a Parent-Teacher Association. These networks can also extend to the familiar faces that you occasionally see in a local shop or at a bus stop and say hello to. These networks are about social interaction; with the notion that the higher the quality of social interaction in a community, the higher the level of social capital that exists.
The crucial thing about social capital is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that high levels of it have a hugely positive effect and influence on people’s health, educational performance, crime rates and socio-economic inequality in an area.
But the reverse is also true: low levels of social capital in communities are linked to negative outcomes. A study by the University of Oxford in 2007 showed clearly that in England, low levels of social capital across domains such as trust, perceived social support and civic participation are linked to poorer health and poorer perceived wellbeing. Essentially, high levels of social capital in communities can make them more resilient, more likely to be self-supporting and cope in crisis.
What this tells us is that social capital is really important and a crucial resource. In the current climate where we live, in a society with complex challenges and rising demands on what are very scarce resources, we know that communities and government will have to collaborate to solve them. Resilient and self-supporting communities, working alongside government, can pool resources, creativity and intelligence to support collective action. High levels of social capital therefore, are a fundamental component of creating communities that are able to do this.
But herein lies the real challenge: creating social capital in communities is really, really difficult. This continues to be a major policy aim of government, in the UK and elsewhere; we’ve seen it in initiatives like The Big Society and New Labour’s neighbourhood regeneration programmes. But we know that these initiatives have a chequered record, and a 2010 survey for Legal and General suggests that the key components of social capital are missing in our communities. The survey found that:
- 61% of British residents don’t socialise with their neighbours
- 59% feel they don’t have much in common with their neighbours
- 50% don’t enjoy spending time with their neighbours
- 70% wouldn’t recognise their neighbours if they passed them in the street
The key question therefore, is what can we do to encourage social capital? This is exactly the question that Sir Tim Smit and Paul Twivy wanted to answer when they created The Big Lunch. The initial intention of The Big Lunch was to provide a little of what they termed “human warmth” through community meals that would be enjoyable social occasions but which also serve a more serious purpose of bringing neighbours together, creating new relationships and strengthening community relations: building social capital.
Since it’s launch in 2009, LGiU has been analysing the social impact of The Big Lunch – last month we launched a report pulling together these findings from the past four years. What we discovered was profound. Through the simple act of sharing lunch with neighbours, The Big Lunch strengthens communities and builds social capital.
We argued that The Big Lunch would be a success if it could show that it creates a sense of community across the fragmenting neighbourhoods of Britain, sparking new, sustainable networks of value for people. Even more so if it could be shown that this had happened not just in ‘nice’, affluent areas but also in the socially deprived communities that are most in need of additional social capital.
To determine this, in each of the years 2009 – 2012, we conducted a post code analysis of the registered Big Lunches mapped against multiple deprivation indices, surveyed all the Big Lunch organisers and followed up with some targeted interviews.
Looking across the four years that the event has taken place some key features emerge:
- The Big Lunch takes place in all types of communities: just as many Big Lunches take place in deprived post codes as in more affluent ones
- It has a positive impact on communities: people feel closer to their neighbours and find out more about community issues
- It brings neighbours together: participants meet new and diverse people and new people participate in the lunches each year
- It has an on-going impact: relationships formed at these lunches endure over time and lead to further activities
As an organic, community-led initiative, The Big Lunch acts as an indirect policy intervention, which engages people outside the usual political channels to create a lasting sense of community and social capital. By building social capital within communities, The Big Lunch creates support networks and contacts that make communities more resilient and the people living within them feel better about society. Moreover, it’s success does not derive from a centralised top down strategy; instead it comes from the fact that it is light touch, community led and, most of all, fun.
Our results show that Big Lunches works. Participants meet new people, feel closer to their neighbours and make lasting connections. What is more, it is also sustainable – the lunches bring together a diverse set of people from differing age groups. At a time when social capital is thought to be broadly declining, this can have a profound impact on communities.
You can download the full LGiU report here.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Laura Wilkes is Policy Manager at the LGiU. Laura leads LGiU’s work on Community Budgeting, economic development, citizen co-production and the C’llr Awards.