The Urban Flaneur

We all know them: people who sit in the crowded carriage with loud bass thumping out of their earphones. A year ago I decided to observe and document my fellow travellers’ reactions. I can report that not once did anyone ask for the music to be turned down.  Most of the time I was in fact left wondering whether my stony faced fellow travellers had either gone deaf or, unlike me, actually quite enjoyed the early morning commuting soundtrack.

My experiment was inspired by research carried out a couple of years ago by two academics who went about categorising responses to everyday incivility in Melbourne.[1]They asked a mixed group of just over fifty people to recount specific incidents of uncivil behaviour – from road rage to bad language. In all of these cases they went on to probe respondents’ reactions. These were subsequently categorised according to four traits: ‘disgust’ (aversive behaviour) , ‘sanction’ (reaction, often angry, against the perpetrators), ‘withdrawal’ (taking action to minimise contact) and ‘do-nothing’  (ignore and take for granted).

The overall aim of the research was to challenge the dominating discourse about everyday incivility and its links with rising levels of fear of crime (the study was carried out the time when Tony Blair and other high-profile politicians declared all out war on anti-social behaviour). In their words, they wanted to test the “belief that disorder threatens social civility more widely, chipping away at public life in the street, shrinking defensible spaces and progressively eliminating the vigilant guardianship of watchful eyes.”

Their analysis showed that people are most likely to exhibit outrage or sanction incivility when they experience it themselves, particularly when they feel ‘disrespected’ or humiliated. Meanwhile, they are much less likely to respond when they are onlookers witnessing an act of incivility on someone else.  The ‘blase’ responses were the most common overall – people either doing nothing or averting their attention away from the incidents but not actually taking action to remove themselves (confirming the findings of my headphone experiment in the London Underground). But overall fear in the shape of ‘withdrawal’ (people taking active steps to avoid the experiences of incivility) fared badly, leading them to conclude that it is just “one outcome of a broader array.” They therefore challenge what they call the “fear paradigm” calling for a more “comprehensive approach that maps a range of emotions and behavioural responses and interrogates how these might coalesce with the full spectrum of uncivil acts from minor transgression of the normative order through to more serious crimes.”

In the final sections of the paper the authors pose an important question. They ask whether, contrary to the expressed concerns about passive citizens who let others get away with incivility, intervention (particularly of the outraged kind) is in fact desirable. Couldn’t it counterproductively “lead to a spiral of increasing distrust, misunderstanding and violence between parties” putting individuals at risk, and in this way increase perception of disorder? Isn’t in fact the management of anger desirable and more conducive to healthy and orderly social life?

On the final lap of my experiment I decided to test the validity of their conclusion by means of a second experiment: I would tap the next commuting music lover on the shoulder and politely ask him or her to please turn down their music. She seemed confused and unbelieving at first, but soon she turned very angry. My response in turn was fear which could have quickly turned into withdrawal.

 But contrary to what the researchers in Melbourne found, this was not the case for my fellow travellers. The carriage was soon transformed. Three fellow travellers, including a very young girl and an elderly man, came swiftly to my defence. Ultimately my music lover was subdued and embarrassed.

It seems that the episode added yet another dimension to the dynamics of civility in our collective lives: the influence of shared adversity.


[1] Emotional and behaviouyal responses to everyday incivility: challenging the fear/ avoidance paradigm , Phillips T and Smith P, Journal of Sociology, Volume 40(4)

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Starting from scratch

Nine years ago Cambourne was an empty field in the flat Cambridgeshire countryside. Today, the roads are filled with Mini estates in fashionable colours and mothers cycling to pick up their children from school. Birdsong and the smells of manure still fill the air.

Towns like this are known as ‘exurbs’ by town planners – new developments that are different to suburbs in that they aren’t annexed to existing cities. Estate agents call it ‘countryside light’, well suited to urbanised professionals who commute into bigger cities and are starting their families.

