From backstreets to the big end of town, there’s reason for neighbours to become good friends.
Last year, my neighbour and I leafleted houses in the streets nearby. We proposed something unusual. On our flyer, we wrote, “…we’d like to set up a system to share some of our resources and build a friendly local community”, and then we promised all manner of neighbourly fun, including street parties, movie nights, swap meets and veggie sharing.
And now, our block in Carlton moonlights as a ‘sharehood’.
The Sharehood is a social networking website that shows you everyone with a profile who lives within 400 metres of you. It includes lists of things to borrow and lend and a forum for upcoming events. The first one was set up in Northcote in 2008, but it works no matter where in the world you live.
The Sharehood’s creator, website developer Theo Kitchener, says connecting online can help meeting face-to-face. “It’s all about encouraging neighbours to get to know each other in real life – all kinds of good things can come from that.”
So, aside from a sensible impulse to borrow a circular saw rather than shell out for one of my own, what’s behind my wish to know my neighbours?
Associate professor Kathleen Hulse, from Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research, says knowing our neighbours not only makes us feel safer, but also meets our deep need for a sense of place. “Being connected locally is strongly associated with a sense of belonging, and we all need to belong somewhere. It’s a profound thing – that is what a home is about.”
According to Gilbert Rochecouste, from placemaking consultants Village Well, there’s been renewed interest in “caring for place”. Governments, councils and property developers are all aiming to strengthen local communities. “People are changing their priorities,” he says. “We’re seeing that with developers building ‘neighbourliness capital’ into projects.”
Mr Rochecouste points to Delfin’s Laurimar estate, past Epping in Melbourne’s north, which includes a town centre lined with local stores within walking distance of all the homes. “People meet in main streets, that’s where the heart is,” he says.
Also at Laurimar, a community worker is employed to organise activities. “In greenfields developments like that one, we’re starting to see place managers who coordinate community gardens, events and food swaps,” Mr Rochecouste says. “To build citizenship you’ve got to invest in it.”
The trend isn’t limited to the urban fringe. Sue West from the McCaughey Centre at the University of Melbourne says that over the last decade, state and local governments have supported more and more initiatives to build community resilience. Now, about eight in ten local councils say they fund projects of that kind, be they community gardens, local action plans or activities to bring different cultures together.
“There’s been growing interest in programs that involve communities in getting to know each other,” Ms West says. “The research was showing that a country or a community can be doing really well economically, but people’s wellbeing is beyond just money and the economic measures. It’s about the connections people have with each other.”
Ms West coordinates Community Indicators Victoria, a set of measures gauging social, economic, environmental, democratic and cultural wellbeing in local council areas. “Feeling connected to neighbours does contribute to wellbeing. It can be really important in difficult times, like the one we’ve just been through with the financial crisis, and the ones we continue to go through because of climate change and drought,” Ms West says.
Improved neighbourliness also goes hand-in-hand with environmental gains. As well as The Sharehood, there are a large number eco-friendly neighbourhood groups across our suburbs, such as Sustainability Street (a group training program in eco-living) and community gardens. There were 75 community gardens in Melbourne at last count, in 2006, and interest has been flourishing since then.
Transition Towns is another grassroots eco-development movement. The people in each location determine what they’ll do, but generally speaking, the goal is to live better with less – to re-make your area into a food producing, low-energy, low-emission, tight-knit community. It was founded in England in late 2006 and there are already over similar 250 initiatives worldwide. In Australia, 27 groups have officially signed on and dozens more are joining up, including seven in suburban Melbourne.
Razia Ross is convenor of Transition Town Boroondara, which traverses inner-eastern suburbs from Kew East to Ashburton. She says the threats posed by climate change and peak oil will change our relationships with people nearby. “It seems to me that we really need our neighbours in a way we didn’t before.” For now, her group is scheming for community gardens, orchards and guerrilla gardening.
The good news, according to housing researcher Dr Hulse, is that we have a strong base of neighbourliness to build on. “I think that the connections in suburbs are underestimated. Special initiatives like community gardens are important, but they wouldn’t work if there wasn’t already a fabric there,” she says.
It’s true in my block. At our sharehood events, long-term residents pass on local folklore to newcomers – yarning, for example, about the old Maltese man who built a boat in his backyard (too big for the yard, it jutted over the footpath) then set sail for Malta. It’s all part of the sharing.
A new nature strip
Depending on how you look at it, Gilbert Rochecouste and his partner Amadis Lacheta have either taken their work home, or their home to work. They run Village Well, a placemaking consultancy that works on relocalisation and civic renewal.
And on the nature strip outside their house in North Coburg, they’ve planted a community herb garden and installed a seat, among other things. “The old ladies who get off the bus pause and sit down and we’ve gotten to know them,” Mr Rochecouste says. “They’re so appreciative – sometimes they drop over pickles.”
He says neighbourliness turns a street into a meeting place. “There are eyes on the street. It helps breaks down the fear culture – you feel comfortable to knock on someone’s door and meet together. And it’s much more fun.”
Read this article on the Age website.
Village Well’s 10 ways to be neighbourly:
1. Say hello to your neighbours when you pass.
2. Organise a potluck lunch, dinner or picnic and invite people in your street.
3. Plant a community herb garden on your nature strip
4. Organise a neighbourhood swap – share and exchange clothes, garden produce, plants, books or skills.
5. Organise a neighbourhood ‘salon’ – share music, food, poetry or stories.
6. Install a seat on your nature strip for neighbours to sit and chat.
7. Organise a yearly street party.
8. Do some street beautification or community art.
9. Create a community garden or green area.
10. Put a free table on your nature strip and give away food, books, furniture and bric-a-brac.