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Community Events and Covid-19: do recently held events increase community resilience to crises?

Community Events and Covid-19: do recently held events increase community resilience to crises?

Community events are wide-ranging in their nature but, if conducted well, they all share the common outcome of increasing connectedness within communities. Whether they take the form of a fun-run, village fete, street party or a pub quiz (to name but a few), they can all facilitate the formation of new relationships and mixing across lines-of-difference.

Both the organisation and participation involved within these events can build the foundations of a resilient community. We suggest that these resilient communities are better equipped to deal with crises, such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, in terms of reducing the adverse effects experienced by members.

What do we mean by a ‘resilient’ community in the face of Covid-19?

Within the context of the current Covid-19 crisis faced by all of our communities, the obvious metric for resilience may be the number of deaths experienced. However, it would be hard to conclude, particularly at this early stage, that excess deaths are a function of community strength when it could much rather be demographic and health characteristic variation across communities.

As many of us know, the effects of Covid-19 are much more nuanced and widespread than solely the number of deaths. Increased social isolation as a result of; government-imposed restrictions or vulnerable people being unable to leave their homes, in addition to other direct and indirect (e.g. employment status) Covid-19 stresses, can take a large toll on the mental health of community members. This can have a knock-on effect on physical health, for example; if people are unable to attend exercise classes, feel uncomfortable leaving their home for physical activity or going to the doctors or, if there are negative dietary changes as a consequence of heightened anxieties.

A community with more resilience to Covid-19 when compared to others may therefore have higher levels of both mental and physical health, leading to increased overall wellbeing for residents. We’d also expect levels of connectedness and inclusivity within the community to be more persistent in the face of the pandemic. Examples of drivers of these differences in resilience could be:

  • Increased neighbourly phone call ‘check-ups’

  • Increased number of residents doing shopping for vulnerable community members

  • Increased numbers of morale-boosting virtual events, e.g. a ‘Zoom village quiz’

  • Increased volunteering and engagement in local causes

  • Increased presence and awareness of support networks

  • Increased financial sustainability of local community businesses

We at Neighbourly Lab want to think about what sort of community pre-conditions may lead to the persistence of these drivers, leading to more resilient communities. We speculate that recently held community events may have a part to play.

How can community events result in more resilient communities?

Little academic literature has explored the link specifically between community events and post-event community resilience to crises. Hopefully, the Covid-19 pandemic will provide the motivation for further exploration into a possible formalised relationship between the two. For now, however, we stick with a Neighbourly Lab hypothesis that: Communities which have held a recent event will experience greater resilience in the face of crises. We believe that this socially positive resilience arising from community events occurs through two mechanisms:

1. Increased social connectedness within the community

This is the more obvious outcome of community events and one that is well-documented within literature. Despite no universal standardised framework for evaluating the positive social impact that arises from community events, it is agreed that if well-planned, community events bring people together by increasing connectedness and inclusivity. Organisers and participants alike are united behind a common sense of belonging and pride and share a strong identity around a ‘sense of place’. Social equity can be increased and thus perceived similarity between groups which otherwise may seem on opposing sides of lines-of-difference is increased.

In the excellent book, ‘Social Butterflies: Reclaiming the Power of Social Networks’ by Michael Sanders and Susannah Hume, the concept of similarity between citizens is put in terms of ‘social distance’. People self-assign themselves and others into ‘social identity groups’ and the smaller the perceived social distance between the groups, the more compassionate, generous, appreciative and co-operative the interactions are between them.

The common involvement in participation or organisation of a community event and the positive social outcomes mentioned above would understandably reduce social distance between any participants. This is especially true once when considering one study which states that “community event celebrations provide participants with a physical manifestation of community values and beliefs” highlighting the others involved as people who share similar interests and values to themselves.

So, the science describes how community events can increase social connectedness (i.e. reduce social distance), and separately how increased social connectedness leads to more socially desirable interactions. But what it does not yet specifically draw a link between is the social connectedness arising from community events and community resilience in the face of crises.

We may naturally expect that if people feel a greater sense of identity and belonging in their local community as a result of a recently held community event, that they may also be more compassionate towards and more willing to help fellow members that have been particularly hard-hit by a crisis. Higher levels of perceived connectedness may increase willingness to ‘band together’ in the face of a common foe, rather than to retreat away into individualised struggles. This sentiment is echoed in the aforementioned book which quotes:

Social distance reduction...makes our team more willing to help each other out [which] is great in those times when we need everyone to pull together to get something done"

2. The creation of ‘soft’ social infrastructure

Social infrastructure is not a novel concept in its own right. This term refers to the physical conditions which determine the formation of social capital. Examples of which are Churches, public libraries, and village halls - all places where relationships can be both created and nourished. We will refer to these physical places as ‘hard’ social infrastructure, paving the way for a more refined view on the issue.