As we drive past the quiet pavements, the well-kempt lawns and the almost film set-like detached houses, Cambourne seems like a very unlikely place to come to find out about the dynamics of civility in British communities. But the experience of Cambourne sheds much light on some common assumptions about social order.

Proximity to an academic centre with a large public sector and an IT industry means that the development attracts significant numbers of mostly professional migrant workers. Many of them are from Asia and Africa. Levels of ethnic diversity are significantly higher than the national average.

Yet, for residents, ethnic diversity and migration figured very low on their lists of concerns. The people we spoke to thoughtfully explained that hostility towards new arrivals doesn’t make sense given that they are all newcomers.

A more problematic undercurrent was the hostility directed towards social housing residents. The original planning agreement for Cambourne stipulated that 30% of the housing provided would be affordable, much of it social. This agreement was aimed at families, many of them with a single parent, who needed space for their children but couldn’t find suitable accommodation in the surrounding towns and cities.

The situation came to a head when local journalists labelled the development ‘Crimebourne’. Even though crime rates were much lower than in surrounding market towns, reports of vandalism and drug abuse regularly made it into the Cambridgeshire papers.

The local Community Development Worker explains how the media portrayal soon translated into an under-current of resentment on the streets. The summer was particularly problematic because council housing residents often used their front lawns to catch the sun, giving the impression that they were just “sitting around” all day. Children from social housing were also finding it difficult to integrate into the local schools. Antagonism, some of it quite virulent, was voiced through the local online platform.

The popular assumption was of course that the disruption which people read about in the local paper was caused by poorer neighbours (even though the authorities suspected that the perpetuators were generally the wealthier, bored teenage residents messing about in parking lots). In the words of one single mother, “they looked down on people like us.”

But whether false or exaggerated, the rumours became a disrupting force. Local residents were loath to see the value of their homes decline. The private developers did not want to spoil the brand which promised a happy, family-friendly lifestyle. Consultants were commissioned to find out what was going on. Their report warned that if the issues were not dealt with Cambourne would remain a stop over town for people making their way up the property ladder.  In the words of the local vicar: “The challenge has always been how to form a completely new community.”

To their credit, rather than resort to CCTV or private security guards to address its negative image, the local authorities decided to redouble investment into community infrastructure.  

Today the town boasts a lending library, a skate park, a youth centre, numerous playgrounds, allotments, a multi-denomination Church, an art group, some public art, parish notice boards, a ‘posh’ cafe and a large community centre. According to the parish clerk, the value of local community assets has grown from a mere £800 a couple of years ago to over £2 million today. He tells us that he has lost count of the number of festivals and groups that get together – everything from baby yoga and aerobics for the elderly to fireworks committees.

So, what are the lessons from this new settlement? The main point is that if left unmanaged, rumours and suspicions can be hugely divisive. The biggest losers from distrust are not the property developers, but local people who become caught up in the stereotypes of each other. As articulated by one of the young, single mother with regards to her relationship with a middle aged, professional mother she’d met at one of the local mum and baby groups, people of all classes have a huge amount to gain from people who are different to themselves. The role of those designing communities is to ensure that they create the spaces for these interactions to take place. Civility will soon follow.

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The Urban Flâneur

We all know them: people who sit in the crowded carriage with loud bass thumping out of their earphones. A month ago I decided to observe and document my fellow travellers’ reactions. I can report that not once did anyone ask for the music to be turned down.  Most of the time I was in fact left wondering whether my stony faced fellow travellers had either gone deaf or, unlike me, actually quite enjoyed the early morning commuting soundtrack.

My experiment was inspired by research carried out a couple of years ago by two academics who went about categorising responses to everyday incivility in Melbourne.[1] They asked a mixed group of just over fifty people to recount specific incidents of uncivil behaviour – from road rage to bad language. In all of these cases they went on to probe respondents’ reactions. These were subsequently categorised according to four traits: ‘disgust’ (aversive behaviour) , ‘sanction’ (reaction, often angry, against the perpetrators), ‘withdrawal’ (taking action to minimise contact) and ‘do-nothing’  (ignore and take for granted).

