3 Reasons Why We Don’t Know Our Neighbors, According to an Urban Planner

3 Reasons Why We Don’t Know Our Neighbors, According to an Urban Planner

I grew up in a suburban neighborhood of Atlanta and always found it odd that we waved at our neighbors but rarely knew them. I suspected it was a symptom of the suburbs. But that wasn’t entirely the case; in fact, only 26 percent of Americans say they really know their neighbors. I’ve always wondered — why is that?

I sat down with my husband Jordan, an urban planner (with an urban planning podcast!), for his thoughts on why most of us don’t know our neighbors and what we can do about it.

Most destinations (and people) are not within walking distance.

I tend to feel more connected to a city when I can be independent of a car. I always thought my sense of community from walking was more of a personal preference, but it turns out that living in places that encourage us to walk helps us build trust with one another.

As sociology professor Rebecca Adams has noted, there are a few key conditions necessary for developing friendships: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions, and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down.” This can come from seeing the same people at your favorite bar or learning the name of the crossing guard as you drop your kids off at school. When we can regularly walk to things, we allow for organic relationships to occur.

Jordan points to two developments from the previous century that play a big role. “In the 1920s, you had both the automobile and the first single-use zoning codes.” Separating “land uses” such as residential, commercial, and industrial had understandable beginnings but ultimately “served to remove much of the texture from our neighborhoods,” he says. “Combine that with decisions to mandate more space for cars, and you end up with people and destinations spread ever further apart.”

Our homes and neighborhoods aren’t designed to encourage neighborly interactions.

I remember my first apartment after college. I was living in a complex that likely housed some 300 young professionals. I had fantasies of making friends with people “just down the hall.” I never made friends with a single person in my building.

“It may sound quaint, but the front porch or stoop serves the important purpose of putting us in touch with our neighbors — especially in a way that lets us put our guard down. Of course, context also matters: we’ll want to spend more time along streets that are comfortably narrow and low-speed, and we’ll encounter more people walking if there are plenty of accessible destinations for us to walk to. If you’re required to leave your neighborhood to get to everything from work or school to shopping and entertainment, and everything requires a car to get to, that leaves very little time or opportunity for developing relationships with your neighbors.”

We prioritize the car over the person.

It’s also difficult to ignore the impact of cars on the places we call home. Cars did not have to become the central focus of how our cities were planned, but decades of design standards have made car use the default. Jordan notes, “[This evolution] has not been good for human relationships. It has been good for the automobile industry and related industries. […] We can’t design places for maximum car comfort and expect them to function well as places for human interaction.”

He shares that cities can start by removing driving incentives such as parking minimums and allowing denser development and mixing of uses. We can also start changing design standards to create slower streets that prioritize people rather than vehicles. “If readers are interested in going deeper on the human impact of our development decisions, as well as what we can start doing as individuals and local governments in response, a great place to start would be Strong Towns.”

My Childhood Was Filled With Block Parties — and I Can’t Wait for Them to Return

My Childhood Was Filled With Block Parties — and I Can’t Wait for Them to Return

Hot dogs and burgers abounding. Music blasting. Young and old alike smiling and enjoying the ambiance. This is what I think of when I think of the block parties of my childhood in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 30 minutes outside Washington, D.C. The parties, which were held at the central park in my neighborhood, could be heard from every street, as they were meant to attract everyone who lived nearby. Residents would turn out in droves for them. I played on moon bounces and ate hot dogs to my heart’s content.

Neighborhood block parties have a unique power to them — like other forms of community, they move culture forward. Though neighbors have always gathered to celebrate communal wins, block parties as we know them today in America began in the middle of the 20th century, the New York Times notes. According to Genius, some savvy DJs harnessed their power in the 1980s: DJ Kool Herc was at the forefront of a series of events in the Bronx that quickly grew the event in size and popularity, as people recognized the fun and release that could be found in them. Among other things, block parties served as an early gestational space for both hip-hop and breakdancing, and these art forms persisted and proliferated into the 1990s and 2000s. 

