This is part two of three in a series of articles written by Kyle Witiw in which he explores the concepts of neighborhoods and neighboring, and why they are critical to navigating parenthood based on my experience as a new parent. In this article, Kyle outlines actions parents can take with their kids to build more vibrant, connected neighborhoods. Read part 1 here.
Emily Talen concludes her book, Neighborhood, by outlining a two-part neighborhood-building strategy that is “incremental, resident controlled, and if required, planner enabled.” Part one is about neighborhood delineation and part two is about neighborhood activation. This article focuses on the second part of her strategy because of the direct opportunities for bringing parents and kids together in neighbor-to-neighbor relationship building and community service. If your community lacks a broadly agreed-upon understanding of its neighborhood extent, I encourage you to pick up Talen’s book to learn what you and your local planners can do to change that.
Talen describes neighborhood activation as “necessarily bottom-up and resident-controlled.” The process of neighborhood activation fundamentally starts with building neighbor-to-neighbor relationships - also known as neighboring.
From my experience as a planner, working in communities, facilitating conversations, and fielding questions about technical matters and processes, I’ve seen first-hand how the act of neighboring tends to expand and deepen social ties in a community which in turn serves to build social capital and neighborhood capacity to self-organize. In other words, communities build civic literacy through neighboring which can lead to improvements to the neighborhood and the daily life of its residents. Civic literacy is critical because as Talen puts it:
An everyday neighborhood knows what the content, effect, and underlying assumptions of the rules, investments, and policies affecting it are. Only with this understanding can they then work to change them.
So where to start? What are some tactics for building neighbor-to-neighbor relationships? And specifically, what are some ways to bring our kids along in the journey of neighborhood activation and civic discovery?
Know Your Neighbors by Name
This one is obvious but can still be difficult if you’re not naturally inclined to put yourself “out there.” However, if your kids are anything like my little guy, their natural curiosity and complete lack of social boundaries can really force the issue! Seriously though, your local park or playground is an amazing place to meet your neighbors.
Another simple activity is to sit down with your kid and map out your immediately surrounding neighbors - if you don’t know their names, introduce yourself the next time you see them out and about. Making sure that everyone in your household knows your neighbors and where they live contributes to a safer household - in fact, our neighbors tend to be our first responders in emergencies.
As you build confidence with meeting the strangers in your neighborhood, you might even consider becoming a block connector to foster even more connections among your neighbors!
Beautify Public Places
Influencing how your neighborhood looks is an easy way to show kids that they can have a noticeable impact on their neighborhood and the world around them. Small acts like picking up litter while walking to the playground or breaking out the sidewalk chalk help to beautify your neighborhood and create a sense of vibrancy.
Scaling things up, participating in a community clean-up event or bringing neighbors together to paint a mural in the community or on a street are kid-friendly neighboring activities that can have a broad impact beyond beautification. For example, they can enhance safety, build connections, and create a sense of pride in community.
Organize a Block Party
Getting a block party going can take a bit more effort than learning the names of your neighbors or picking up litter but it can also be highly impactful in terms of building relationships, celebrating the people and places that make your neighborhood great, and having fun. Incorporating some kid-friendly elements such as Neighbor Bingo can support healthy minds and bodies, build intergenerational relationships, and introduce younger generations to the art of neighboring - and you’ll probably win points from other parents on your street for helping to get the kids out of the house!
A key piece of advice if you’ve never planned and organized an event like a block party before: don’t do it alone! Leaning on your neighbors will be critical to pulling off a successful event and is an important part of the experience. Depending on your kid’s age and interests, consider involving them in the planning or get their help to spread word and drum up interest.
Also, don’t reinvent the wheel. There are lots of helpful resources out there like Edmonton’s Block Party and Play Streets guides. Your local government or community organization may have similar resources.
Share Your Gifts
If all of the above seems overwhelming or too far out of your comfort zone, consider what gifts you have to offer your community. You might have a bangin’ recipe and know that the young couple down the street just had a baby - they’re probably overwhelmed, exhausted, and would appreciate a night where they don’t have to worry about cooking. Or maybe you have a background in music and are able to host local parents and tots for a Saturday music lesson.
Whatever your gifts are, share them! Not only will your neighbors notice but your kids are bound to notice too.
Beyond the immediate and local benefits, the act of neighboring has many broader benefits. These include improved disaster response and community resilience, improved physical and mental health and sense of well-being, and helping to change attitudes and behaviors regarding green energy and energy consumption. Perhaps most crucially, as Seth Kaplan notes in his latest book, Fragile Neighborhoods, “The more supported kids [...] are in their household, on their block, and in their neighborhood, the more likely they are to be a positive force in their own families and communities later on.” In other words, by bringing our kids along on the neighboring journey, we provide them with a positive template for civic engagement.