The importance of being neighbourly

This piece appeared in The Press in 2009.


I was heading back from a great day in the hills on a recent winter’s Saturday evening and decided to hit the Springfield pub for a beer and a feed.  It was a rugby test night and walking through the rows of utes and stepping past the line-up of muddied gumboots it was clear the place was packed out.  "Crikey, rugby hasn’t lost its appeal around here," I thought.

We found a corner to nurse a jug of Monteiths and began the long wait for the kitchen to get to our order.  A baby was being passed around the crowd at one leaner, kids sitting down to eat, grandparents sharing anecdotes, chums getting red-faced and merry.  C4 was on the big screen and we were enjoying the laid back tango grooves of the Gotan Project when someone grabbed the remote and switched over to TV1.  Clearly the weather forecast is the must-watch in the hinterland.  I figured we’d be switched over to the rugby build-up when the weather finished, but the true enormity of what was going on soon dawned.  As the opening chords of the Country Calendar theme sounded forth, a focussed intensity settled over the crowd.  "Oh my, is this for real?" I wondered.

Sure enough, I was in Springfield watching Country Calendar on the big screen with about a hundred transfixed viewers.  The reason soon became clear.  The Country Calendar subject was the Mt White Station muster, featuring a family whose kids go to school in Springfield.  The laughter of recognition surged around the crowd as familiar faces came across the screen.

It was one of those community events that you only get in a country town.  Where a local’s brief moment of fame is something to be shared and savoured.  My climbing mate and I felt awash in a sea of warmth and hospitality.

As we headed home I reflected on the experience. Having spent much time living in country towns over the last three decades, I was familiar with the pride and common interest that binds these small communities. As an urban dweller, I wondered about the distance that separates me from my neighbours.

Once upon a time, we welcomed new neighbours with soup and scones, taking shared responsibility for the burdensome chore of shifting house and welcoming new souls into our neighbourhood fabric. Over the last 40 years, that ethos has changed so substantially that bewilderment and shyness were the most common reactions as I made myself known to my new inner city neighbours a couple of years ago.

That great barometer of public attitudes, advertising, confirms the phenomenon of this growing distance from our neighbours. It appears from a recent advertising campaign aimed at those of us who grew up in the seventies and before, that there are two nostalgic memories that bind us; knowing our neighbours and drinking coffee made from soluble powder.

In these days of the shrinking globe, where we know our barista better than our neighbours, where we Facebook our school friends in London more frequently than we greet a passerby at our gate, what role is there for our physical neighbourhood?

I wonder if I have recently seen some clues to the answer to that question. One night a few weeks ago a stolen car was set alight outside my house. The next morning I inspected the damage for a few minutes, stove-top espresso in hand. A young mum from a couple of doors down gave a wave and wandered over for a chat. The grandmother from across the road detoured from her letterbox to say hello. We shared the experience of a disrupted night and the mild shock of such anti-social behaviour at our doorsteps.

More recently a next-door neighbour phoned. She had been burgled in the middle of the afternoon while she was at work. Searching for clues and answers and assuaging her fears, she was touching base with her neighbours. We had a good old natter, finding out who knew who and confirming that no one had seen the burglars in action.

Despite the negative triggers, both experiences made me feel more grounded and at home in my neighbourhood. I felt that others would be watching out for me and caring a little about how I was getting on.

A recent radio interview with Australian David Engwicht, a proponent of fostering community to calm urban traffic, gave more food for thought. Engwicht claims that rather than narrowing streets and building speed bumps, the solution to traffic danger is to reclaim our streets.

This is a view that has great resonance in the age of the boy racer. Engwicht suggests that when we reject fear and treat our street as an extension of our home, perhaps even having dinner publicly visible in our driveways, that a welling sense of community slows traffic and makes us all safer.

Boy racers will always tend to drive faster (and louder) than average, but everyone slows down a little when they see neighbours having a conversation, kids playing with a ball, or… a family eating dinner in their driveway.

In Springfield, Oxford and Methven, people are neighbours first and foremost. In small communities lives intertwine and everyone knows someone who knows someone else. In Christchurch we will always be a city, we will always run the risk of social dislocation as unfamiliar faces speed by. But David Engwicht and the Springfield pub provide inspiration for our neighbourhoods. Gardening the verge and saying hello to passersby. Making an effort to give a cherry wave to the neighbours and swapping phone numbers for emergencies. Maybe a shared street barbeque for the households in your block. Each little step provides the opportunity to build a sense of neighbourhood that protects us and makes us feel welcome in our street.

My neighbours don’t know it yet, but come spring, they are all invited to a barbeque out on the footpath in our street. I look forward to reintroducing myself to familiar faces and making some new acquaintances. I hope I have inspired you to think about your neighbourhood too.


And yes, we had the barbeque that spring of 2009 and made a whole new bunch of neighbourhood connections.