“Houses don’t make neighborhoods – neighbors make neighborhoods,” a friend recently told me.
She’s lived in the same house for three years and trades produce over the fence with one of her neighbors, but doesn’t know many of her other neighbors. But with the arrival of a new baby, my friend yearns for the sort of neighborhood she grew up in—where everyone looks out for each other –and is wondering how to go about building relationships with more of her neighbors.
My own neighborhood is a quirky one, a shared rental property with a dozen eclectic tenants in close quarters, two of them in a longstanding feud that’s landed one of them (briefly) in jail. My household, made up of a handful of young people who try to live simply and do our best to leave behind a livable planet for future generations, seems to be thriving amidst the chaos. But whenever I’m in the front yard tending to our unruly permaculture garden and look across the street at our neighbor’s front yard, with its few sparse pear trees in a field of barren earth—both withering from drought and persistent herbicide use—I’m reminded that we’re only as resilient as those around us.
Just 43% of Americans know most or all of their neighbors by name. This needs to change. Whether we’re trying to create a safer neighborhood for our children, grow food in our front yards, or build resilient communities that can withstand the increasing impacts of climate change, we have got to get to know the people who live around us – and more than just their names.
My suggestion is to start simple, by sharing something – cookies, flowers, or produce from the garden. Host a neighborhood potluck. Ask to borrow a tool. Share ideas on how to make your street a better place to live. Build a friendship, a relationship based on trust, and then we can start talking to our neighbors about why it’s important to sheet mulch and grow food in our front yards.
At the same time, we’ve got to be willing to respectfully embrace the conflict that might emerge. And we need to learn how to communicate and collaborate better so we can deal with those tensions.
Earlier this year I gave a presentation on permaculture, Transition, and community resilience at a sustainability conference in Chico, California, where the impacts of the drought are strikingly evident. Some of the audience members wanted to transform their lawns into drought-tolerant landscapes but were hesitant due to concern about what their neighbors might think.
When the world is burning—as Northern California literally is, right now—fear of what the neighbors might think is not a good excuse for staying inside of our houses instead of taking action and making the changes we know we so desperately need. If you need an extra boost of courage to knock on your neighbors’ door – think of your children and grandchildren, and the kind of world you’d like them to inherit. Or try out Transition Streets.
This spring, twelve neighborhoods in cities across the US –from San Diego to Missoula to Newburyport to Charlottesville—participated in a social experiment called Transition Streets. Neighbors came together for a series of 7 sessions to explore a handbook full of practical actions and tips for creating sustainable households and resilient neighborhoods. Each week neighbors focused on a different topic: energy, water, food, waste, and transportation, identifying actions they wanted to implement in their own homes and volunteering to help each other as needed.
By the final session, neighbors had fixed drafts and leaks, installed compost bins and greywater systems, swapped recipes and ideas, shared tools and skills, learned how to read their water meters and who had lived in the neighborhood the longest. But what participants most valued about their Transition Streets experience were the relationships they built with their neighbors.
In some cases, participants had lived in the same neighborhood for years without knowing each other, and by the final session of Transition Streets they not only knew each other’s names, but also their interests and skill sets, seeing each other as friends, allies, and resources in imagining and building a better place to live.
Now anyone can participate in Transition Streets by visiting transitionstreets.org, where you can download the handbook as well as tools and tips to help you reach out to your neighbors.
There’s also a crowdfunding campaign to support the national roll-out of Transition Streets happening this fall. Already more than twenty inspired neighbors across the country are planning to bring Transition Streets to their communities, and our goal is to reach 100 neighborhoods by spring.
As Transition Streets spreads, our neighborhoods and communities become more connected, fulfilling, and resilient, at the same time reducing our dependency on fossil fuels.
I feel the urgency of the times we live in, and challenge us all to take a step toward making our neighborhoods more resilient: knock on a neighbor’s door, share something, or start a Transition Streets group in your neighborhood.
And if you can, consider supporting the Transition Streets crowdfunding campaign.
For me, it’s time to go tend to that front yard garden and see which of the neighbors stops by to ask what I’m up to. Hopefully I can send them home with some of our abundant squash and a vision for a neighborhood full of front-yard gardens.