Published by StrongTowns.org
I grew up in a time before local news outlets dedicated all their resources to scaring the crap out of people every time they turned on the TV.
As a result, kids of my generation were allowed to roam freely through spaces both public and private. Neighborhood streets, other people’s yards, schools, parks, creeks, and drainage ditches were all fair game. Our only rule was not to cross the busy arterial streets. (Even then, we instinctively knew a stroad was a dangerous thing.) At dusk, parents would summon everyone home. Some would just stand on the porch and yell their kids’ names, while others whistled or rang bells when it was time for dinner.
Back then, of course, stay-at-home moms were the rule, not the exception. But it’s not like we were being supervised. There were no cell phones, and we often disappeared for hours at a time.
One difference was that we knew so many people in our neighborhood. My family kept spare keys for half a dozen neighbors, knew everyone’s name within a two-block radius, and had friends scattered throughout the area.
Which makes me wonder: Did we have so much freedom to roam because we knew our neighbors? Or did we know our neighbors because we spent so much time out roaming around?
These days, it feels like people are turning inwards. We pull into attached garages and let the doors close behind us, never emerging except within the protective carapace of a car. We build private jungle gyms in the backyard rather than letting our kids bike to the park. Meanwhile, Netflix and Hulu make it easy to get absorbed by fictional folks on TV, rather than interacting with actual humans in real life. And our news diet creates a fear of strangers by focusing on rare and remote horrors, while paying little attention to all the good and compassionate things people do for each other every single day.
Doing your own yard work creates opportunities for casual conversations with neighbors.
So maybe it’s time to flip those habits, get outside, and meet the people who live nearby. Let's put the neighborliness back in neighborhoods. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking "outside the box."
1. Do your own Gardening and Yard Work
I know, I know. Everyone works. Everyone’s busy. Nobody has time or energy to do their own yard work. But there’s something wrong when the professional lawn care guy knows more of your neighbors than you do.
Being out in the yard makes you visible and approachable. People who wouldn’t ring the doorbell and risk interrupting your dinner will happily stop and chat if you’re out planting flowers. Besides, mowing lawns is more productive than running on a treadmill, and if you’re out in the yard, you’re actually making the neighborhood safer for everyone.
2. Buy a Home with a Front Porch
One of the saddest trends in residential home building has been the displacement of front porches by garage doors. The orientation is backwards, and it leads to isolation. When garage doors are the primary architectural feature of your house, it does two things that are bad for the neighborhood. First, garage doors turn a blind eye to the street by trading windows, doors and a front porch (active spaces) for blank walls and auto storage (passive). Second, eliminating the front porch, pushes outside activities to the back patio, which further isolates neighbors and limits opportunities for casual contact.
Who doesn't love a good front porch?
The simple act of drinking coffee on the front porch makes you part of the community in ways that could never occur on a back patio. Even if all you do is smile and nod as strangers walk by, you’re contributing to a friendlier and safer place.
3. Activate the Front Yard
If you don’t have a front porch, you can still make a point to spend time in the front yard. Years ago, we bought a cheap fire pit (the kind you can pick up and move around). Instead of setting it up in the back yard, we built a fire in the front. It attracted people like moths to a flame. Neighbors walked over to see what was going on. People driving by stopped to hang out and chat. Before long, we had to open more wine and bring out the dining room chairs.
Now, whenever we set up the fire pit, we put it in the middle of the front yard. Sometimes we invite people over for outdoor parties; sometimes we just see who shows up.
There’s no reason why the back yard should have all the fun. Spread the love. Get out the sidewalk chalk, throw Frisbee, start a neighborhood corn hole competition, or spread out blankets and have a picnic on the front yard lawn. The more time you spend in the public-facing spaces, the more opportunities you have to meet your neighbors and be aware of what’s going on around you.
Behind every privacy fence is a neighbor you'll never meet.
4. Unlike Daniel Boone, you Don’t Need a Fort
There are times when a privacy fence is a good idea. You may need a screening fence if you have a swimming pool or hot tub, or your backyard abuts a commercial parking lot. And if you like to walk around naked with the blinds open, I get it, privacy is your friend.
Often, however, entire subdivisions are built with privacy fences as the default. The assumption is that you want nothing to do with your next-door neighbors, and they have no business glancing into your back yard for any reason whatsoever. Perhaps it’s because suburban home builders never actually read that Robert Frost poem that is not about good fences making good neighbors. “Why do they make good neighbours?” Frost asks. “Isn't it where there are cows? But here there are no cows.”
