Ah yes, the modern urban environment: people going for a stroll at any time of the night, doors unlocked, a place where children can play freely in the streets, where no traffic exists because everyone works only 5 minutes away. But is this just a fantasy? Is it really that far-fetched to consider how we might help to bring this closer to a reality in our own communities? The reality is, things are beginning to change already. I mean, they kind of have to when we consider the alternative. We cannot continue to become more isolated if we are going to share the same social spaces. We just have to conquer the fear.
One of the biggest reasons I enjoy putting together and taking part in our annual tour is the whole community aspect of the endeavour. The Calgary Permaculture Tour which is now in its 5th year running invites guests from all walks of life (accountants, doctors, construction workers, philanthropists, engineers, teachers, and so on) to partake in a community- oriented tour of some of the most environmentally innovative sites around the city. It all revolves around a central theme of connection. Whether it is these guests connecting with each other, or connecting with the hosts at each of the sites, new relationships are being formed and all with purpose. Experience has shown many of these relationships last far beyond the tour day as well, with some of the guests volunteering at a CSA on Patterson Springs Farm for example, or deciding to take a course at Verge, others have been known to forge long-term friendships with other tour guest. Regardless of the depth or longevity of any of these new relationships, they all play an important role in furthering the resiliency of the community as a whole.
Even the smallest interaction can have the greatest effect. Maybe it was a conversation tidbit someone mentioned at dinner that would change someone’s life or an idea overheard on the bus which led to a new innovation. Truthfully, these kinds of interactions tend to have a cumulative result of personal and collective growth. Why? Well, without drawing too much theorization into the mix, it appears there are several factors at work. The diversity of people involved seems to breed an atmosphere of cooperation, rather than competition, as people with a variety of different backgrounds and experience tend to be more open to learning about new things. In addition, the overall positive theme of the tour lends itself to being on the cusp of positive change for the group as a whole. Guests understand that they are a part of something new that not everyone has had the opportunity to experience yet.
But what if we could apply the some of the same principles to our communities and urban neighbourhoods? All too often we hear stories or comments from those living in the suburbs for example, about neighbours not talking to each other, or people being afraid to go out at night. Believe me, I get that. Without mentioning names, I have wandered some of the most infamously dangerous neighbourhoods in North America late at night alone (I’m sure, you know which ones they are) and I understand the fear, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as we tend to make it. I do believe things are beginning to change. I do believe more people are moving from a place where they just drive by neighbours without so much as a wave, to a place of starting up a conversation even after a long day of work. I believe more people are sharing their home-grown apples instead of shouting down the neighbours kids for wandering onto their property. But we have to work at this. We must become consciously aware of the negative messages we tell ourselves about urban living and then stop those tales from becoming more than they have to be. We just need to make the first move.
During the holiday season my children and I go to several houses on our block and hand out cookies. This year the neighbours to the north of us responded by giving us a bag of their own baking and a bottle of homemade wine. The neighbours to the south invited us for brunch and the family across the street gave us a whole turkey. Now the point of all this is not to get something in return (if you do that’s great, and likely you will!) The purpose is making meaningful connections, establishing trust, and strengthening the culture as a whole. Just to put things another way, imagine two neighbourhoods: Neighbourhood A and Neighbourhood B. Neighbourhood A is one in which no one talks to each other, or knows their names—just simply arrives home at the end of the day, deadbolts their doors and keeps to themselves. Now imagine that neighbourhood B is just the opposite, where everyone knows each other, neighbours invite each other over for a Bar-B-Q, and everyone is generally outside interacting with each other. If you were a person scoping the area for a possible break and enter opportunity, which would you choose? The one where no one talks to each other is the obvious choice as no one is likely to notice a stranger in a neighbourhood like that—everyone is a stranger! Far beyond any concern about crime, it’s the opportunities for growth that are the real beauty behind making these connections. People often look at differences as a drawback, thinking that if we don’t have multiple things in common, we are not able to get along. However, many times it is those differences which can strengthen a community. When we find out what specific talents are present in our communities, an opportunity for growth exists. When we embrace the differences between one another, life becomes richer. I always like to look at a natural ecosystem for clues as to some of the best ways to strengthen life. In a forest, each of the creatures plays a role and often multiple roles. The spruce trees provide shade, shelter and habitat. The fungal networks create a mycorrhizal (symbiotic relationship) with these plants to help nurture their growth. The flowers of many species attract bees and the bees in turn pollinate them to produce fruit and so on. Imagine if the entire forest consisted of only one or two plant species. The system would collapse without having continual energy input from the outside. So this same set of rules can be applied in a human relationship setting. Each person has needs and wants, and each has something to offer. Making the connection in this context more often than not, results in a long-lasting relationship and a more resilient community.
Throw a block party. Set up a ‘Little Free Library’. Invite other members of your community to your place to pick fruit. Begin conversations with one-another. Create safe spaces for children to play where they can feel secure in the fact there is always a caring adult nearby when help is needed. Find out what specific talents, backgrounds and interests the members of your community have and engage those aptitudes.
Now I’d like to open things up to the stories about you. Let me know in what ways you, or someone you know has forged a stronger community by making new connections with neighbours! Send me your stories either in written form or even a video—doesn’t matter what format, I just want to hear about it, and if it fits, I will post the responses in a future blog. Please send all your awesome stories to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you and Happy Re-connecting!