Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Neighbourhood groups ~ strategies for healthy communities

You can choose your home but not usually your neighbours, so it's fortunate that most people are pleasant.  Knowing the neighbours is an important part of our sense of belonging and security.  If we know our neighbours we can derive support and companionship from each other as well as helping each other out in practical ways.  It also means that we are likely to be able to settle any differences that arise in a more straightforward manner than if we didn't know them at all.  I also find that I'm more tolerant of people that I know than of people that I don't know: I know I can sort things out with them if I need to.

Where we live at present our neighbours are mostly friendly, one might even say unusually so: within a week of our arrival I knew the names of the people living in the nearest six households and have since meet quite a few others.  When I'm working in the garden I often chat with whoever else is outside, exchanging news and views.  The sharing of vegetables, plants, and the lending and borrowing of one thing and another is also commonplace.  I like all that and appreciate the goodwill that flows with it.

Neighbourhood and street groups:
In some neighbourhoods this communication and sharing has been taken to another level again: I was delighted to read about the Condell Community in Christchurch, in this article "On-line list puts street in touch" published in The Press (15th May 2010).  They are a street group which is organised not only to help people to get to know each other, but which also utilizes an internet-based website to enable people to easily be contact with each other, often over practical matters such as the sharing of surpluses and resources.  Not surprisingly, they have also found that a united approach to any local problems has been very effective.  Local resident, John Veitch, provided the leadership and vision which got the group going. 

In the later article, "Going local on the web" also published in The Press (24th August 2010) the topic of on-line street communities is discussed further: at that time three  were identified in the Christchurch area and information is given about how to set up a free website for that purpose.  John Veitch emphasises that such communities take time and effort to get established.  I think this is how it should be: communities don't just happen: they are built  by individuals reaching out to each other; familiarity and trust accrue gradually over time. 

Neighbourhood support groups with their focus on neighbourhood security, in which everyone must have a vested interest, are probably a good way to start: we all want to live in safe streets.  In these schemes neighbours look out for each others security, noting any unusual or suspicious comings and goings.  Such groups have achieved notable success in the reduction of burglaries and other local crimes.

I would very much like to participate in such a scheme, but I'd need to know that I could count on the support and commitment of those in other households to go the distance with me.  In the past I've too often been left doing hard work of a leadership nature pretty much alone when I've continued to persevere with aspects which have turned out to be difficult and sometimes unpleasant.  This has meant that undertakings that should have been supportive have ended up undermining me.

Strength in diversity:
Although I have often wanted simply to move away from disturbing influences I am not in favour of isolationist communities.  I don't see that as the answer.  No matter how ideal ones setting there are always issues which crop up which need to be addressed and which can be unpleasant; we're all human.  And there are benefits from living in communities which are a mixture of this and that, in which one is obliged to accept a measure of give and take.  Strength is much more likely to arise from diversity than through a monoculture - if good sense and sound leadership prevail!

Intentional communities:
A concept that does interest me very much is the idea of 'intentional communities', such as Earthsong in Auckland, and the Community Land Trust Project near Wairoa.  These are two I know of in a New Zealand context.  Most communities consist of multiple independent households of people living very scattered lives, with scant involvement in achieving collective good, where commitment to 'saving the planet' (of all foolish expressions) is likely to be limited to whether or not to put a plastic bottle in the rubbish bound for the landfill or into a recycling bin.  This just isn't enough for me.  It's only through collective commitment and action that anything meaningful is going to be achieved.  

To share in the creation and development of a community with a goal of living in a more wholesome way seems an excellent idea!  If anyone knows of one in the south of the South Island, let me know!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Neighbourhood woes ~ rumbling, grumbling and seeking solutions

In the article "MP swaps politics for community action" published in the ODT (19th November 2010), John Battle, former MP in the UK, talks about working in his community.  He says:
"The tensions and conflicts of the whole world are in your neighbourhood now. Instead of going down to London to sort things out, I might have to sort them out in my own neighbourhood. So I'm more passionate [now] about community action as a means of reconciling tensions and developing more human ways of living."
Touché!  I wish I'd attended the talk he gave when he was here - there is so much to learn about this sort of thing.  There are no easy answers. 

Most people are pleasant and fairly easy to get on with.  When things get uncomfortable considerably more skill is required.  In my experience difficulties with neighbours most often come from households whose behaviour is noisy, inconsiderate, and in some instances argumentative.  In the latter instance, people who scrap with each other often have chaotic lives the effect of which can spill over onto neighbours when rows occur.  Excessive, noisy comings and goings can also be disturbing.

There are times when I find myself wishing that these households would go and live somewhere else, but that doesn't solve the problem - it just moves it around.  Although I know this perfectly well sometimes it has felt as if it's going to end up being them or me - moving house, but actually, why should I?  I have a history of making strong constructive contributions to the group of homes where we live whereas troublesome residents contribute only their discord.  What to do?  We all have to live somewhere.  

