Sharing with your neighbors often makes sense, for the obvious reason that it is inconvenient to share a lawnmower that is kept across town (it won't do much to save you time or reduce your carbon footprint, either). If you are lucky enough to live in one of those neighborhoods where everyone knows each other or where there's an existing neighborhood association, then you've got a head start on creating a more sharing community. If not, there are a lot of things you can do to build community right where you are.
Often, breaking the ice with your neighbors is the hardest part. You might feel kind of silly if you've lived across the street or down the hall for years and have never said so much as a hello. Don't worry; this happens all the time. You can reverse this pattern by starting with a smile, nod, or wave. Your neighbors probably feel just as silly as you do about never saying hi, and will be happy that you made the first move.
As you get bolder, you might comment on their lovely bougainvillea or mention how adorable their pug is. You could even go out on a limb and offer them some plums from your tree, ask whether you can pick some of their lemons, or ask how they'd feel if you practiced drums once or twice a week. They will probably be pleased that you thought of them. Sometimes, all people need is to be acknowledged or considered.
Once you have begun to melt the social ice cap in your neighborhood, you can take some more active steps to pull people together. We suggest three ways to start: a neighborhood questionnaire or survey, a block party, and a neighborhood bulletin board or email list.
Survey Your Neighbors
We're starting with the survey, but you also could start with a party. We know one woman who printed flyers inviting her neighbors to her house on a Sunday afternoon and delivered the flyers in person. The party was a lot of fun, and neighbors exchanged contact information so they could build on the social connections they made.
But you can start with information gathering, too. Create a questionnaire and take it door to door. Invite your neighbors to fill it out, and explain that you want to help neighbors learn more about each other and build a closer community. You could then either tally up the results yourself or copy the surveys and distribute a full packet to each neighbor. That should get people thinking and give them lots to talk about at the block party.
Here's a sample letter with a questionnaire:
I just read a really interesting book called "The Sharing Solution," where I found a lot of tips and ideas for saving money, simplifying my life, and living more sustainably by sharing resources with others. It gave ideas for forming child care, dog-walking, gardening, and home repair co-ops, sharing cars, rides, tools, and household appliances, and sharing meals, among many other things. It got me thinking that it would be nice for all of us to know each other better, and we might even find more ways to share resources and cooperate.
Please take some time to fill out this questionnaire and return it to me at 2424 Heinz Street. I'll make copies of everyone's answers and distribute them to the group. This includes everyone living on Heinz Street between 9th and 11th.
I would also like to invite you to a neighborhood block party to be held on May 1. By then, we will all have read each other's neighbor questionnaires, which will give us lots to think and talk about. It should also be a lot of fun!
Thanks so much for taking the time to complete this questionnaire! If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at Janelle@sbcglobal.net or call me at 510-555-1212.
Janelle (2424 Heinz Street)
Would you like to join a neighborhood email listserv? _Yes _No
Emergency contact (someone we can call if we think you need emergency help):
Home phone:_______ Work phone:_______ Cell phone:_______
How long have you lived in this neighborhood?
Where are you from originally?
What do you like to do for fun?
What kind of work do you do?
What city do you work in?
Do you drive to work? _Yes _No
Would you be interested in carpooling if a neighbor works near you? _Yes _No
Do you own a car? _Yes _No
Would you ever be interested in sharing a car with a neighbor? _Yes _No
If you work from home, are you interested in sharing office equipment? _Yes _No
Do you have children? _Yes _No
If so, how many and how old?
Would you ever like to trade child care with other neighbors, whether through casual babysitting, sharing a child care provider, or otherwise? _Yes _No
Do you have pets? _Yes _No
If so, who are they?
Would you ever like to coordinate with neighbors to take turns walking dogs or caring for other animals? _Yes _No
Would you be interested in joining a neighborhood gardening group? _Yes _No
Would you be interested in joining a neighborhood home improvement group, which will meet to work on home repair and building projects at each member's house? _Yes _No
Would you like to be invited to neighborhood games nights? _Yes _No
Would you be interested in doing mealsharing with neighbors? _Yes _No
Do you have a fruit tree that you'd like help harvesting or fruit you'd like help eating? _Yes _No
Do you or does anyone in your household have any disabilities or health problems you would like your neighbors to know about, or you might need help with? _Yes _No
If so, what are they?
Would you be interested in sharing any of the following:
_ Tools, ladders, etc.
_ Washer and dryer
_ Household appliances, like vacuum cleaners
_ Household goods and electronics
_ Toys and sports equipment
Have a Block Party
Now that you've collected all the information, here are some ideas for planning your neighborhood block party, step by step.