I remember passing by block parties hosted in my neighborhood during middle school summers — the joy and laughter that bloomed there. Yet as the years went on, it seemed like I saw fewer and fewer of them, as people moved more and more of their lives online. Or maybe it was that I was no longer outside as often myself: I found myself stuck reading physics textbooks with no breaks spent with neighbors. My friends and I would mainly engage socially via text messages, and of course see each other in person in the classroom, but not much anywhere else. Life became heavier.

Yet now, in my adulthood, after over a year of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, I understand the importance of coming together once more. To laugh, and share, and bond with the people whose lives are happening simultaneously to mine, just a few units, houses, or buildings away. Things are still uncertain, but I have a strong feeling that in the not-too-distant future, there will be the perfect opportunity for block parties to bounce back.

In a 2015 report by digital think tank City Observatory, 30 percent of respondents said they had no interaction with their neighbors. It was part of a continuing trend: An earlier survey by Pew Research Center found that a third of Americans didn’t know their neighbors’ names. Perhaps the economic fallout of the pandemic will change this: Over the past year, I saw the resurgence of mutual aid groups and community fridges. They’re proof that people are investing into their neighborhoods with vigor, and that coming together works and is wanted — that perhaps people didn’t realize what they were missing in the past 10-plus years, until it was almost too late. 

As Psychology Today noted last year, several studies over the course of decades have documented the positive effect knowing your neighbors has on your well-being, in ways that relationships with family members cannot. Part of that has to do with location: “While friendships are based on commonalities and mutual affection, neighboring at its core is an instrumental relationship that is catalyzed by proximity,” Elyakim Kislev, Ph.D., wrote. 

The pandemic disrupted that proximity in a major way — suddenly, everything outside your immediate front door could pose a risk. Living three houses down from someone could feel as distant as living across the country from them. All the precautions people took to limit the spread of the virus distanced them from their loved ones and community alike.

As restrictions have slowly eased and been lifted in a world with a COVID-19 vaccine, people are once again finding community — often in a much different landscape. Some neighbors may have moved, and others may have taken their place. Others may still be wary of one another, or unsure how to reach out to begin with. You can join community groups on social media, or offer up gently-used belongings or baked goods on No-Buy groups, but there is something to be said about the immediate joy of a block party — a crash course in getting to know your neighbors and celebrating your community in one go.

In-person interactions aren’t nearly as convenient as just going on your phone — and for the time being, they may still be less physically safe — but seeing and knowing people in person improves mental health outcomes as well. And while it may take a while before many people feel secure in heading outside and being around others, the simple act of coming together may eventually help people as they heal from the trauma the pandemic forced us all to go through.

According to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children may have experienced poor mental health outcomes throughout the pandemic, partially due to a lack of social contact. The block parties I remember that had children like me laughing and playing together under the watchful supervision of community felt like a symbol of people looking out for the collective and the most vulnerable. It’s a feeling I want to tap into now as much as ever, especially after experiencing what the world is like when that community care is difficult to access, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

No one can control whether the sun will shine on the day of their block party, but after a year of stay-at-home orders, I don’t want to waste a single opportunity to experience fresh air and in-person contact with others, if it feels safe to do so. I’ve been in more Zoom meetings than I can count in place of in-person commencement ceremonies, birthday parties, and dance classes, to name a few events. I’m tired of experiencing the world through a screen — I want to depend on all five natural senses again as I smell cheeseburgers on the grill and taste that first juicy bite, hear kids giggle and shout as I watch them jump in a bouncy house, and feel the sun warming my skin. 

Rachel N-Blair

Contributor

A recent alumna of the University of Maryland, College Park, Rachel is a woman with a faith-filled voice working to galvanize all through encouraging critical thinking and empathy. Rachel can be found regularly posting commentary in both short and long-form to her audiences in real time.