The overall aim of the research was to challenge the dominating discourse about everyday incivility and its links with rising levels of fear of crime (the study was carried out the time when Tony Blair and other high-profile politicians declared all out war on anti-social behaviour). In their words, they wanted to test the “belief that disorder threatens social civility more widely, chipping away at public life in the street, shrinking defensible spaces and progressively eliminating the vigilant guardianship of watchful eyes.”

Their analysis showed that people are most likely to exhibit outrage or sanction incivility when they experience it themselves, particularly when they feel ‘disrespected’ or humiliated. Meanwhile, they are much less likely to respond when they are onlookers witnessing an act of incivility on someone else.  The ‘blase’ responses were the most common overall – people either doing nothing or averting their attention away from the incidents but not actually taking action to remove themselves (confirming the findings of my headphone experiment in the London Underground). But overall fear in the shape of ‘withdrawal’ (people taking active steps to avoid the experiences of incivility) fared badly, leading them to conclude that it is just “one outcome of a broader array.” They therefore challenge what they call the “fear paradigm” calling for a more “comprehensive approach that maps a range of emotions and behavioural responses and interrogates how these might coalesce with the full spectrum of uncivil acts from minor transgression of the normative order through to more serious crimes.”

In the final sections of the paper the authors pose an important question. They ask whether, contrary to the expressed concerns about passive citizens who let others get away with incivility, intervention (particularly of the outraged kind) is in fact desirable. Couldn’t it counterproductively “lead to a spiral of increasing distrust, misunderstanding and violence between parties” putting individuals at risk, and in this way increase perception of disorder? Isn’t in fact the management of anger desirable and more conducive to healthy and orderly social life?

On the final lap of my experiment I decided to test the validity of their conclusion by means of a second experiment: I would tap the next commuting music lover on the shoulder and politely ask him or her to please turn down their music. She seemed confused and unbelieving at first, but soon she turned very angry. My response in turn was fear which could have quickly turned into withdrawal.

 But contrary to what the researchers in Melbourne found, this was not the case for my fellow travellers. The carriage was soon transformed. Three fellow travellers, including a very young girl and an elderly man, came swiftly to my defence. Ultimately my music lover was subdued and embarrassed.

It seems that the episode added yet another dimension to the dynamics of civility in our collective lives: the influence of shared adversity.


[1] Emotional and behaviouyal responses to everyday incivility: challenging the fear/ avoidance paradigm , Phillips T and Smith P, Journal of Sociology, Volume 40(4)

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Girl Trouble

Google incivility and you soon come across a portrait of a young girl sitting on the curb of a High Street, her mini skirt ridding up her thighs, her head in her hands, her friends nowhere to be seen. In the words of one the taxi driver: “The girls are worse than the blokes. The guys might scrap with each other; but the girls become loud and abusive”.

And it’s not just the High Street on a Saturday night. In Queen’s Market in Newham a stall holder explains that the apparent civility which dominates that day’s business is symptomatic of the fact that “the girls don’t like the smell of the butchers, so thankfully they hang out in the shopping centres up the road”. Later, a senior official in charge of safety at Newham Council tells us that local anti-social behaviour officials map where girls hang out in a bid to pre-empt problems.  Whether it’s shopkeepers or policymakers, the emerging consensus is that where the girls go, trouble soon follows. The prevailing attitude is that while the young men on the town “become morons”, the girls “become scary”.

So is this concern with young girls justified or is it simply symptomatic of entrenched attitudes which have yet to catch up with the lives and attitudes of young women brought up in an age where the equality of the sexes is simply taken for granted?

