Neighbourhood gifts you cannot buy on the internet

It’s a curious thing, a strange paradox. That in our towns and streets served with high tech infrastructure – email, Facebook, and infinite numbers of virtual meet-up opportunities – that many in our community are isolated, or are simply unaware, to varying degrees, of our localities’ assets.

Admittedly, during Covid, things have been changing rapidly. It’s difficult to keep up sometimes. Are we shielding or isolating, key working or furloughing, at risk of redundancy or symptomatic.
Into the limelight is the fragility of our neighbourly contacts. With no work, no cars, shops closed, we are presented with a different, slower world. The blinkers of our stress-fuelled, consumer-frenzied, information-processing world, are off.

So how much do we know about our neighbourhood? Our street? Do we know our neighbours? Where is the local hub, a space for a chat? Where geographically do you find out what’s going on?

Yes, the internet provides some useful answers – after all, there is zoom, aerobic workouts, Drs’ appointments. But we have also learned, very convincingly, that the internet does not provide sufficient solutions to our human-centred problems, and gifts, and not all generations use it.

According to the recent report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), it is the 16-29-year-olds who are the most lonely. Furthermore, it states the number of people struggling with chronic loneliness is now actually at its highest level – 8% of the total population. A University of Exeter report highlights the mental health of our children and young people, is also on the rise. The highest level is for 17-22-year-old girls – up to 27% have a mental health problem.

Finding ways to be together, to help one another, in the community is something we need more than ever. Covid, in many ways, has brought out the compassionate, caring aspects of our nature. Connection and community resilience are already being built by people’s goodwill and actions in many ways. But how can we continue to find creative, down-to-earth, ways of developing neighbourly contact within our evolving everyday lives? With winter coming, a diverse range of important needs – for the elderly and vulnerable, those we may not think may be struggling, and for ourselves – is building.

One idea we had at Wellbeing Exeter is a printed out ‘Hello Neighbour’ postcard that simply encourages you to reach out by popping in your details and then giving the postcard to your neighbours and maybe just popping them through all the doors on your road. Talking, greeting, noticing, is important. But it is also the sum total of local efforts that builds local community. It’s a cliché to say it, but a sense of belonging, of local ownership, has been eroded, with profound implication. We have found simply sharing your name and details, sharing simple ideas you have, with neighbours has really connected a lot of people and areas.

Under lockdown, we are beginning to feel that there are new ways of doing things. We are left with our immediate local patches: our quietened streets, tiny green spaces we didn’t know existed; a new set of neighbours sharing their skills; and their pets.

Another idea comes from a few community builders brainstorming about noticeboards, village-style, or about ways in which local cafes with a noticeboard, might serve as a different, more diverse, kind of focus than the internet. A patch for a chat, for residents, to hear about local developments, and to be heard. Does your street or neighbourhood have a noticeboard? Could your local café have one? Is there another local hub or project that a noticeboard could be useful for? Street libraries are a good example.

So in conclusion, as Christmas approaches, noticing our neighbourhood and its diversity, reaching out in small ways to make new things happen, and listening caringly to each other, is a really important gift- right now.

Philip Hawkins (Heavitree CB)