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Here’s How to Make Your Own Community Call List — and How to Use It

Here’s How to Make Your Own Community Call List — and How to Use It

Growing up, you may have learned to call the police using 911 for any and every emergency, and for good reason: It’s easy to memorize, and it can be a convenient way to seek help in times of crisis and need. But as activists and allies nationwide are regularly pointing out, there are plenty of high-quality crisis support alternatives for situations that don’t require police presence. 

People’s collective awareness for alternative crisis response programs is only growing, especially after last year’s long overdue reckoning with anti-Black police brutality. In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, Mallory Sepler-King saw crisis resources circulating on social media that circumnavigate the need for police, given that police often lack the proper training to respond to mental health crises and other emergency situations. (The risks of police involvement compound for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, who already face higher rates of violence and death at the hands of police than their white counterparts.)

A lawyer specializing in employment and civil rights law, she tried to find a larger resource that might serve as a database for anyone who wanted it. “I thought it would be very good if those [resources] were all centralized in one place so that they were easier to find,” she told Apartment Therapy. With the help of friends and volunteers, she began assembling Don’t Call The Police, a website that serves as a database for police alternative resources in cities across the United States and Canada and presently lists resources for nearly 100 cities. 

The model for many of these programs is CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping People Out On The Streets in Eugene, Oregon. The program has provided 24/7 mobile crisis support for those who call 911 for a substance or mental health-related incident since 1970. Though funded in part through the Eugene Police Department, CAHOOTS arrives on the scene with a trained medic and outreach worker instead of police officers to de-escalate the situation peacefully and provide resources. Earlier this year, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) included federal money for CAHOOTS-type programming in the COVID-19 relief package, which could signal the start of efforts towards a nationwide police alternative program. 

New York City is currently test-driving a similar program called B-HEARD (the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division) to respond to emergency mental health calls in portions of Harlem, which has among the highest volume of 911 calls in the city. As of last month, the program has responded to about 110 calls, and has only had to call for NYPD backup on seven occasions. These and other trauma-informed crisis response programs are helping to imagine a world in which the police are not the one and only source for emergency help, and where trained experts provide humane care to those in crisis. 

Both of these programs use the 911 service, but other groups are individually run. It can be challenging to know who to contact when you see someone in need in your community, but don’t want to potentially escalate the situation with police presence. Sepler-King has spent hours researching, compiling, and vetting the organizations listed on Don’t Call The Police, and the site is a great place to start looking. But if no such resources exist for your city, here’s how to compile a call list of your own that you can distribute in your community. 

Essential Resources to Include

It’s impossible to produce a standardized nationwide or even statewide list of resources, which will necessarily vary from place to place — but there are certain types of resources that everyone should include. 

When making your own call sheet, prioritize or make note of which services offer assistance in a crisis, and which are better suited to assist with non-emergent needs. For example, a free pop-up or mobile healthcare clinic probably isn’t set up to respond to an emergency medical situation, but could potentially address an ongoing medical condition or provide a checkup. Sepler-King recommends thoroughly vetting each and every resource you include by calling them personally to verify what services they provide, making sure you have the correct contact information, and in what situations they may be obligated to involve law enforcement. 

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and depending on what resources your city, county, or state has to offer, some may overlap. There should be at least one organization on your call sheet that supports each of the following sectors (in no particular order):

Get Specific for Your Area

Of course, your area will have unique issues that can’t be addressed on a generalized list. This is where local knowledge comes in handy: Start with your personal experiences, and connect with your local representatives in government, activists, political groups, and community members to find out what needs should be represented on your call list. 

Keep in mind the specific cultural needs of your city, and what languages may need to be represented on your list. For example, Portland, Oregon, the closest major city to me, has a large community of Russian immigrants. When compiling a list of police alternatives for that city, I would be sure to include organizations that operate in Russian or that can assist with issues regarding immigration from Russia. 