What we differentiate when we talk of ‘soft’ social infrastructure are the non-physical; resources, tools, protocols and processes which are created during the organisation of community events. Examples include; community contact lists, emergency protocols, local power structures such as elected committees, WhatsApp groups and newly learned skills.

Combined with the 1st mechanism, which addresses why community members may be more willing to help others, this 2nd mechanism encompasses the ways which facilitate how they can go about doing so. For example, community residents may have full desire to check-up on and offer to do the shopping for isolated or vulnerable members but, without these ‘soft’ social infrastructures which allow would-be helpers to work together and know who and where those in need are, the attempts at help may not be particularly efficient. On the other hand, if would-be helpers, as a result of a recent community street party, are united together on a committee with a community contact-list and WhatsApp group, they can far more quickly and effectively identify and provide support to those who need it most.

In another brilliant book, ‘Palaces of the People’ by Eric Klinenberg, the author explores the effects of the 1995 Chicago heat-wave which resulted in 739 excess deaths in just one week. He looks at determinants of deaths across the city’s population. Predictably, social isolation increased the risk of death as there were not others around to make 911 calls. Women fared better than men for similar reasons; they have stronger ties to friends and family. This gives weight to the proposed 1st mechanism.

But what gives weight to this 2nd mechanism is when Klinenberg looks at two neighbourhood communities within Chicago which were almost demographically identical, yet they displayed vastly different ‘resilience’ when it came to mortality rates from the heatwave. After extensive on-the-ground analysis, he concluded that those in the less resilient neighbourhood “expressed the same values endorsed by residents of more resilient places and they made genuine efforts to help one another”. The “difference was not cultural” he says, stating that both neighborhoods expressed the same willingness and desire (a result of the 1st mechanism) to help each other, but rather in the less resilient neighbourhood “shoddy social infrastructure discouraged interaction and impeded mutual support”. This is in line with the 2nd mechanism, suggesting that willingness alone is not enough and that social infrastructure provides the ability to do so.

Klinenberg here is referring to what we’ve defined as ‘hard’ social capital - the physical places where social capital is built. Our differentiation of ‘soft’ social infrastructure and its mechanism of facilitating action on willingness to help within the context of community events and community crisis resilience is not something that we have come across in academic literature. However, we believe that that is not to say that Whatsapp groups or elected committees should be overlooked in favour of public libraries; the two can work in conjunction with each other and often the ‘soft’ social infrastructure will be created through interactions at these ‘hard’ physical places. Also, it must be noted that the economic cost of creating a community Facebook group is almost zero, which is especially salient when comparing it to the cost of building and maintaining a village hall.

Both of the mechanisms proposed are summarised in the visual below.

What have we seen which suggests that this hypothesis may hold true?

Despite the absence of a formalised theory between community events and community ‘resilience’ in crises such as the current pandemic, there is anecdotal evidence which lends support to the hypothesised mechanism of these positive outcomes.

Neighbourly Lab founder Harry Hobson recalls how a Jubilee street party celebration in Barnes formed the basis of a contact list for residents of the local community. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, this same contact list was utilised to identify who in the community was most at need of help.

Within my own Oxfordshire village, a Facebook group created to facilitate the organisation of events such as Christmastime ‘Carols on the Green’ and VE day celebrations, has now morphed into a virtual community hub where people offer to shop for those shielding from Covid-19 as well as posting warnings of dog thieves seen patrolling the area.

There have also been over 3,000 community Mutual Aid groups, set-up on platforms such as Facebook or WhatsApp, designed specifically for helping each other during the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, Ready Scotland is an organisation set-up to ensure community resilience in the face of emergencies. There are numerous Community Councils which have set up localised ‘Resilient Community Plans’ in line with this wider movement.

It is not inconceivable that the inception of at least a few of these community-level groups which create community resilience plans were thanks to either; the increased social connectedness or the creation of ‘soft’ social infrastructures as a result of recently held community events. We would love to find out if and if so, the extent to which this is the case.

Going back to Ready Scotland, if one looks at individual communities’ inspiration for the creation of such plans, these are often nearby events such as ‘Community Resilience Conferences’ and ‘Community Resilience Days’. These here show other pathways through which events can improve community resilience; by directly informing members of a common ‘plan-of-action’ in case of emergencies, and; inspiring nearby communities to do the same.

Looking to the future

After the pandemic finally starts to fade, more of these anecdotal pieces of evidence may emerge - giving support to this idea that community events, through increasing social connectedness and building ‘soft’ social infrastructure, facilitates community resilience in the wake of crises. This will hopefully give the motivation necessary for more formalised studies on the topic.

This hypothesis is not just relevant in the context of the current pandemic but also to more frequently occurring crises. For example, the floodings which hit Yorkshire in 2019. If current inaction on climate change is to continue, there will be more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. In the face of this threat, among other less predictable crises, could community events form the foundations for the resilience needed for communities to remain strong in the face of adversity?

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