Why Getting to Know your Neighbors Matters

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A key takeaway heard at recent community meetings was “get to know your neighbors ” whether the topic of discussion was community safety, inclusion, or other.  In this time of rapid change and urban growth, connecting to your immediate neighbors may be less frequent to nonexistent.  With broader access to new technology and electronic media it is much easier to stay in touch with the people and issues you care most about that are not necessarily close to home.  According to a 2015 report from City Observatory—an urban-policy think tank—with contributors such as Dillon Mahmoudi from PSU’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning—about one third of Americans say they have never interacted with their neighbors.  Over several decades there has been known research on the increasing disconnect of individuals from community.  One result of this is fragmentation of community is the growing desire to seek ties outside your surroundings to find your tribe in order to satiate the need for belonging, shared interests, trust, reciprocity, being heard, support and like-mindedness.

What’s happening in Portland

The fracture of diverse mixed income neighborhoods plays a key role. With economically challenged and newcomer families with children it can be more isolating and daunting to not know your neighbors and have to travel a distance to meet daily needs with little time or opportunities for much else. Census data shows shifts in location of poverty and residences of communities of color in Portland. It is partly the impetus for several complex long range planning measures, those in the know, encountered during Portland’s Comprehensive Plan update and the Residential Infill Project process, for instance.  Also, if you take a close look at a city’s budget, you will find that investment in social capital —whether it is place-based or involving communities of interest or identity—is notably disproportionate to the investment in other types of essential civic functions in urban areas.  It is not a new phenomenon as cited in the Observatory—“Jane Jacobs observed decades ago, cities work best when they bring people of diverse backgrounds, with different ideas and perspectives, into close connection”—.  Jane Jacobs’ influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) introduced sociological concepts such as “eyes on the street” and “social capital”.

On the upside, Portlanders may benefit from being more civically engaged.  In the City’s 2016 community survey 40% of respondents reported participating in a community project or attending a public meeting at least once in 2016.  This is a number that has remained relatively steady over the past five years —even if only half of those reported feeling that they had opportunities to influence government decisions.  The survey was out in November 2016 and the numbers of those who are engaged have likely increased since.   As you know there are many resources and initiatives to help connect people and to connect people to place.  The value of building relationships with your immediate neighbors can be easily overlooked and can depend on the level of disconnection and/or change happening around your block.  Are you willing to step out, take the time and offer to shovel the sidewalk of a disabled neighbor on a snow day, drop off groceries for an elder renter, or leave something for a new mother?  This immediate connection could help promote “community resilience” in small and big ways— which is also language that emerges frequently in the public discourse as of late.

Benefits of neighbor to neighbor connections

Exploring and realizing ways to reach out to your neighbors has countless benefits including access to resources, information, and support, and an increased sense of well-being, learning opportunities, open mindedness and of course belonging.  Living in proximity without stepping out of your comfort zone and making a connection may in fact be more painful in times of conflicting interests or when more immediate needs such as safety come into play.  Closer in neighbor to neighbor connections help to implement strategies such as Portland’s Healthy Connected Neighborhood.   As well, through local organizing more opportunities to know your neighbors can be fostered.  Even when we may not know our neighbors it can be reassuring and even a comfort to know you are surrounded in large part by people who need essentially the same things you do.  The Journal of Social Science & Medicine, found that people who said they knew and trusted their neighbors were also more likely to report higher rates of health and well-being than those who said they did not know or trust their neighbors.  Other studies have shown how making time for a little small talk with people you don’t know can make your day more enjoyable even if it may feel awkward.  This knowledge of the interconnection of community and health can improve our lives when put into simple practice.

Creating opportunities

With growing diversity in age, culture, background, race, abilities, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin and life experiences there are several ways to overcome barriers to neighbor to neighbor connections.  The Office of Neighborhood Involvement has an accommodations fund accessible through the district coalitions and other community partners which provides funds for interpretation, childcare, different abilities, etc. to help broaden access to participation.   Another resource to get to know and meet your immediate neighbors is to organize a block party,  potluck, or living room meet and greet which is not limited to closing the street in nice weather though that does have its advantages.   The neighborhood newsletter that is delivered to your doorstep also promotes National Night Out events including at apartment complexes.  It may also include information on organizing for emergency preparedness through the neighborhood emergency teams where ideally people on the block would know about the skills and tools available and the special needs of their neighbors.

There are opportunities to create something new such as a social media blast to invite all Portlanders to participate in an Annual Be a Good Neighbor event—a day where we intentionally step out to greet a neighbor(s) using a platform than can transmit the power of storytelling.  For example, a recent proposed demolition in Roseway showed evidence of an elder being priced out, while neighbors were trying to intervene and pay back taxes on her behalf.  There are many powerful untold stories of neighborly support rooted in connection.  When stepping out of your comfort zone being mindfully prepared to let go of any anticipated reciprocity helps to tame feelings of awkwardnessalso knowing when to give others the space they need.  Getting to know your neighbors fosters community cohesion.  By taking the time to connect with a friendly gesture it could be possible to grow opportunities for neighbors to be engaged.  If you haven’t already, today seems like as good a day as any to greet your neighbor whether in a stairway, elevator, or on your street.

By Sandra Lefrancois