A recipe for cooperation and camaraderie

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, October 2014

Conjuring the magic of a healthy neighbourhood.

Have you noticed what’s different in neighbourhoods these days?” asked one of my elderly friends on a leisurely drive around suburbia. “You don’t see kids playing outside anymore. You rarely see anyone in their yard.”

It’s true. Children have largely moved indoors with their electronic devices or are being ferried to structured programs by parents too fearful to let them roam their own beat. Adults, when you do see them about, are always on the go, mowing or pruning or heading out to walk the dog. 

Neighbourhoods have changed to accommodate this new norm: Front porches, the old gathering places, have all but disappeared, replaced by prominent garages that now allow you to drive, quite literally, right into your house. Some streets, Shelbourne for example, are so wide and busy that it’s almost impossible for people living on opposite sides to be anything but strangers to each other. 

Some people might see benefits in this redesign, especially those who prize efficiency, anonymity, and freedom from the yoke of having to cultivate relationships with those who happen to be neighbours. But there are downsides as well, and they have potentially serious ramifications that are only now coming to light. 

Social isolation is one. Today more than 30 percent of Canadians admit to feeling disconnected from their neighbours. Locally it’s no different. The Victoria Foundation reported in its 2013 edition of Vital Signs that 66 percent of Victorians “feel they know their neighbours well enough to ask for help or offer assistance.” To put that in less cheerful terms, 34 percent of us are not comfortable reaching out to neighbours in our or their time of need. 

This finding isn’t good news, according to Montreal psychologist Susan Pinker, who sees isolation as a form of social impoverishment that takes its toll on health and well-being. We require face-to-face relationships to stay well, she writes in her forthcoming book The Village Effect: “Those of us who invest in meaningful, personal relationships with lots of real social contact are more robust and have better physiological defences than those who are solitary or who engage with the world largely online.” 

A genuinely interactive neighbourhood, whether clustered around homes or apartments or condos, is a hedge against social isolation and generally offers greater exposure to cultural diversity than does a chosen circle of friends. (This heterogeneity is crucial because it also counterbalances the more polarized climate of the online world where “friends” are often little more than like-minded acquaintances or strangers.) A real community inspires meaningful cooperation and reciprocity—where people water plants for neighbours who are away, keep a protective eye on the local children, meet for a chat now and then, and band together to bring local issues to the city’s attention.   

It also fosters security. An amazing thing happened here during the grand winter storm of 1996: People began helping each other throughout the region. As the snow piled higher and higher, cars became useless, people retreated to their homes, and everything shut down. The neighbourhood became the new microcosm and over the next week a great sense of cooperation and camaraderie prevailed. Pathways were shovelled and neighbours checked in on each other. On our street an intrepid crew tackled the metre-high snow banks on groaning rooftops. A neighbour with a truck did several grocery runs for whoever needed supplies. And when the kind couple next door realized that none of their invited guests would be braving the elements for their New Year’s party, they opened the doors to the neighbourhood instead. 

What I remember most profoundly about the Storm of ’96 was that while we were happy to see the last slush shovelled down the storm drains, nobody wanted the magic to end. We had tasted the joy and empowerment of real connection and were loathe to let it fade away.

There’s a saying that a good neighbour is someone who doesn’t bother you or jeopardize the value of your property. On the contrary, such people would form the weakest and blandest of neighbourhoods. If the studies and our gut feelings are right, that’s not where most of us want to live.

These days Trudy’s neighbourly activity mainly consists of plying people with apples, tomatoes and zucchinis.