Dr Ryan Reynolds from Christchurch's Gap Filler Trust looks at the significance of small, everyday interactions and how they are the "stuff" of community.
When my partner Coralie and I were pregnant with our first child, we were – like a lot of fledgling parents – suitably terrified. I grew up in America; Coralie is Australian; and we have no family in New Zealand. We’d been living on a quiet street in the Christchurch suburb of Spreydon for six or eight months. The house was just what we wanted, but the street felt incredibly antisocial. We got to know a few of the neighbourhood cats, but not one of the neighbours. We were thinking we wanted to move to somewhere with a stronger sense of community – to build support networks to help us raise a child, but also for our own sanity, especially with Coralie knowing she’d be spending more time around home for the next year or so.
So we started looking for places in Lyttelton. No other option. It’s pretty much agreed: Lyttelton has the strongest sense of community in Christchurch.
We did manage to move there, just a week before our daughter was born. And it has lived up to the reputation. We’ve been there a year and a half now. We know our next-door neighbours, on both sides. And two doors down, on both sides. And across the street. And many others besides. It’s almost a certainty that when you walk down the main street in the village, you’ll see someone you know or recognise.
So how does it work? One important factor is definitely reputation – and attitude. People (like us) now move to Lyttelton looking to be part of a community. They seek out their neighbours, knock on doors, lend a hand, and welcome the next new people who move in a few doors down. But how does the reputation begin?
For Lyttelton, I think it begins with the geography. Lyttelton is a village of about 2000 on the hills, looking out over the harbour. Probably half of the residents don’t have a garage or off-street parking, so you’re bound to bump into people on the streets. It’s inconvenient putting out the bins or bringing in the shopping, so people regularly ask for – or offer – help.
There’s one main street ‘on the flat’ where all the shops, bars, supermarket and restaurants are condensed, so that London Street footpath becomes prime ‘bumping’ territory for spontaneous interactions – far more so than if the shops were all spread out, or all in one big mall with off-street parking.
With all the new housing developments underway in Auckland and across the country, I’ve been thinking a lot about how brand new developments can produce optimal conditions for such community interactions to take root and start growing the all-important neighbourhood reputation that becomes self-perpetuating.
We can’t manufacture awkward geography, but we can certainly design places with the aim to encourage spontaneous interactions and ‘bumping spaces’. Communal parking areas rather than individual garages, public spaces in high-trafficked areas, play areas for kids near seating and amenities (shops, cafes) for adults, and other easy things.
In addition to the ‘hard’ infrastructure design, there’s the ‘soft’ organisation design; what if your body corporate or tenants association was responsible for programming a courtyard space, even with a statutory requirement to have a minimum number of free public events there over the course of a year?
Even in the absence of thoughtful human-oriented design, we can do things as residents to maximise the opportunities for community interaction.
One of the best things is sharing, and creating frameworks for sharing. In one old neighbourhood, seven of us (renters) went in together to get one lawnmower. It lived in Matt’s shed, with a combination lock, and we could all use it as needed. We all saved money and space, and forged a unique alliance. We each gave a bit of cash to Matt, and he kept the mower sharp and fuelled. Occasionally it was a little inconvenient, pushing the mower a block along the street or having to wait an hour on a Saturday for someone else to finish using it, but those inconvenient moments were often precisely when we met a new neighbour, or got invited in for a cup of tea. And that’s where the real value lies.
Reading back over it, this feels like a pretty underwhelming piece of writing. I’m trying to be ok with that, because I think what I’m learning is the value of really simple insignificant actions. I’m not against big schemes and grand solutions, but that stuff only works if it’s in service of the small, everyday interactions that is the stuff of community.