National Resources to Keep on Hand

It’s likely that not every city, county, or state will have resources that address every single issue on this list. Here are some national hotlines that can’t offer local crisis support on the ground, but which offer support and may be able to connect you with local resources. Again, this list is non-comprehensive, but a good place to start filling in the blanks. 

It’s important to ensure the safety of yourself and the person you’re trying to help, particularly for sensitive and complex situations such as domestic violence. If the option is safe and available to you, check in with the person you’re assisting before you make the call to confirm whether they need or want assistance. 

As Sepler-King notes, some organizations may be obligated to involve law enforcement in certain situations, like where minors are involved or if there is imminent risk of violence. “It’s an almost universal fact that these organizations will call law enforcement in if they believe there’s an immediate risk of violence or harm to the caller or somebody else, and so we do indicate that on every one of our pages,” she said. Make sure to note this on your list as a reminder to yourself and those who have access to it.

Once your list is complete, it can be beneficial to make it available to your community. You can start by connecting with community fridges and grassroots organizations, and offering to share your list for them to both fact-check and use as they see fit. 

Don’t Call The Police is also always expanding their database and Sepler-King welcomes volunteers and submissions, even if they’re for a city not yet represented on the site. “We’re happy to add anyone regardless of the size. If we have one good resource in an area we will put it up,” she said. “Ultimately the intention is to have this serve everyone.”

Olivia Bowman

Commerce Editorial Intern

Olivia is an editorial intern on the commerce team at Apartment Therapy. When she’s not writing, she’s probably re-watching The West Wing, reading her horoscope, or researching skincare products. She is a proud University of Oregon alumna and firmly believes that seltzer water is part of a balanced diet.

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6 Easy, Important Ways to Help Neighbors in Your Community During a Heat Wave

6 Easy, Important Ways to Help Neighbors in Your Community During a Heat Wave

For those who have the resources to stay cool, a heat wave is an inconvenience, albeit a serious one. But they present particular issues for marginalized communities — and those problems are only worsening in scope.

These heat waves presented many challenges to the regions — and the Pacific Northwest, which typically experiences relatively mild summers and doesn’t have the infrastructure to support such high temperatures, was no exception. Oregon has among the highest rates of houselessness in the United States, behind only California, Hawaii, and New York; of those Oregonians, 61 percent are unsheltered. Without reliable shelter, they cannot seek refuge from scorching temperatures. 

Even people in their homes are still at risk: The elderly are especially susceptible to heat-related illness, and those who lack the funds to invest in air conditioning or fans are also in danger of overheating. Organizations like Rose Haven, a Portland day shelter serving women, children, and people of other marginalized gender identities, did their best to educate and prepare guests last month when the heat descended upon the Pacific Northwest. But making sure your neighbors have what they need to survive a heat wave takes a village.

Obviously, serious legislative action is needed in the long term, but heat waves and other natural disasters present an urgent need in vulnerable communities. So, what can be done on an individual level — especially given that Oregon wasn’t the only place experiencing extreme heat in late June, and it certainly won’t be the last? Here are six action items that anyone can take to support their community during a heat wave.

Get to know your neighbors, and especially your houseless ones.

Helping your community starts with knowing your community, whether that’s the neighbor down the hall or anyone in your area who is houseless. Engaging with the neighbors in your area gives you a better idea of the resources they actually need to survive, and makes them feel less isolated. “When you are going through a hard time, and especially if you are experiencing homelessness, there’s an element of invisibility and stigma that comes with that,” Liz Starke, the development director at Rose Haven, told Apartment Therapy.

Of course, it’s important to respect people’s boundaries and not intrude into their personal space. That goes double for houseless people, who often do not have the luxury of privacy — walking into their space uninvited is no different than a stranger walking into your home. But if you see someone and it feels appropriate, strike up a conversation with them. Ask them their name, how they are, or if there’s anything they need. 

