One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city's 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other's glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall's Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project's backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panellists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.