Vancouver Sun by Vickie Cammack and Donna Thomson 21 September 2012
Simon Fraser University’s Public Square Community Summit (Sept. 18-23) offers a wide-ranging and compelling program that will investigate strategies to help build urban community connections, and that is a good thing. But it’s striking that nowhere in the program is talk of what is working for the majority polled who reported satisfaction with their social supports.
Three-quarters of people in Vancouver are happy with their social connectedness. Understanding the dynamics of trust and good neighbourliness that abound in our city is a powerful way to engender more of each. For anyone feeling doubtful, take a moment to reflect on our Olympic experience. Our collective task is to unleash more of it, not only by raising concerns about the 25 per cent who want more connectedness, but by shining a light on the abundance of trust and caring all around us.
Our species is hardwired for compassion, belonging and meaning. Our very survival depends on it. Our society would simply not function without high levels of trust and freely given care. And the good news is there are several global and local initiatives that are accelerating trust and engagement.
Consider Freecycle. In Vancouver, there are well over 7,000 registered users of Freecycle, an online site that connects those who wish to discard used household items with those who want them. No money is exchanged, but friendly conversations are part of the deal. Everyone on Freecycle shares a commitment to keeping city landfills free of their stuff, and when people share a commitment, they like to chat about it.
Or, perhaps some of those happy people surveyed were saving money and making new friends by couch surfing. Anyone who offers their sofa to a complete stranger must have trust, curiosity and confidence in their heart. Couch surfing is not for those who harbour feelings of fear or complacency. A recent check of CouchSurfing.Org revealed nearly 3,000 ads offering a free sofa-bed in Greater Vancouver.
And then there is Vancouver’s vibrant urban gardening scene. Downtown gardening allotments are hot properties and hotbeds of opportunity for fun and conversation. There are no locked fences surrounding the beds of ripening vegetables and gardeners report few losses from produce thieves.
Different ethnic backgrounds or abilities are not a barrier either to social engagements, especially for those under 30. Young people in this city are likely to respond to ethnic diversity or differences in abilities with a collective shrug. Their educational experience of classrooms full of peers different from themselves will have prepared them not to fear difference, a view of society that might be unthinkable for their grandparents. That open attitude helps when a new used clothing exchange starts up in a workplace, or a rooftop beekeeping operation needs volunteers.
But not everyone wants to root their social lives in helping others or participating in a community cause. The Vancouver Foundation research survey revealed a high percentage of inner city apartment dwellers who had no interest in knowing or befriending their neighbours.
Rather than assuming those people are sitting alone at home with no friends, some social scientists are devising new ways of discerning how downtown neighbourhoods are changing in contemporary cities. “Livehoods” is a research project that maps locations where people check in on social media most frequently. It’s a new way of revealing where people go and the results are surprising. A careful reading of Livehoods shows folks may not know their neighbours, but they know the servers at their local coffee shop.
Homegrown, free, collective initiatives that result in friendly conversation are part of the picture of what puts satisfaction into social life. Ad hoc, friendly encounters — those smiles and nods to strangers — have their place in helping us feel good about our place in the world, too. Sweeping cities of the world (and now in Victoria) is an urban project called Street Pianos. The idea is that a piano is placed outside, in a park or even a busy street. Anyone can sit and play. Anyone else can stop to listen, sit to play a duet, or simply walk by and recount the story of free pianos later at dinner. An urban space, previously thought of as perhaps dangerous and full of strangers with bad intentions is transformed. Citizens of a city need to feel ownership of and comfort in their own public spaces and projects like Street Pianos helps that happen.
Initiating and spreading different kinds of public spaces for us to do what comes naturally — connect and engage — is one of the ways our city council can nourish and amplify trust.
The work of the Vancouver Foundation and SFU Public Square is to be commended but let’s be sure to recognize, celebrate and accelerate the enormous trust, caring and belonging that are at the heart of our city.
Vickie Cammack is the president and CEO of Tyze Personal Networks, a social media tool designed to deliver support networks to those facing life challenges, particularly those with a disability or issues related to health and aging. She is also is the founding director of the PLAN Institute and the co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Networks. Donna Thomson is the special adviser for caregiving at Tyze Personal Networks and an instructor for family caregivers at The Advocacy School. She is the author of The Four Walls of My Freedom and is an active blogger.