Familiarize yourself with local resources, whether or not you personally need them.

During previous heat waves, many public spaces across the country were converted into temporary cooling centers for unsheltered people and people without AC to seek relief. Sharing that kind of information with those around you could be the difference between life and death — sometimes that’s as simple as signal-boosting a flyer on Instagram Stories. 

Beyond temporary heat-related resources, familiarize yourself with local food banks, shelters, advocacy organizations, and mutual aid programs — you can donate money, time, or services if you feel particularly driven (more on that later.) Overnight shelters offer a place to sleep, but Starke noted that because of current social distancing requirements, many are full, with long waitlists. It’s also worth familiarizing yourself with organizations in your area that can connect people with a social and legal safety net, in addition to heat relief. 

Inform people about incoming heat waves and related risks.

It can be all too easy to take weather alerts for granted — and if you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you also have access to a device that lets you know about the upcoming weather forecast. Not everyone has that luxury, and Starke notes that in June, many people were unaware of expected temperatures and free cooling centers because of limited internet access. “The people we serve didn’t necessarily know what was coming,” she said. “They don’t watch the news, and they only have access to the media when they charge their phones here. That was really a big part of what we were doing was distributing that information.” As a result, Rose Haven distributed fliers and made extra efforts to inform guests of weather conditions, as well as what to look out for when it comes to heat-related illnesses.

Taking similar steps in your area can be lifesaving. Local governments and organizations may already have distributable information sheets that you can print and hand out, but if you can’t find these types of resources, verbally inform folks in your neighborhood. Informing them can start with a sidewalk or elevator conversation: “Have you heard about the weather forecast?” or “Do you need anything for the heat wave?” In an apartment building, you can knock on neighbors’ doors to check on them, and direct them to local resources or medical attention if necessary. It can be awkward to start these conversations with people you don’t know well, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Educate yourself on symptoms of heat-related illness.

In some cases, extreme weather temperatures can lead to serious illness or even death. Oregon officials reported at least 79 deaths as a result of the June heat wave, though it’s hard to calculate exactly how many people were hospitalized or killed as a result of extreme heat because of the range of symptoms heat-related illness can present. 

According to Dr. Brandon Maughan, an assistant medical director at Oregon Health and Science University’s (OHSU) emergency department, heat exhaustion and heatstroke are the two main illnesses to watch for, and there are key differences between the two. “Heat exhaustion describes some of the early signs and symptoms of significant heat-related illness. Think of these as the body’s warning signs that it is failing to cool itself and that your core (internal) temperature is rising,” he said. “Heat stroke is a medical emergency characterized by altered mental status or behavior in the setting of extreme heat,” and requires urgent medical assistance.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, a fast and weak pulse, headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps or weakness, and lightheadedness or dizziness; it can often be treated by getting out of the heat (or at least direct sunlight), drinking water and applying cool compresses. If symptoms of heat exhaustion last longer than an hour, or if someone is vomiting, confused, or agitated; experiencing slurred speech or seizures; or is unresponsive, seek emergency medical care immediately, Dr. Maughan said. Children and older adults are most susceptible to heat-related illness, so keep a close eye on these community members particularly, and encourage people to look out for one another.

Collect and hand out supplies, or donate to an organization that can.

Whatever you’re using at home to keep cool, your neighbors could probably use too. During the June heat wave in Oregon, Rose Haven distributed water bottles, cool towels, sunscreen, and popsicles to people experiencing houselessness; these and other supplies like hats, breathable clothing, umbrellas, and cold snacks are great to have on hand for some immediate relief.

Keep extra public transit passes in your wallet to hand out as well, if you can; Starke noted that air conditioned buses and trains may be a houseless person’s only access to AC on a hot day. Mutual aid groups in your area, like a community fridge program, may already be collecting and distributing resources if you’d like to consolidate efforts or can’t brave the heat yourself. My local organization is Portland Free Fridge, but there is likely one in your area — reach out through Instagram to find out how to best direct your money and supplies their way. 