Step 1: Talk to the neighbors you know best, especially the ones you think will be most helpful and enthusiastic, and ask whether they want to share in planning the party.
Step 2: Pick a date when the weather will likely be nice and people will probably be available. If you plan the party for Memorial or Labor Day, for example, you run the risk that your neighbors will be out of town for the three-day weekend.
Step 3: Get any required permits. If you're planning to actually block off the street, rather than holding your party on the sidewalk, a cul-de-sac, someone's front yard, or a public spot, you may need to deal with a bit of red tape. Most of the time, this is a simple process; you just need permission from your city to block off the street for a few hours. Some cities may require you to get signatures from your neighbors (usually from about 75% of households on your block). You might have to pay a fee for the permit.
Once you have the permit, the city may supply road barricades for you a day or two before the party, or you can block off the street with clever use of trash cans and yellow tape. The city might want you to get insurance for the event; if so, it should tell you how to get it. There might also be limits on the times of day when you can have the party and the amount of noise you can make. Also find out the city's policy about alcohol; there may be a law requiring that alcohol be consumed on private property only. (If that's the case, you can set up a bar in someone's yard.)
Most of this information should be available on your city's website. If you can't find it, call the department of public works or the main city phone number and ask how to get the information you need.
Step 4: Print invitations and go door to door inviting neighbors. While you are talking to people, ask whether they'd like to help plan an activity or coordinate part of the event (such as overseeing the barbecues, setting up, cleaning up, organizing a game, and so on). Keep an eye out for a charismatic neighbor who can rally folks for a relay race or be an announcer for the talent show. On the invitation, ask that people bring something to grill, a side dish, or drinks. Also ask that they bring their own dishes, so that no paper or plastic is wasted.
Step 5: Plan activities. Here are some ideas:
- chalk art on the side walks
- one of those big inflatable bouncing cages (it's an expense, but will be a major draw for neighborhood kids)
- badminton, croquet, or some other sport in someone's front yard
- talent show or performances by the neighborhood band
- relay races
- bean-bag toss
- neighborhood history walk, and
- icebreaker games that help people to meet and learn about each other.
Step 6: Gather supplies. Depending on your planned activities, you might need to collect:
- a bucket of thick sidewalk chalk
- a bunch of tables and chairs
- large umbrellas to block the sun
- a couple of grills
- sports and games equipment
- a stereo or sound system
- trash cans
- street barricades, or
- coolers and ice.
Step 7: On the day of the party, try to meet and greet everyone who comes, and introduce them to someone else.When people arrive, have everyone put on a name tag. Use a big one with room for them to also answer a question that you put on it or to mention something about themselves that they'd like to share. For example, "my name is ________, and my favorite [sport/animal/thing to do in my free time, etc.] is _____________." And have a great time!
Set Up a Neighborhood Bulletin Board or Email List
A neighborhood email list or discussion group can work wonders for bringing people together. There are a lot of hosting sites for a listserv, but the most commonly used—probably because it's one of the simplest—is www.yahoo.com. You'll need a moderator who takes responsibility for adding members (at their request), and you'll need to agree on what types of posts are acceptable. Many neighborhood email groups agree that they'll post only announcements of interest to the neighborhood, and refrain from sharing jokes, political commentary, or personal information. This means it's fine to post the time and location of the neighborhood garden meeting or that you want to borrow a lawnmower, is fine, but not all the reasons why you hate the mayor.
If some folks on your block don't use email, it's a nice idea to print out the messages and post them on a bulletin board in front of someone's house, unless you feel the information is too private.
If you are successful, your neighborhood email postings will start to look like this:
- "I will be getting a load of soil [firewood/mulch/bricks] delivered to my house. It's cheaper if I buy more than ____________. Would anyone like to go in on it with me?"
- "Help! I just harvested 8,000 zucchinis from my garden. I'm putting them on my front porch. Please come take some! If you have a good zucchini recipe, please let me know!
- "I'm making a trip to the dump [thrift store/electronics recycling center/propane refill station]. Do you have anything you'd like me to take? "
- "I broke my foot, and I need help bringing in the lawn furniture before the storm hits. Can anyone come over and help me?"
- "Don't forget! Tomorrow is street cleaning day! Move your car to the south side of the street."
- "Neighbors are going to get together at my house on Thursday at 7 to talk about what we can do about the recent rash of car thefts."
- "Has anyone seen little Susie's Pooh-Bear? She left it somewhere again."
Many of the ideas described in other chapters of this book are neighbor-related. Once you bring your neighborhood together, the door is open to suggesting all kinds of sharing with your neighbors.