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These Four Big Ideas Are the Cornerstones of Good Neighboring

Recently, we here at Neighborday HQ have been asking ourselves: What are the ingredients of good neighboring? We think it comes down to four big ideas: social capital, neighborhood characters, third places, and sacred landscapes. You might notice these ideas sneaking into many of the Neighborday articles you read this month. Here’s a lowdown of those big ideas and the neighboring rockstars who developed them.

But there’s a catch. As you already know, no two neighborhoods are the same, so even though we’re sharing the best thinking about good neighboring, only you can figure out what will make your neighborhood come alive. To help you out, we’ve got some suggestions for DIY neighborhood research that will turn you into a local expert, just like Jane Jacobs in her Greenwich Village. All it takes is a question, and being open to hearing the neighborhood’s answer. And as Allison Arieff showed us, kids are great co-detectives.

BIG IDEA #1: Neighborhood social networks are more than just the sum of their parts.

Social relationships are an important kind of asset, called social capital, which are important for your health, your potential earnings, your mental well-being, and even the flourishing of American democracy. A crucial outcome of social capital, as Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone, is trust. Trust is important because it creates a feeling of mutual responsibility: if you know that you’ll encounter your neighbors regularly, and that they talk with each other as well, than you can trust them to keep their word and keep an eye out. Another is information: when you interact with your neighbors you share the number of a gardener you like, you let them know that the parking department has been giving tickets on your block lately, you alert them that your bike was stolen from the sidewalk. The only way to build social capital with your neighbors is to socialize.

People who think about neighborhood social capital talk about “eyes on the street”: people watching out for each other, noticing when something’s out of place, sharing what’s going on, which makes you feel safe and confident in the quiet support of your neighbors.

This is where social capital can get tricky. There are two kinds of social capital: bonding social capital, between people who see themselves as similar in some way, and bridging social capital, between people who are different. And there are two kinds of social relationships: weak ties (an acquaintance or loose friend) and strong ties (a deep connection, like a close friend or family member). You need bonding social capital and bridging social capital for the trust wheels to be greased across a community. Neighborhoods can be bonding with weak ties, bonding with strong ties…you get the idea. As you can imagine, each of these combinations looks and feels pretty different, and has different possibilities for neighboring.

DIY QUESTION #1: As you take the social capital temperature of your neighborhood, you want to ask: “How do my neighbors support each other, how well do we know each other, and what do we have in common? Remember, you’re looking for trust and information sharing, and also the signs of strong and weak ties, bridging and bonding capital.

DO: Stop. Linger on a street corner, at a bus stop, on your front porch, or in your building lobby. See what makes people stop and chat with you, or with one another. Pay attention to advice, awareness, and support, and the times when you see it. Are your neighbors comfortable with each other? Do they know each others’ names?

DO: Find a community message board. Online, at the supermarket, at the hardware store. Find something funny, something useful, and something “typical.”

What are people sharing with each other, asking for from each other?

DO: Play. Draw a hopscotch board in front of your building, wherever it is. See who joins. Are people eager? Reticent? Do people let their kids out to play without their supervision?

DO: Ask. Develop an informal survey and stand on your street corner or knock on your neighbors’ doors for a chat and some answers. If you don’t know your neighbors already, you could also do an informal, anonymous poll, with tokens in cups, sidewalk chalk, or pull tabs on a poster. Ask questions, like:

  • Do you check up on your neighbors in a storm or disaster?
  • Does someone from the neighborhood watch your plant/pet/mail when you go on vacation
  • Have you ever asked a neighbor for a favor?
  • Do you have a neighbor’s phone number?
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DO: Experiment. Leave something outside your unit, in your lobby, or in front of your house, for neighbors to take. Homemade cookies, seedlings, mix cds, backyard fruit. Do your neighbors feel at liberty to take them?

DO: Learn the names of your neighbors’ dogs. Whose doggies are friends, and how do their owners interact?

BIG IDEA #2: Neighborhoods have places where locals get together, and “everyone knows your name.”

“The character of a third place,” describes Ray Oldenburg, in The Great Good Place, “is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. The third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.”

Traditional third places are often food establishments, like bars or coffee shops (think Cheers, the diner on Seinfeld, or Central Perk on Friends), but anywhere where people gather casually, between work and home, can be a third place. What makes a regular old place into a third place are the rules and traditions that you have to be “initiated into” so you are part of the club: the right way to order, the right channel for the TV, the right outfit, knowing the names of the players or bartenders. The little league field, the library, the grocery store, are all contestants for third place. What matters is how people use them, and how they interact there.

