Growing up in small-town southern Alberta in the ’80s, my neighbourhood was my world. Home, school, playgrounds, parks, friends – it was all there, and aside from the occasional trip to the big city, everything that we needed we had within a few blocks' radius. As kids, we took pride in that freedom and our parents encouraged us to roam independently throughout the community, knowing that the village that surrounded us would ensure we were watched and safe.
The world has changed quite a bit since then. People move more often and our preference for driving, rather than walking, means that our community amenities can be located further away. The cost of large-scale recreation facilities means that you are lucky if one is located in your neighbourhood. The days of corner stores and neighbourhood shopping have gone, turned into box store developments and online stores. Although social media has meant that our relationships artificially seem closer, many of us have become more distant from our community than ever before.
Each of our neighbourhoods seems to have its own dedicated Facebook page, full of a mixture of things for sale, fundraisers, anonymous complaints, and humorous banter (shout out to the Northridge snow art posts). As a new community member, pages like these are invaluable to get information, answer questions or just to know what is going on. Recently, a developer from the U.S. announced the Canadian launch of an app that would allow neighbours to communicate, post questions or identify concerns, similar to Facebook, but is marketed as having more of a “home-grown feel.”
Technology is great and has many practical uses, but does it really help us build a stronger community? Our homes have become our refuge, especially needed in a world where tuning into news means another reminder of the extremely scary (and rare) horrors that lurk in our modern world. Sadly, It feels easier and safer to build a private playground in a backyard than it is to let kids walk to a local park.
My personal experience has been that I usually engage with my neighbours twice a year. First is Halloween when I feel like my kids' hustle for candy is an acceptable excuse to walk up and introduce myself to strangers, and in early spring when we all emerge from our hibernation state, nodding at each other sympathetically as the job of yard clean-up begins. The days of coffees in kitchens, beers on decks or political chats at the end of driveways might seem like they live in the past – but like Polaroids, vinyl records and Tiger Woods, there is always room for a good comeback story.
One of the simplest ways to engage with your community is to physically get out into it. Go for a walk, bike to the market, start a road hockey game, host a block party. It can be as simple as a nod or a wave, or as much as volunteering for a community organization, but trust me, it will make a difference and it will make all our communities stronger. Right now, a good dose of kindness and a smile from a neighbour might be just what we need.
Lisa Holmes is a former Morinville mayor and councillor who lives in St. Albert.