Remember when your mom or your grandma could walk down the block and borrow a cup of sugar from any of their neighbours?
Today, sadly, many people don’t even know their neighbours.
And that’s the reason the city’s Community Services Department is enabling a grassroots movement called the Abundant Community Initiative to work its wonders, turning urbanites into members of warm, welcoming communities, right down to the block level.
“The program makes neighbours out of strangers,” says Anne Harvey, Community Services’ coordinator on the initiative, “and it’s growing like wildfire because it’s a simple concept, and so amazingly rewarding for the people whose lives it enriches.”
The concept originated with Howard Lawrence, a Highlands resident with a community development background who had read a book that put forward the main concepts of re-growing neighbourliness in urban communities whose residents were become increasingly distant from one another.
In 2013, Howard went door-to-door on his own block, introduced himself to all his neighbours, and simply talked with them. He asked them about their vision for their neighbourhood, about their hobbies, about the way they like to spend their time, and about their skills, gifts and abilities like carpentry or gardening. He logged all of that information in a database.
Next, he used his wider Highlands contacts and found people on other blocks who were willing to do the same thing. He called those people Block Connectors.
Howard became the Neighbourhood Connector, who ties everything together, training Block Connectors and helping them use the shared database of their neighbours’ human resources to ‘put people together’ with others with whom they have something in common.
“All kinds of people discovered their neighbours were also interested in activities like gardening, walking dogs, learning yoga,” says Anne.
“Within a few weeks in Highlands, there was a new-mom’s group meeting in members’ homes so their kids could play together. They share tips and tactics about parenthood, and they often babysit for each other,” says Anne.
The Highlands pilot program was such a success that Community Services assigned Anne to help coordinate the project, and found budget to enable Howard to be a full-time facilitator with other willing neighbourhoods throughout the city.
Anne and Howard facilitate the beginnings of the program in a neighbourhood, train the Neighbourhood Connector, then back away and let the neighbourhood take it from there.
“It picks up momentum and grows organically,” says Anne. “Now it’s actively being implemented in at least 12 other neighbourhoods across the city which represent widely different demographic, income and educational backgrounds.”
Anne tells the story about a Block Connector in one neighbourhoood who introduced himself to a quiet man who lived down the block and had no interaction with any of his neighbours.
“Five days later, he called the Block Connector to say he was having a heart attack and needed help. He said he wouldn’t have known anyone else he could call if he had not met his neighbour,” says Anne.
“In another neighbourhoood, a couple who recently moved here from the UK were just blown away by the welcome they got. He’s now playing hockey with other men in the neighbourhood, and she’s in the new mom’s group.”
Anne and Howard expect to see the program quickly spread through Edmonton’s 200+neighbourhoods. They see huge potential for it to catalyze a major cultural shift in the city, breaking down the barriers that keep us from knowing one another on a more intimate, trusting basis.
Edmonton is the only city in which the Abundant Community initiative has been implemented. Several other cities in Canada and the US have contacted Howard about starting similar programs.