by Mateja Mihinjac
This week I came across a recent study suggesting that economic factors are a stronger predictor of prosocial behaviour than “urbanicity” – living in either an urban or non-urban area.
This spiked my interest because we commonly hear that small towns have close-knit communities and always-helpful residents. Yet, at a recent International Colloquium in which our SafeGrowth team presented our findings from rural environments, one of the common threads throughout the whole Colloquium was that small towns and rural communities deal with similar crime and safety challenges to larger cities.
They are not the idyllic communities romanticized about in movies and novels. Perhaps there is more to it than neighbourhood size and population density?
The study, “Neighbourhood wealth, not urbanicity, predicts prosociality towards strangers” looked at prosocial attitudes across 37 different UK neighbourhoods of various sizes. In each neighbourhood, it measured whether:
- individuals posted a lost letter;
- returned a dropped item; or
- stopped to let someone cross the road.
It turned out that rural or urban characteristics were less important than expected. Rather than urban characteristics (“urbanicity”) – that might contribute to anonymity and diffusion of responsibility thus resulting in reduced willingness to assist others – it was actually economic deprivation that was the strongest predictor of prosocial attitudes and willingness to assist.
While these findings might not translate into different contexts across the world (rural areas in the UK are less deprived than their urban counterparts), they do suggest that it is neighbourhood liveability that results in collective prosocial attitudes, in both rural and urban places.
It seems counterintuitive to expect that people living in deprived neighbourhoods are concerned with anything other than basic survival needs. How can they direct their energy into their neighbourhood when they are competing for available resources needed to survive?
Living in a deprived neighbourhood also means that residents are less likely to share the same expectations about the neighbourhood or to trust and work collectively towards common goals. That is why rural or urban, it is neighbourhood trust, shared expectations, and working together that helps build a socially cohesive and liveable neighbourhood.
As we describe in Third Generation CPTED, it is neighbourhood liveability that best improves the conditions that will advance neighbourhoods from a Basic level to Moderate and Advanced levels. We learned long ago that improving neighbourhood liveability provides residents and community workers an effective goal for targeted community development work.
The most powerful approach for improving liveability and prosocial attitudes is through organized neighbourhood action with the emphasis on building local capacity. This recent study provides yet more research support for our real-life discoveries about what makes places safer.