En español │Remember when putting a fence up between your home and your neighbor's was considered a hostile act? Today, new homes often come with fences already built. As a society, we've apparently opted for privacy over community. Studies show that the number of meaningful contacts most of us have with neighbors has declined precipitously in the past 50 years.
Many factors have contributed to this, but the most pervasive one is the Internet. The more time we spend “connected” online, the more disconnected we often are in real life. Today, people can have hundreds of Facebook friends, but few or no actual pals on the street where they live.
A few years ago, I decided to make a concerted effort to get to know the people who live on my block. In the course of doing so, I came to the firm conclusion that there are important reasons for all of us to do this — especially as we age. The older we get, the more likely we are to live alone — and the greater our risk of some kind of emergency. In an emergency, a friend even 10 minutes away may be a friend too far. Sometimes, only the person next door or across the street is close enough to help.
Beyond that, neighbors can enrich our lives — particularly in retirement when people have more time on their hands. There is a real pleasure in having unplanned conversations with folks nearby. It's a special kind of connection that coffee dates don't quite replace. And neighbors may have something of value to contribute to your life: Maybe it's just borrowing a lawn mower, exchanging a recipe or offering to give a piano lesson to a visiting grandchild. These are advantages we never know about until we actually get to know our neighbors and to say more to them besides, “Hello, how are you?”
The good news is that, no matter how long you've been living on your block, it's never too late to get to know your neighbors. If you would like to turn your street of houses into a closer-knit community, try these five time-tested tips on ways to strengthen a neighborhood.
1. Make a neighborhood directory. Include street and e-mail addresses and phone numbers and distribute the directory to everyone on the block. This is a good first step that doesn't take much time. While collecting the information, you might become surprised at how eager other neighbors also are for this kind of connection.
2. Plan monthly neighborhood events. Annual picnics and block parties are nice, but they generally don't provide traction for strong relationships to develop. The more frequent the event, the better you'll get to know people. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, residents of one neighborhood have taken turns hosting "Wednesdays on the Porch” for eight years. The porch is an especially nice place to gather because the hosts don't have to clean up the house! Also, try school-oriented celebrations, such as a back-to-school bike parade for kids, maybe with a town fire truck in the lead; Christmas caroling for the holidays; a progressive New Year's Eve celebration at five or six neighbors' homes (so no one has to drive after celebrating); and, when the weather warms up, a backyard barbecue where everyone pitches in.
3. Think beyond the backyard. Encourage residents to engage in some kind of front yard activity to get people out and visible to passers-by. Try to shift from typical backyard activities to the front yard: vegetable and flower gardens, a swing set or climbing toy, badminton set, even just place a couple of lawn chairs in front of the house.
4. Use online services. Websites such as i-Neighbors.org or Meettheneighbors.org allow neighbors to share news virtually. They can be helpful, but should complement — not replace — face-to-face interaction.
5. Consider shared property. In some neighborhoods, residents pool funds to create a communal gathering spot. You might consider converting an empty lot into a small park or playground — or even just removing a fence or two so you and your neighbors can create a joint vegetable garden. Trust me: I've learned from experience that these small gestures can reap large rewards.
Peter Lovenheim is the author of the book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time.