DIY QUESTION #2: The important question is: what places where people hang out in my neighborhood work like third places? You’re looking for habits, for regulars. You might be uncomfortable if you’ve never been there before, because you don’t know the rules.

DO. Visit! Go to some places you suspect are third places, watch, and listen. Get to know how these places work. If you can figure out a “rule book,” you see regulars there, you hear laughing and both serious and casual conversation…you’ve got yourself a third place.

BIG IDEA #3: Neighborhoods have “public characters,” whose eyes on the street are the most keen and the most constant.

Jane Jacobs, a public character herself (in her neighborhood Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1960s), describes this as “anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people.” Though bartenders, shopkeepers, and grandmothers lounging on a front stoop are classic examples, anyone sufficiently interested in nominating herself “public character” is, in effect, one already.

Public characters are good for sharing news, holding packages and keys, looking out for wayward kids, and generally giving you the piece of mind that someone’s paying attention to what’s going on, but not going to get into your business. So, yes, there’s a difference between a busybody and a public character. They’re the link at the center of a bunch of connections—because they know everyone in the neighborhood, they spread out the social capital because there’s no way everyone will get to know everyone, or see them when it’s convenient to pass on the news.

DIY QUESTION #3: Most public characters you won’t have to look for, of course, because they’ll find you. But if you want to understand your neighborhood, or to spread the word about Neighborday, you’ll need to get them involved. So you’ll want to ask not just 'Who are your neighborhood’s public characters', but also, 'What do they do for your neighbors?' This is all about relationships and individual life stories, so your job is to listen.

  • LISTEN TO: your building super, mailman, or another person who moves around the neighborhood regularly. How long have they been working in your neighborhood? What is their daily routine?
  • LISTEN TO: your neighbors: how long have they lived here? What other neighbors do they know and interact with? You might find that everyone turns to the same person.
  • LISTEN TO: an oldtimer about their life, and the neighborhood. What is their favorite memory?
  • LISTEN TO: to your bartender, teacher, librarian, dry cleaner… someone whose job is to support your neighborhood.
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BIG IDEA #4: Neighborhoods have stories, secrets and memories.

Randolph Hester, a landscape architect known for his work helping communities to develop meaningful places, calls this a city’s “sacred landscape.” The sacred landscape is what causes people to have an emotional connection to specific places. There can be real places, disappeared places, and imagined places in the sacred landscape – “this is where our church used to be,” “this is where I asked my wife to marry me,” “this is where we hope to put the new community garden.”

What connects them is the power they have in the minds of the neighbors, Hester explains in Design for Ecological Democracy. “Sacred places not only concretize, embody, and symbolize our highest values, convictions and virtues, but they also make visible our efforts to comprehend mysteries and profess faith. They provide orientation, worldview, identity, and rootedness.”

Rootedness. Feeling like you belong, like you have a place. Someone looking out for you, someone you can borrow a cup of sugar from, somewhere you know like the back of your hand. Isn’t that what neighborhoods are all about?

DIY QUESTION #4: You learn about sacred landscapes by paying attention to the little things, the details and rhythms of your neighborhood, and putting them together with the stories of your neighbors. As you explore, ask: What makes my neighborhood special?

DO: Learn to identify one of the birdsongs you hear everyday. It might be a good topic of neighborly conversation.

DO: Forage. Something edible grows in your neighborhood. Find it and eat it.

DO: Find the biggest tree in your neighborhood and see if you can figure out how old it is.

DO: Slow down. Walk to work if you usually bike, take the bus instead of driving.

DO: Go for a walk. Just to walk.

DO: Find out what your neighborhood looked like, 50 and 100 years ago. Or more!

DO: Find something commemorative in your neighborhood and learn more about it. Who’s that park named after? What is that plaque on the side of your neighbor’s house?

DO: Find a thinking spot, that’s not in your house. Just for you.

DO: Find a favorite view, at a favorite time of day.

As you explore, share what you find with us! Take a short video for our documentary, or tweet us what you find at #nbhdetectives. And if you’re into this, and want to get involved in our social capital measuring efforts for Neighborday, hit us up.

Oh, and take time to ask yourself one more question: “What makes me feel like I’m part of my neighborhood?”

Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.

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