I’ve lived in my current house at Christies Beach for two years, but still know very few of my neighbours. Those that I have met, I rarely see, and even then only to say hello. Most of my neighbours I’ve never even seen – they get around only in their cars, so never walk along the street, and they don’t spend any time in their front yards.
I’ve been reading a lot about the process of economic collapse, about disaster planning and response, and about transition and community resilience. Everything I read recommends building strong relationships with neighbours as a highest priority. A sense of neighbourhood enables people to share resources, skills, develop trust and be available to each other when need arises. As our current system of identities formed by occupation and purchases falls apart, and our dependence on large infrastructure makes us vulnerable to the slightest disruption, we need communities where people ‘turn to’ rather than ‘turn on’ each other in a crisis. And anyway why wait for a crisis? Life is much more enjoyable when its shared with neighbours rather than spent scared of them.
I figured that the best way to start building resilience in my own neighbourhood is to invite everyone in the street to a neighbourhood picnic. I don’t want to push anything on anyone, and do want to make everyone feel safe and included, so a small gathering in a park seemed like the best place to start. Not a meeting with an agenda, no expectations that it would lead to anything more, but open to any possibilities that might follow on from the event.
A picnic is easy to organise too. No need to book a venue, do catering, or ask for RSVP. All I had to do was drop an invitation in a few mailboxes and go to the park at the time. This level of organising isn’t too intimidating, as it’s not an overwhelming task and I don’t have anything to lose.
I made a handwritten invitation, photocopied it, and dropped it in the mailboxes of the nearest 100 houses. I chose to write it by hand to make it more personal, and less likely to be thrown out with the junk mail without being noticed.
I listed the date and time (a Friday evening in mid-December) and place (a park on my street with lawn, a playground, basketball hoop and soccer goal, and adjacent a tennis court), and drew a basic map. I suggested bringing home-made food to share, games to play, and inviting friends, family and neighbours. I wanted to emphasise bringing home-made food, to open conversations about recipes, home-growing, different food cultures, and be more interesting than party pies and manufactured sweets.
On Friday two families arrived at the park. One was a young woman with a three-year-old stepdaughter, wanting to meet other families with children of a similar age. She lived outside of the area I had delivered invitations to, but had been told about the picnic by another neighbour.
The other family had three older children, and had lived on the street for twelve years. They brought lots of peaches from their backyard fruit tree to share, and offered us to come around to their house after to pick some more, as there were more than they could eat themselves.
My housemate and a friend who was staying with us at the time came too, and a neighbour from across the street who I talk to fairly often. I had invited him personally when I saw him on the street.
We talked about sharing homegrown fruit, and the idea of leaving a box of excess produce out the front of the house, with a sign inviting passers-by to help themselves. We considered the possibility of establishing neighbourhood beehives, and the potential market for neighbourhood honey. We shared stories of bringing home items found in hard rubbish, the useful and those that look like a good find, but are not really needed and take up space in the shed. There was gossip about the houses on the street: one is for sale, one has lain empty for years, one being bulldozed. None of us knew many neighbours, which limited the scope for gossiping about them.
Everyone stayed for quite a while, despite the cold wind, which surprised me.
The outcome of the picnic for me is that I feel a bit more at home on the street, now that I know a couple more families. I hope it is the same for them. I wonder about all the people who received the invitation but didn’t come. I hope that having been invited makes them feel included. They might give some thought to the concept of neighbourhood, and be more inclined to engage with neighbours. Also the invitation might encourage them to use the park.
There are plenty of other approaches that have been used to build good relationships with neighbours. Here’s two of them:
The Sharehood is a neighbourhood community building infrastructure, in which neighbours lend tools and lawnmowers, share compost heaps and garden space, help each other out with babysitting, gardening, and fixing things, give away garden produce and second-hand goods, enjoy shared meals, picnics and cups of tea, and teach each other useful skills. See thesharehood.org
City of Port Phillip council in Melbourne encourages residents to hold street parties, or block parties for those who live in apartment blocks. They offer tips and ideas on how to organise a neighbourhood party, and can provide insurance and loan of a barbecue. See www.portphillip.vic.gov.au/block_party_kit.pdf