Research in recent years suggests that social contact, social networks and social support are associated with satisfaction and absence of mental disorders in the general population.
This systematic review summarizes research on the effects of interventions in residential areas and neighbourhoods to promote social contact, social networks and social support. We included five studies. Three studies came from Norway and two from Canada. All in all, there were about 1150 participants in the studies. There were five different interventions in the five included trials. These were: Participation in a mutual help network for elderly residents in "planned housing" (elderly people whose socioeconomic status is low and who are able to live independently in their own apartment), social network stimulation in a high risk group of middle-aged women, senior center group program for increasing social support, peer counseling for youth and reconstruction of three streets to a 'street-park'.
The report's main message is that it is uncertain whether interventions in residential areas and neighbourhoods promote social contacts, social networks and social support. The results suggest that there may be some positive effects but also negative effects of such interventions.
The uncertainty is because the results of the interventions are insufficiently documented for us to draw conclusions about effects. It is important to note that this does not mean that the interventions have no effect, rather, the data are insufficient for us to draw conclusions about the effects of such interventions on social contacts, social networks and social support.
This systematic review indicates that there is a need for more research on the effect of interventions in residential areas and neighbourhoods to promote social contacts, social networks and social support in populations
The residential environment is important for the general population. The Public Health White Paper states: "The design of buildings, residential areas and public space can help to promote good meeting places and facilitate interaction, various activities and movement." The Norwegian Directorate of Health commissioned a summary of interventions related to residential upgrading and community improvements, with the development of good (functioning and inclusive) meetings for social inclusion. Hence, the Knowledge Centre completed a systematic overview of the effects of interventions in residential areas and neighbourhoods to promote social contact, social networks and social support of the population.
What are the effects of interventions in residential areas and neighbourhoods to promote social contact, social networks and social support?
We searched systematically for literature in thirteen electronic databases. The literature search was completed in March 2015 (except for the search in one database, which we completed in September 2015). We searched for overviews of systematic reviews, systematic reviews, randomized controlled trials, cluster-randomized controlled trials, cohort studies with a control group, controlled before-and-after studies and interrupted time series analyses. Two researchers independently assessed publications for inclusion and assessed risk of bias in the included studies, using checklists. We summarized the results in text and tables. We assessed the quality of the documentation using the GRADE approach (Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation). The documentation was judged to be of either high quality (⨁⨁⨁⨁), medium quality (⨁⨁⨁◯), low quality (⨁⨁◯◯), or very low quality (⨁◯◯◯).
The literature search resulted in 8324 references. We assessed 61 publications in full text and excluded 56 studies based on the inclusion- and exclusion criteria. We included five studies: two randomized controlled trials and three controlled before-and-after studies with approximately 1150 participants from Norway and Canada. The interventions were compared with no interventions and the reported outcomes were social ties, social support satisfaction, social networks and social support.
A study from Canada looked at the effect of a mutual help network for elderly residents of planned housing. The researchers found no significant differences between the intervention group and the control group with respect to the number of social ties with other residents in the building and social support satisfaction. However, there was a slight increase in the intervention group in social ties and a greater decrease in the intervention group in support satisfaction (⨁◯◯◯).
A study from Norway looked at the effect of social network stimulation for a group of middle-aged women. The intervention group improved their social networks. The effect depended on the social interaction within the group. The most socially active participants made friends among group members and improved their existing networks. The passive participants did not seem to profit much from the intervention (⨁◯◯◯).
Another study from Norway looked at the effect of a senior centre group of elderly people living at home. The researchers found no significant difference between the groups in social support. However, there was a slightly greater change in the intervention group over time. Those who valued the meetings as most meaningful also experienced the most improvement in social support (⨁⨁◯◯).
Another study from Canada looked at the effect of peer counselling for youth. The researchers found no significant difference in social support in the intervention group, from pretest to posttest. However, there was a significant decrease from pretest to posttest in control group 1, while there was no change in control group 2 (⨁⨁◯◯).
A study from Norway looked at the effect of street parks on social interactions among neighbours. The results showed an increased level of supportive acts of neighbouring, but also a significant increase in the levels of neighboring irritation. There were no significant changes with respect to neighbourhood attachment and social ties (⨁◯◯◯).
Based on the results of the included studies and our assessment of the quality of the documentation we can conclude: There is uncertainty regarding if, and to what extent, these social interventions contribute to increased social contact, social networks and social support. The uncertainty is because the results of the interventions are insufficiently documented for us to draw conclusions about effects. It is important to note that this does not mean that the interventions have no effect, rather, the data are insufficient for us to draw conclusions about effects on social contact, social networks and social support.
The interventions in the five included studies, of which three were from Norway, varies in content and duration. There was also considerable variation regarding outcomes and measurement of outcomes. The quality of the documentation was variable, but generally low. Thus, it is difficult to draw clear conclusions about the effects of the interventions. The small number of included studies shows that few studies have focused on our research question. The reason for this is unclear. However, we can see from the list of excluded studies that many studies have assessed effects of neighbourhood interventions on physical and mental health. Our research question only concerned what is called social health. This is likely part of the reason why so few studies met our inclusion criteria.
Three of the studies referred to various interventions on network stimulation, but assessed different outcomes. For the interventions 'mutual help network' and senior centre there were no significant differences between the intervention group and the control group on social ties with others in the building, social support satisfaction and social support, respectively. The reason for this may be selection bias for the former intervention and high dropout in the second intervention, in addition to the possibility that the interventions may not be effective for improving people's social health.
Regarding the effect of social networks stimulation for a high-risk group of middle-aged women, the researcher expressed that the intervention group improved its social network, but the results were only reported in text, and are uncertain.
Concerning peer counselling for adolescents, the researchers found a positive effect over the long-term. However, the groups were was self-selected and consisted of volunteers. Differences in baseline measurements make it difficult to compare changes across groups.
For the intervention street reconstruction on social interactions among neighbours, the researcher found an increase in supportive acts by neighbours. However, there was also an increase in neighbouring annoyance.