Deep in everyone’s memory is an idea of the Good Old Days when we lived in villages or small towns and we all knew each other, attended each other’s births, marriages and deaths, and kept an eye on each other’s kids. There might have been downsides to this social closeness but one obvious advantage was that you did not have to face emergency or disaster on your own. You had neighborhood support and chicken soup when you were bereaved. You all pulled together when storms destroyed your crops.
For many reasons this sense of community has dwindled over the years. Society has increasingly valued “independence” and developed a mistaken perception that dependency or need is weak and somehow a personal defect. As a result some of our biggest social problems arise out of isolation and loneliness.
Neighborhood In Difficult Times
One of the interesting things to emerge from the global corona virus pandemic is a return to a sense of the power of community. Kindness and neighborhood support have blossomed. Neighborhood initiatives look as if they are becoming part of the “new normal”.
You might be one of the lucky ones who already belongs to a strong community, a big family, a religious community or a community formed by a common interest in a sporting activity but almost all of us need to give some thought to strengthening ties with the people who live around us.
Yes, we can and should lay in bottled water and non-perishable food supplies and buy a comprehensive First Aid kit – but when the chips are down, we need to rely on people. We need to put energy into building intentional communities and practices that develop understanding, empathy and recognition of the needs of those around you and within yourself, connecting, engaging and developing collectively.
The corona virus has provided us with so many valuable lessons but we need to keep them in mind as we move forward and work at community building in the good times so that we have resilient communities in place for the bad times.
How Big Is “A Neighborhood”?
Neighborhoods and communities come in umpteen different forms. You will know instinctively what would work for you as a definition of your community. A community could be a town, a suburb, could be just the households in your street, the people in your apartment block or maybe just on your floor in an apartment block. It could be the people whose children go to the local school or the neighbors in four houses around you. And ideally small communities link with and into bigger communities.
How Can We “Build A Healthy Neighborhood?”
The suggestions below need to be adapted for the type and level of community you have in mind and you will be picking out only those thoughts that would work for your group. In your existing neighborhood or in the community where you are building relationships:
- Create a list of everyone’s names, phone numbers and email addresses (making sure you have discussed all the data protection issues that some people will be sensitive about).
- Exchange clearly labelled door keys with a chosen few neighbors.
- Create a method for easy communication about neighborhood issues: a WhatsApp group? Email group? Weekly single page news sheet? Pinning board in the corner store? This communication could include, “Has anyone seen my missing dog?”, “I’m wanting to get rid of a massive, heavy chest of drawers – free to a good home” and “Could anyone volunteer to take Old Mrs. Jones to the clinic every Tuesday morning?”
- Keep an eye out for opportunities for neighborhood activities, a quiz night, a sponsored walk to raise money for a good cause, a informal bake sale. Get an expert in to speak on an issue of interest to the community. Call up a work party on a Saturday morning to clear up a neighborhood eye-sore. Take part in “Clap the Carers” on Thursday evenings, linking to national initiatives. Clap the local shop on another day. Send collective messages of thanks to delivery services, post people, refuse collection people.
- Call a meeting to design a community strategy for dealing with a specific community issue such as “What to do about the feral cats in the neighborhood” or “What are we going to do about the uncontrolled storm water that races down our road?”
- Reclaim and take ownership of the space in the street or streets of your neighborhood. Plant trees. Clean up. Decorate. Supply street furniture
- Call a meeting to design a community strategy to deal with a possible disaster – you will know what sort of disaster might befall your part of the world, e.g. very harsh winter conditions cutting off communications with the outside world or dealing with a hurricane or tornado.
- Find out who has lived in the area or building the longest and might have interesting photos or anecdotes about the neighborhood’s history.
- Make a deliberate policy to use local businesses – keeping small, local enterprises healthy can have important implications for healthy neighborhood communities and they provide key places to keep up connections.
- Call for and offer small services within the community, paid or unpaid – shopping or medicine delivery, lawn mowing, car washing, dog walking, tutoring, support for DIY projects.
- Share produce, seedlings or seeds for home-growing projects.
- Institute a network for keeping an eye out for vulnerable members of the community, the elderly and infirm, someone who is wheelchair bound, an overwhelmed single parent. If a member of the community might suddenly need help – make them a highly visible sign they can put in the window indicating that they are in need. Or arrange a daily phone call to ensure everything is OK.
- Give each other permission to be a little bit “nosy”. Cultivate a community-wide policy of making an inquiry if something does not look quite right at a neighbor’s place – curtains still closed at lunchtime, dog howling for a prolonged period. Better to be told that everything is fine than to let an unfortunate incident develop because we were too polite to investigate.
- To connect with your local neighborhood, login at www.nextdoor.com and follow @Nextdoor on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
- You do not necessarily have a lot in common with your neighbors but you definitely have one very important thing in common – you live in the same neighborhood. You do not have to live in each other’s pockets but you do want your community to be as strong, clean, healthy and socially aware as possible. And you want to be in a position to support and be supported when the need arises. Take a tiny step in this direction today.
Practical Example: Valley Prospect
Valley Prospect is a cul-de-sac so it is quite easy to define where the neighborhood starts and ends. There are 26 households on the street, in semi-detached houses. The population is quite varied with a mix of families with young children and elderly, retired people living alone. Some of the inhabitants are friends who have a vigorous social life with each other but others are more acquaintances and have very separate lives. However:
- Everyone knows everyone else by name;
- A tech-savvy member of the community has recorded everyone’s names and contact details for everyone else;
- Those who are interested in such things have planted trees and prevent the local Council from mowing the grass verges and the bulbs trying to show up in the spring. They have set up a bench alongside the turning circle at the end of the cul-de-sac;
- In response to the coronavirus lockdown people arranged to come out into the street with cups of coffee or tea at 11.00 in the morning and greet each other while maintaining social distancing;
- Also in response to the coronavirus lockdown four older people living alone agreed to nurse each other in the event of one of them falling ill, and they laid in PPE for this purpose;
- Various people have keys to each other’s houses, to help in case of an emergency;
- The community is fortunate in having a great deal of public land around them on which community members have various small agricultural-type projects involving vegetables and livestock. This is not community-wide – small groups undertake their own projects in their own areas of interest, but often share produce with others;
- A local pub that was going out of business in the neighborhood has been taken over by the community and opens a couple of nights a week, staffed by community members. They have a weekly “pizza evening” and the periodic pub quiz;
- Community members gather in small groups to cook and freeze large quantities of soup for a local church’s soup kitchen for the homeless;
- Once or twice a year they have a street party and put out chairs and trestle tables in the street and bring-and-share or cook food together and provide games and other entertainment for the children.
How connected are you to your neighbors? Could you go to them in an emergency or could they come to you? Time to think of connecting – for everyone’s benefit!