[I originally wrote this article for Strong Towns.]
We’ve flow to the Moon and split the atom. And yet, for all of humanity’s great accomplishments, in our daily lives we’re a silly bunch. We’re social creatures and yet we’ve never been more afraid of our neighbors.
Starting is always the most difficult part. I’ve been there: Standing on a stranger’s doorstep, nervously ringing the doorbell, hoping that the answer wouldn’t be hostile. But, as I’ve discovered from my early doorbell ringings at age 8, the majority of neighbors are happy to open their doors to good intentions.
Let’s say you’ve woken up and realized you want to do something about all this neighborly isolation. How do you start? It’s easy; here’s how.
Before we get into the event organizing process there’s an important preliminary step you may want to take: Find an organizing buddy. Just one other neighbor, or even a friend, for support and encouragement, to bounce ideas off, and to help with outreach, can make a world of difference.
Found your organizing buddy? Great, now let’s begin…
1. Choose your event, its location, and when it’ll happen
An event to bring your neighbors together should have 4 qualities: It should be easy to organize, accessible, fun, invite participation, and involve food. A potluck social satisfies all these qualities, so you may want to start there.
Consider organizing neighbor-oriented events outside on your street. Organizing events out on the sidewalk, which is neutral territory, often gets the most attendees and doesn’t require anyone to open up their home. Similar venues include front yards and garages. If organizing an outdoor event, identify a plan B location inside.
Set your event’s date at least two weeks ahead. Social events can be fine any day, including weekend mornings/afternoons. Serious events might be better for mid-week evenings (people might want to be outside having fun on the weekends). But really, the time and day is down to your own judgement.
2. Promote the event
Let your neighbors know about the event at least two weeks in advance. Hand deliver event notices by tucking flyers halfway under neighbors’ doormats. Typed flyers work fine, although photocopied hand-written versions (see above) are more eye-catching. For apartment buildings, tape the flyer to the front door. If you already have some neighbors’ email addresses or phone numbers, use those too.
For the most direct and effective outreach, as well as dropping off a flyer ring your neighbor’s doorbell and introduce yourself. Most people will be touched by your sincerity. If a neighbor knows your face they’re more likely to come to your event. And you can also collect an email address or phone number for updates leading up to the event.
3. Throw the event
Time to enjoy yourself. Welcome people, shake hands, introduce yourself, use people’s names (especially in the first minute of meeting them; this helps with memory retention), and show a sincere interest in getting to know your neighbors.
At the event, food and drink are crucial for keeping people around. Provide sticky name tags to help people remember each others’ names and a contact sheet so attendees can share names, emails, phone numbers, and addresses.
Lastly, talk with your neighbors about what you might do together next. Another social, a block party, or something else?
4. Keep up the momentum after the event
Using your neighbors’ contact information glean from the event, contact everybody soon after to thank them for coming and to set up next steps. The next event shouldn’t be too far into the future. The nature of that event is up to you and your neighbors to decide.
Consider setting up an email list, such as Google Groups, for your street, for ongoing communication. Actively participate in your group and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Post your own topics and reply to other people’s.
The best thing you’ve ever done?
Bringing neighbors together for the first time requires a bold step forward by just one or two people. That person could be you. If it is, you may one day look back and see it as one of the best things you’ve ever done. You’ll be a hero.
Knowing your neighbors is one of the greatest joys. I encourage you to get started. Don’t hesitate to contact me for further advice or support on reaching out to your neighbors for the first time.