Traditionally, our homes are our retreats, where we seek sanctuary from the outside world. They are designed to give us peace and privacy, to be a place to unwind. Sometimes though, instead of connecting us to our surrounding communities, residential buildings can sever us from them. Solitude morphs into loneliness, seclusion grows into isolation and homes become akin to hermitages. Researchers often refer to this lack of social bonding and cohesion in neighbour hoods as ‘social stress’ and stress, as we all know, can have disastrous effects on our health and well being.
Living surrounded by millions of strangers is an unnatural and unhealthy state for human beings, and many neuroscientists and environmental psychologists have started measuring the disturbing ways this phenomenon is affecting us. A new breed of architects, designers and urban planners have also started trying to address this issue in recent years, mostly in commercial buildings and public spaces.
But surely the onus for creating communities should not fall squarely on the shoulders of commercial architects and urban planners. As locals, there are many steps we too can take to build a sense of belonging. Here are our ideas…
1. Say hello
It’s one of the first words we memorise when learning a new language or travelling to a foreign country. Likewise, saying hello is usually the first step you can take to initiate any type of interpersonal connection.
A simple nod, smile, wave or greeting as you enter or leave your home can lead to conversations with people who live nearby. Conversations then become local connections. And with a little nurturing and luck, connections can grow into friendships or at least form the start of community cohesion.
2. Make your facade pet-friendly
It’s amazing what pets can get away with that people can’t. If you offered a passing stranger a sip of water they would likely bolt; but place a bowl of fresh water in front of your home or apartment block for people’s dogs, and the majority of their owners will melt at your kindness.
Shops do it and so do cafes, so if you’ve been trying to meet the locals without success, try following suit.
Tip: To help dog owners interpret the gesture, a little sign welcoming passing pups to help themselves can clarify.
3. Set up a street library
You may have noticed little street libraries popping up on people’s front fences, or even affixed to trees flanking the footpath. The idea is that you take a book to read and replace it with one you no longer need.
4. Build a bench
If you’re redesigning the facade of your house or the foyer of your apartment block and would like your home to engage more actively with your local community, consider incorporating a bench.
Seating out the front of your home can be useful for you too, if you’re waiting for a friend, a taxi or unloading the car. Many others will also appreciate the gesture, especially those who are less mobile or longing to rest their weary legs.
5. Create a friendly facade
Do you like the theory of installing a seat at the front of your property, but are not sure about it in practice? If you have a front porch or verandah, try to incorporate a seat or two there for yourself instead.
The trick here is to actually use it. This sounds obvious, but when was the last time you sat on your front steps with a cuppa or read your book in a chair near your front gate instead of simply walking past your porch then closing the front door behind you? You won’t meet the locals by staying inside.
If you live in an apartment block, at your next body corporate meeting suggest installing a bench near the stairs or lift on each level. Communal spaces in apartment blocks can also be great places to meet other residents and form community bonds.
6. Organise a street party
If you grew up in the Australian ’burbs in the 1980s, chances are you encountered a street party or have at least heard of them. The best thing about these rare gems is the way they can bind communities together. The second-best thing is that no-one needs to get their home party-ready, because street parties are usually held on the footpath or in a local park.
All it takes is a quick letterbox drop to spread the word or, better yet, try to organise a regular event such as sunset drinks the first Sunday of every month.
And finally, remember that one of the best ways to connect with your local community has less to do with your home and more to do with your own initiative. Asking those around you for help when you need it – and always returning the favour – is a great way to enhance community interaction. Going away? Ask if a local can collect your mail or water your plants. Spot a neighbour struggling to carry the shopping to their apartment? Lend a hand.
Communities include all types, so chances are there’s someone living close by who is craving a sense of connectedness and belonging just as much as you.