No cows indeed. Privacy fences eliminate chance encounters with neighbors. They prevent us from keeping an eye on each other’s property (in the neighborly, not nosy way). And they assume mistrust where none exists.
You need to keep the dogs in the yard, not protect Westeros from the White Walkers. Whenever possible, choose a lower, more transparent fencing option and get to know your neighbors instead of staring at a fence.
5. Leave the Car at Home
One of the simplest ways to engage with your community is to physically get out in it. Whizzing by in a car doesn’t count. When you walk or bike, the slower pace allows you to notice details you’ve never seen before. Not only that, you will hear, smell and feel the environment in a way that’s impossible to experience from inside an automobile. If you’ve ever followed your nose to a terrific restaurant, you know exactly what I mean.
Walking home from the store.
I’m always amazed how many total strangers speak to me when I’m walking or biking. They ask for directions, make surprising observations, or just say howdy. Cars create barriers between people. Active transportation eliminates them. When we’re not surrounded by glass and steel, people can see our faces and we become recognizably human. Sharing a smile, which happens a lot more often when you're on foot or bike, reminds us of this fact.
So get out of the car. Walk the dog. Bike to the store. Stroll to a restaurant. Speak to a neighbor and make their day a little bit friendlier for everyone.
6. Pick up Trash
An added benefit of walking in your neighborhood is that it’s easy to stop and pick up trash. (How often do you see a car pull over so someone can jump out and pick up a beer can? Answer: never.) Especially in up-and-coming areas, this is an important public service that improves curb appeal and enhances a sense of safety.
Since buying a property in an emerging neighborhood, I’ve come to appreciate that trash bags are a luxury, not a priority, for people who struggle to afford necessities. As a result, there’s always something blowing around, especially on trash day. So one of my weekly duties is trash patrol. It only takes a few minutes, it makes the world a better place, and it creates opportunities to chat with folks up and down the block.
No matter where you live, you can improve your neighborhood by picking up trash. It’s a simple act that shows how much you care.
7. Invite Apartment Dwellers to Neighborhood Association Meetings
Just because someone lives in an apartment building doesn’t mean they don’t care about the neighborhood. One of the best places I ever lived was a lovely old apartment in the middle of a historic neighborhood. It was such a great place that turnover was practically non-existent. The tenants were all professionals or retirees. I lived there for a decade. My upstairs neighbor is still there, 30 years after he first moved in.
But in all the years I lived in multi-family housing (a duplex, two triplexes, and a small apartment), I never once received a notice about a neighborhood meeting or public hearing. Cities are typically required to notify property owners, not tenants, about public meetings. And neighborhood associations often don’t include renters because of the perception that they're outsiders with no “skin in the game.”
Apartments contribute to the tapestry of the neighborhood. (Photo by Sarah Kobos)
But when you exclude renters from conversations that impact a city’s future, you limit the knowledge and perspective of important constituents. By limiting participation only to property owners, cities and neighborhoods are less likely to hear the voices of citizens who are younger, less affluent, or people of color.
Renting doesn’t mean that you don’t care passionately about the city and neighborhood in which you live, but it does mean that you may have a different perspective or a unique voice that deserves to be heard. If you’re in a position to do so, invite tenants to the table. You’ll be amazed how much you have in common, and how much you have to learn.
8. Share your Tools
It’s important to have the right tool for the job, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy a new one for every project. All those HGTV-inspired tool purchases fuel the consumer economy, but also result in a lot of equipment sitting around unused in the garage.
Yet another perk of knowing your neighbors is the ability to share resources and knowledge.
You’ll discover that there are plenty of people who are happy to help when you decide to tackle a do-it-yourself project, but it only works if sharing is a two-way street. Take care of the tools you borrow, return them promptly, and find ways to repay the favor.
9. Keep it Simple
Obviously, the above ideas are not really about how to be a good neighbor. They're more about breaking down the barriers that prevent us from knowing one another. Once you meet, it's pretty simple. No matter where you live, or what your circumstances, there’s really only one rule for being a good neighbor: be kind.
Introduce yourself. Be respectful. Keep an eye out for each other. Check in on old folks. Tutor a kid. Dog sit. Assume the best. Chip in and help when you recognize a need. And remember that the word "community" means we’re all in this together.