Make it a habit to donate your time, money, and/or resources.

Everyone has the ability to help in some way, so choose what works best for you, whether that is time, money, resources, or a combination of these. Many organizations update their website and social media with urgent needs and requests, so following along online is often an easy way to stay in the loop. Rose Haven, for example, is currently fundraising for a move to a new space and upgrades to their facility.

Whatever capacity you choose, remember that your neighbors don’t just need help during heat waves. With many pandemic-related government assistance programs ending, there will be an urgent need for support long after the heat subsides. “We know that a lot of people were displaced because of COVID,” Starke said. “We are bracing ourselves because the eviction moratorium is coming to an end as well as the unemployment bonuses. So we’re about to see a whole new wave of people losing their housing. We just know more people are going to be needing our help.” Making a regular habit of supporting your community and the organizations that serve them is an investment in its future.

Olivia Bowman

Commerce Editorial Intern

Olivia is an editorial intern on the commerce team at Apartment Therapy. When she’s not writing, she’s probably re-watching The West Wing, reading her horoscope, or researching skincare products. She is a proud University of Oregon alumna and firmly believes that seltzer water is part of a balanced diet.

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Neighborhoods Still Don’t Feel “Normal,” How Can You Decide to Move?

Neighborhoods Still Don’t Feel “Normal,” How Can You Decide to Move?

If you’re moving to a new town right now, it may be hard to envision your life there post-pandemic. For example, if you visited Seattle today, you’d notice there’s no traffic, many businesses are closed, and even the iconic Pike Place Market stands empty. It’s the polar opposite of “normal” Seattle.

Scoping out a new neighborhood these days might not give you the most accurate feel for what it’s like to live in the area long-term. You can still plan a successful move, though. Just use the tips below to get a solid idea of a neighborhood’s new normal before you sign a lease.

Look up photos and videos of the neighborhood from 2019 and earlier. 

Communities can change rapidly, so don’t go too far back in time, but do a quick search for pre-pandemic photos of the neighborhood. First, try a Google search, then check relevant tourism websites, social media groups, and online forums. Find pictures from different seasons, and if you know the neighborhood hosts events regularly, take a look at those, too. 

Peruse local online communities. 

Many neighborhoods have Reddit or Facebook pages with thorough neighborhood guides for newcomers, upcoming event listings, and general discussions about the area. Lurk in the comments sections of these, or pose a few questions of your own.

Try to find a longtime resident and ask them a few questions. Ideally, look for someone who shares at least some of your interests so that you can get the most relevant information. For example, if you’re a parent with young children, you might want to talk to a local parent about after-school activities and summer camps. 

Look into how the neighborhood has handled the pandemic.

Some changes will outlast the pandemic. Check for any new laws, business closures, or trends that will remain in place as pandemic precautions lift — and take note of the community’s vaccination rates over time. The local city council’s website is a great place to start for this kind of information.

Scope out the job market.

Will there be jobs available nearby if you need one in the future? Things are probably going smoothly if you work remotely right now, but what if you need to find new work later? Check local job boards and networking groups, and look at job growth projections like this one from Glassdoor, which shows the most recent data from various metro areas around the United States. 

Have a plan to make new friends. 

According to Nextdoor, knowing as few as six neighbors has proven health benefits like reducing the likelihood of feeling lonely, as well as lowering depression and social anxiety — all critical factors as we ride out the pandemic. So whether you’re a social butterfly or a homebody, building community within your neighborhood is essential. Is there a local book club you can join? A café within walking distance? An active neighborhood association? If not, are you willing to say hi on the sidewalk or knock on a couple of doors and introduce yourself? 

Neighborhoods may look slightly different right now, but that doesn’t mean you should put off moving. Instead, just work to shift your guideposts for identifying whether a place is right for you.