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Why Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors: Annie Leonard's Backyard Commune

When my daughter was in second grade, a friend invited her to come skiing at Lake Tahoe. She begged me to go, but not being a skiier myself, I...

When my daughter was in second grade, a friend invited her to come skiing at Lake Tahoe. She begged me to go, but not being a skiier myself, I didn’t even know what stuff she needed. So that night I sent an email out to the other families of my kampung—an Indonesian word for a small village which we use to describe our community. When I got home from work the next day, there were bags full of children’s ski gear and ski clothes on my front porch.

That’s also how I got her a new bike when she outgrew her first one: As the older children in the community outgrow their toys, books and clothes, the younger children inherit them. I turn to the members of my Kampung when I need a pickup truck, a specialty tool, or a Bundt cake pan.

Now, even though we live in Berkeley and many of us work for environmental groups, our community is not a hippie commune—more like intentional co-housing. Each family has its own house. We don’t swap partners, and our kids know perfectly well who their parents are. We’re really just a bunch of good friends who chose to live next door to each other and to invest in our community.

When we were younger we all lived together in a big house in Washington, D.C. One couple moved out west for grad school at UC Berkeley, and over the next two decades, as other houses on the block became available, we all migrated. We tore down the fences in our back yards to have one huge shared garden; because so many in the community are avid gardeners (I’m not), I like to say that I live in a Monet painting with my best friends.

We share Stuff all the time. We only need one barbecue, one table saw, one lawn mower, one fax and scanner. Because we share so much, we buy and consume and throw away less Stuff. Sure, we save money and conserve resources, but the real benefits are not material.

We share advice. When we face difficult decisions in our personal or professional lives, we have a set of trusted, time-tested life coaches. I had five sets of parents to watch as role models in parenting. We swap services. Someone who is good at baking makes almost all the birthday cakes; another who is handy with a wrench is there in plumbing emergencies. We carpool. We watch each others’ kids. We host parties together, sharing the costs of setup and all pitching in to clean up the next day.

When I was facing the final deadlines for my book’s manuscript, I got really sick with a 102 degree fever. One friend drove me to the doctor; another watched my daughter; a third brought flowers. Next time someone else in the community gets sick, I’ll reciprocate—not out of obligation but for the sheer joy of sharing.

We don’t keep strict tabs on what or how many hours we share. Instead we cultivate a culture of reciprocity. We trust that what we give to the community will come back to us many times over. In Bowling Alone, his classic work on the decline of community in America, Robert Putnam writes: “Trustworthiness lubricates social life.” But you don’t have to live in a commune or a kampung to share with your neighbors. It can start with borrowing a cup of sugar or offer of a helping hand. All it takes is the decision to put more emphasis on building community than acquiring Stuff.

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.

original image (cc) flickr user Nan Palmero

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