In this latest Guest Blog, community champion Mark Finch questions our common assumption that York is a collaborative, progressive, inclusive city…
‘To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.’ – Mother Theresa
A phrase all too familiar to the residents of York is that York is a city with a village mentality; that the city’s compact size and affable atmosphere mean it is unusually well-integrated; that everybody knows everybody. In our increasingly atomised and fragmented society, this is a standout and appealing observation. But is it true?
As with many oft-repeated, but under-examined, social claims, surveying the facts suggests it is not. In a recent survey, 68% of York residents said loneliness and isolation affected their quality of life, with respondents also commenting on not knowing their neighbours, nor having a sense of community. Loneliness and isolation are well-known risk factors for suicide, and York has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
Fallacies and Fragmentation
It’s possible that the mythos of York as a city with a village mentality has developed as an ‘apex fallacy’ – a claim circulated amongst a relatively small, well-connected cohort, who are likely to possess multifactorial social privileges, and are not representative of the majority experience. For the average resident, York can feel no more integrated or well-connected than any other contemporary city. Indeed, a recent report found that, while York is a friendly city, it has become less friendly over the last few years.
By continuing to perpetuate the misapprehension that York is bustling with connectivity and engagement, and that all York locals are involved in densely-populated social networks, an attitude of complacency is inevitable, which leaves the most vulnerable more detached, and more at risk, than ever. Further, it disenfranchises everybody, because if people believe they already know ‘everyone’, they are far less incentivised to participate in initiatives to network and meet new people. Just as you don’t know what you don’t know, you also don’t know who you don’t know.
There appears to be a cognitive dissonance amongst some York residents – on the one hand, when asked if there’s a problem with loneliness, isolation, and suicide in York, most people wholeheartedly agree that there is; on the other hand, these same people are liable to perpetuate the notion that York is a city with a village mentality, and that everyone knows everyone. Clearly, this double-standard needs to be challenged if we are to fully acknowledge, accept, and ultimately address, the reality: that the evidence suggests York is not a city with a village mentality, and everyone most certainly does not know everyone. Indeed, many people in York – as in most other cities – do not even know their next-door neighbours!
Organisations such as Social Vision already organise events that afford people the opportunity to meet and connect with others. Indeed, Community Catalysts also organise meetings between participants of the Enterprising Communities project, where people can get together and discuss what works, what doesn’t work, share frustrations and successes, and make new connections. We need more of this, and if the removal of the fallacy that everyone knows each other helps to bring more people together, then that can only be a good thing.
York as a city with a village mentality has become more of a stock catchphrase than an experienced reality – an idiom so often repeated, it is assumed to have significant substance. But it is of vital importance that unexamined assumptions are investigated and challenged, so that, if they are not true, they do not proliferate to the extent they obscure reality and real people. The reality is that many people in York are suffering from the scourges of loneliness and isolation, the lack of community engagement and social connectivity, perhaps just as much as the residents of any other contemporary city. We need to respond to this reality honestly, and appropriately, by encouraging effective initiatives that enable relationship building, and stimulate the formation of meaningful communities.