Social integration: the importance of relationships

Last week saw the launch of the Mayor's Strategy for Social Integration, a 79-page document that sets out how London can be a place where people can develop meaningful relationships with others and contribute positively to their communities.

Ensuring that a global city like London is home to people who feel a sense of belonging and shared identity must be at the heart of all the city's major institutions. That's why the ambition behind this strategy is to be applauded. It's also a major government strategy that focuses on improving the quality of relationships between citizens – something quite unusual given that government action to build social capital has drastically reduced due to austerity.

A broad agenda with some focused action

The problem with a concept like social integration is that it is so broad, encompassing many things that are within and outside the control of the Mayor and his partners. Thankfully, the strategy narrows its focus onto a few key areas of activity. Two stand out: parents, and sport.

The first years of parenthood are a time where you often turn from a city dweller to a neighbourhood dweller. This is because so many of the things you do with children take place close to your home, from going to the playground or park, playgroups or the doctors. Having social networks in place to support you during this time can have a transformative effect on your wellbeing and sense of community. 

Our experience of providing funding to community activities for families has convinced us that getting more funding into the early years of family life is vital for the city. That's why the launch of the Mayor's London Family Fund is such a positive development.

We also know how powerful sport can be in bringing people together in communities. Our work with Sport England, taps into community-based sport to get inactive people active in several London boroughs. The Social Integration Strategy see the launch of a new initiative – Sports Unite – with similar aims.

Can public services help social integration?

The strategy also commits to the creation of a Social Integration Design Lab, which will work with the boroughs to support services to be designed in a way that promotes social integration. It's an intriguing addition, and as someone who spent three years working in Nesta's Innovation Lab, I'll be watching with interest. My experience is that labs can be a great focal point to bring different partners together. But if money is tight, the enthusiasm for change is often greater than the ability to act.

The one area of public services that probably has the biggest effect on social integration is housing. On this, the strategy nods towards community-led housing schemes and refers to the Mayor's Housing Strategy, which is yet to be finalised.

But London's housing market is a formidable force against social integration, and the one thing that will easily undermine any strategy that aspires to create a city where people – regardless of their prosperity, ethnicity, age – can live their lives together. It's worth thinking about scenarios where the cost of living in London leads to social segregation, and what might happen then.

Measuring social integration

Finally, it's great to see that the Mayor is committed to improving the evidence base for social integration in London. This includes ensuring that key domains that affect social integration are measured and the data is published. This is vital for all of us. Social integration is not just the preserve of government, civil society has a huge role to play. Allowing all of us to track how well the city is doing will help focus our activities and evaluation, so we can all get a better understanding of what works.