While I prefer to address problems myself in a more direct one-to-one manner rather than resorting to higher authorities it's not always wise or effective to do so.  This is where the rules we have in the form of local by-laws as well as ordinary laws provide the structure which makes it clear what is and what is not acceptable.  They also provide avenues for action when needed: noise control and animal control, (usually the domain of the local council), the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and even the police can be called on.  I've had dealings with them all at different times with varying degrees of success. On the whole the outcomes have been good in the short term although the overall situations haven't necessarily altered all that much.  Sometimes they have, but not always. 

In New Zealand such complaints are kept private between those raising concerns and the enforcement agency, which is helpful and I think appropriate.  Most of us live at fairly close quarters to each other, and if one household is creating a disturbance it's likely to be affecting a whole group of neighbouring households.  Pitting one household against another is never going to be helpful.  Publicly decided guidelines can be applied in an impartial manner  which is much better.

The standard rental agreements which are mandatory in this country contain a condition that tenants have a legal obligation not to annoy the neighbours, and those who do cause a chronic disturbance can be evicted for this reason, but it's much preferable that households manage to  co-exist relatively comfortably alongside each other. 

Regardless of whether those creating disturbances live in rental of other accommodation they can benefit from learning to consider others: it is not at lot to ask or at all difficult.

The high mobility of the New Zealand population means that households come and go, and that one problem which has patiently been settled down may be replaced by new ones as other people move into the area.  The degree to which existing residents collectively set the tone and extend friendliness is likely to be a positive influence on newcomers.  

Family violence and abuse:
The most difficult situation I've been in regarding neighbours has been witnessing on-going family violence and strife.  It's very upsetting, and so it should be, but what can be done about it?  When domestic violence results in tragedy news reports often relate that the neighbours were 'surprised' or 'not surprised'.  I wonder who actually attempted to do anything to remedy the situation.  I hope that the present campaign "Family violence: it's not okay" is making a lot of people stop and think.  Violence can take the form of physical assault or verbal abuse. Neglect of dependant children, animals and pets is also a form of abuse and an indicator of household dysfunction - and probably often, of ignorance.

What I witnessed in that neighbouring household over an extended period of time prompted me to call the police to ask advice.  I was particularly concerned for the children.  Having expressed my concern I was asked to phone back when the violent activity was actually occurring.  I did so and a police officer was despatched immediately.  Although the situation had cooled off by the time he arrived he did talk to those involved and that household became much quieter as a result.

Although I had no way of knowing more than I could witness from my own home it was a start, and my conscience was then clear that I'd done what I could to voice my concern.  Hopefully those in more direct contact with those people also voiced their concern.

Probably more help with running the household could have eased the load and perhaps reduced tension, but having witnessed what I had I didn't feel safe offering any kind of friendliness.  Unsolicited friendliness of this sort can lead to all sorts of difficulties which don't help the underlying situation at all.  If you know people it's different.

This is where programmes such as the buddy programme can provide safe structures through which a measure of assistance can be provided.   In this scheme adults spend a small but regular amount of time with children from needy backgrounds giving them quality attention and sharing small scale activities such as one might expect to enjoy with a member of the extended family. 
Buddy programme - Otago - Presbyterian Support Services
Buddy programme - Southland  Family Works, a Presbyterian Support Services initiative
I've previously mentioned these programmes in my article Prisoners are people too ~ families in limbo

In the advertising champaign about family violence we see repeated examples of individuals speaking to those in difficulties asking them if they are okay, not only offering support but also firmly expressing concern about dangerous or damaging behaviour.  I agree: family violence is not okay.  Difficulties are best addressed when we are calm and clear about what we want to communicate rather than when we are angry and upset.   Mediation or intervention by those not directly involved can also be helpful.

Weighing up the odds:
Even in well-adjusted neighbourhoods there will always be problems that crop up from time to time, which need sorting out, problems we would rather not have to deal with.  Street groups and neighbourhood support groups provide good ways for residents to get to know each other as well as providing a framework for  problem-solving.  On-going mutual support within any such group is vital.  I outline more detail about a range of these groups in the following article, Neighbourhood groups ~ strategies for healthy communities

Saturday, 8 January 2011

"Dust if you must"

This morning I dismantled my Christmas tree and decorations, carefully storing them for next time.  I have enjoyed the pretty gold balls and tassels against the greenery but the season has passed and it's time to get on with the new year. 

Once these were removed the room looked dull and I could see it needed a good clean - dust and detritus were everywhere.  Although I like to see the place looking as it should I don't enjoy dusting and will do almost anything else to avoid getting on with it.  Knowing of this reluctance my mother thoughtfully included this poem with her Christmas card:
Dust if you must but wouldn't it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there's not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world's out there
With the sun in your eyes and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind
Old age will come and it's not kind
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.
Author unknown
Well thank you, Author Unknown: finding that again in Mum's card cheered me up about it, and now the sitting room is once more clean and welcoming and everything is where it should be.

Readers who enjoy this article may also enjoy my other article: