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The end of neighbours: How our increasingly closed-off lives are poisoning our politics and endangering our health

Do you know your neighbors? Could you pick them out of a police line-up? As our urban landscapes shift and adapt to 21st century life (much of which is experienced online), researchers are seeing some startling health effects.

"More than 30 per cent of Canadians now say they feel disconnected from their neighbours, while half of Americans admit they don’t know the names of theirs...A recent poll of 2,000 Britons found a third declaring they couldn’t pick their near neighbours out of a police lineup."

It’s a new day in the neighbourhood all across the Western world. More than 30 per cent of Canadians now say they feel disconnected from their neighbours, while half of Americans admit they don’t know the names of theirs. An Australian sociologist investigating community responses in the wake of the 2011 floods in Queensland found relations in “a precarious balance”; neighbours were hesitant to intrude even in emergencies—leading the scholar to conclude that “we are less likely than ever to know” our neighbours. Quite right, too: A recent poll of 2,000 Britons found a third declaring they couldn’t pick their near neighbours out of a police lineup.

Yet it’s hardly surprising, given how lengthy working days, long commutes and having both parents in the labour force have combined with the way we raise our children to create suburban neighbourhoods that are empty more than half the day, with scarcely a neighbour to encounter, let alone recognize, trust or befriend.

"[H]owever powerful the economic and social forces behind the disappearing neighbour—and however positive many of its results—according to reams of new research, the transformation is also poisoning our politics and, quite literally, killing us."

But, however powerful the economic and social forces behind the disappearing neighbour—and however positive many of its results—according to reams of new research, the transformation is also poisoning our politics and, quite literally, killing us.

Two new books, The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman, and Susan Pinker’s forthcoming The Village Effect, mine the data and sound loud warnings. The health aspects are alarming enough for Pinker, a Montreal-based developmental psychologist, to have changed her own habits of a lifetime.

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She argues that humans need face-to-face contact, as they need air and water. We have evolved for it, to the extent that those surrounded by a tight-knit group of friends who regularly gather to eat—and, crucially, gossip—live an average of 15 years longer than loners. Quality face-to-face contact is essential for a social species, Pinker writes, citing research that shows it fortifies immune systems, calibrates hormones and increases chances of surviving heart attacks, strokes, AIDS and cancer.

"People with the most integrated social lives—overlapping relationships among friends, family, sports and other recreational or religious pursuits—have the best prognoses,” with the most life-threatening diseases."

“People with the most integrated social lives—overlapping relationships among friends, family, sports and other recreational or religious pursuits—have the best prognoses,” with the most life-threatening diseases. It’s true even with dementia: A 2004 Swedish study found its lowest prevalence among those with the most extensive social networks.

In response, rather than spend evenings at home reading or working, Pinker now swims on a team (group exercise providing “more bang for her buck”) and makes a point of attending more social events. And, crucially, she makes an effort to keep her social circle as wide as possible, consciously replacing friends and neighbours who fade away over time. Bear in mind, Pinker warns, that no matter how much you love and trust your spouse, if he or she is your only confidant—as about 10 per cent of American survey respondents indicate—then you are one person away from no one at all. “Immunologically speaking, you’re almost naked.”

Read the rest of the article, "The end of neighbours: How our increasingly closed-off lives are poisoning our politics and endangering our health," by Brian Bethune, Macleans, August 8, 2014.

What do you think? How can we write social health into the design of our built environments

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