Looking at the evidence, there are undoubtedly differences and challenges. In 2004 a study found that binge drinking among young girls had overtaken rates among boys – with a third of 15-16 year-old girls admitting to at least one binge drinking experience within the last month compared with a quarter of boys.[i]  The attitudes of young girl towards sex can also be troublesome: in 2006 a survey of young girls found that half would consider being a glamour model, for example. Steeply rising levels of STDs among younger girls make promiscuity a significant public health concern. Natasha Walter, a feminist author who has written widely about changing the realities of girlhood in the UK, recently claimed that for young women “empowerment is only about being as raunchy as the men.”[ii]

In a society that by and large condemns gender discrimination in other fields it seems odd  that people are unable take rowdy behaviour on the part of girls as lightly as they do with boys. The nagging concern about girls out on the piss seems to reveal much about the dynamics of modern day civility and how certain codes are harder to shift than others.

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Do we need to be the same to be civil?

 

The stalls in Queen’s Market in Newham, officially London’s most diverse borough, sell the same noisy toys from China and counterfeit ‘Calvin’ jock straps found in markets around the world. The area has been globalising for centuries. By 2005 almost 40 per cent were born outside the UK. They came from over 40 different countries. Social scientists label areas like Newham ‘super-diverse’.

 And it is presumably areas like Newham that fuel growing concerns about migration’s negative social impacts. Diversity on this scale makes civic life unsustainable because, to borrow from Robert Putnam, ethnic groups ‘hunker down’ – stick to themselves in search for safety and support. Isolation and disengagement from mainstream society makes them alienated and fuels resentment in established groups, particularly those who feel they are getting a raw deal.  Crime and ethnic conflict therefore become more likely.

 My trip to the market disappoints. People mix freely, shoppers queue patiently, families push their prams, girls giggle and grannies haggle. The local CSO informs me that shoplifting is infrequent – a lonely (broken) CCTV camera peers down from one end of the market. Newham also defies many political assumptions. Unlike the neighbouring borough of Barking and Daggenham, BNP appeal has been low (including among the White Working Classes) and until 2010 they had not contested a local seat. Contrary to popular belief, it seems that extremisms flourish in homogeneous areas, particularly those which lie on the fringes of diverse hubs like Newham.

 Part of the explanation for the market’s apparent harmony could lie in the old advertising adage that the ‘customer has no colour’. Stall holders have adapted with the times – it’s not unusual to meet Cockney salesmen who speak fluent Urdu for example. In their words: “We have to be polite because we are so different.” In other words, clashes and prejudices just don’t make business sense. Old-fashioned civility could also be a means of coping with the constant flux of modernity. Thick skin and sharp antennae for differences are critical to navigate areas like this.

 Above all, hope is the critical lubricant for harmonious human interaction in diverse places. Local population churn stands at 20 percent– people don’t stick around for long in other words. Residents in diverse places like Newham are driven by a hunger for success, what rapper Jay-Z calls that ‘great dream of mobility’. Many will have taken a step down the social ladder when leaving home, and they won’t want to stay there, wallowing in prejudice, for long.

 And although very diverse areas tend to be poor (Newham is the 6th most deprived borough in England), evidence shows that diversity is a significant driver for economic success. Diverse consumers demand a more mixed range of goods, acting as drivers for economic growth. Diverse teams also outperform homogeneous ones (in Silicon Valley, for example, 25 per cent of all start ups have at least one foreign-born owner and it was not unusual to see multi-racial stalls in Queen’s market).  Newham has also been buoyed by substantive public investment (which could add up to up to £15 billion). The Thames Gateway is England’s biggest regeneration project. Having the Olympic site on its doorstep (with 62,000 new jobs) of course helps.

Rather than harking back to a golden age of ethnic homogeneity, those who fear migration would do well to spend a day in Queen’s market, witnessing how people are adapting to each other, refining their behaviours in order to make the great diversity experiment in Newham work.

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Have a grumble

The Young Foundation has launched a research project to find out whether the UK lives up to it’s international reputation for politeness and civility. To do this we need to record stories from the front line – have you have just had a hellish journey on public transport, had to put up with a rude driver or been forced out of the way by another pedestrian? Alternatively, tell us about any acts of kindess that you may have encountered, however large or small.

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