How to Build Community Engagement: 9 Old-Fashioned Tips for Getting to Know Your Neighbors and Your Local Community

You can create community engagement simply by getting to know your neighbors and building a network in your neighborhood.

My son Mason (on the right) with his new neighbors, eating ice cream sandwiches. (Mmmmm.)

Note from John: a different version of this article was first published at Art of Manliness.

A new family moved in next door to me a few weeks ago, but to my 3-year-old son, you would have thought it was the circus that arrived, elephants and all. My son was ecstatic.

Moving in were two parents, a dog, and more importantly, two boys right around my son’s age.

Now, every chance he gets, my son Mason bolts out our front door and runs to the neighbors’ house to play with his new friends.

I’ve spent so much time with my son hanging out at my new neighbors’ house, I think they’re going to start charging me rent. I feel like the neighbor in a ‘60s sitcom who always seems to be hanging out and has nowhere to go.

When I am finally able to break Mason away for dinner or naptime, it is usually only possible by hoisting him in the air and clutching him with all my strength as he kicks and screams.

If you witnessed the scene as you happened to be driving by, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a kidnapping unfold.

A Neighborhood Transformed

The amazing thing is the new boys’ presence has transformed the neighborhood. It has dramatically increase neighborhood activity and even community engagement. Our new neighbors are constantly out in front of their house, riding bikes or scooters or playing, and their activity has drawn out other kids from down the block.

We’ve spent numerous afternoons out in the street, with kids riding and Moms and Dads chatting with one another.  It’s the kind of carefree kid-friendly atmosphere which you frequently see depicted in the movies, yet too often proves elusive in real life.

The irony is I’m much more conditioned to be part of the family moving in than the family that is already present. As I was growing up, my own family moved at least five times before I showed up to my first day of high school.

The experience was not perceived as a hardship by my own father, who was raised an Air Force brat, and for whom moving every three years rather than every one seemed like a luxury.

Nevertheless, having to move so frequently instilled in me an appreciation for being open to meeting new people, particularly in your new neighborhood. And to be sympathetic when others have to do it themselves.

Watching my son experience the joy of playing with his new neighbor friends reminds me of a simpler time, not just from my own childhood, but a time when parents felt safe having their kids play out in front of their homes with little supervision.

It’s hard to believe there ever was an age before handheld electronic devices, when you knew all of your neighbors and kids could keep themselves occupied for hours hunting down bugs or chasing squirrels.

Today, these types of experiences are much less common. Americans simply don’t know their neighbors like they used to, and are far less likely to socialize with those in their own neighborhood. A recent survey reported that most Americans are more likely to be able to identify their neighbors’ cars than know their neighbors’ first names.

Worse yet, the breakdown in neighborhood and community engagement means neighbor disputes are more likely to occur.  Disputes between neighbors can even mean a complete shutdown in communication, which is unfortunate for any neighborhood.

On our block, you don’t need to look far to witness what happens when neighbor relationships go bad.  At the other end of our street, we find a dramatically different scene. Two long-time homeowners have had a simmering feud, the origins of which no one can recall.

They’ve fought over everything – their property line, the fence between their properties, who can park where. You name it.

These two homes always have their blinds shut, their windows and doors closed and the occupants rarely come out. That end of the block is like the suburban equivalent of North Korea’s DMZ. There’s no life, no activity, no joy. And when you walk through the area, you have an eery feeling there’s a sniper with his sights trained on your head.

Fortunately, my son is too young to pick up on the dramatic contrast between the two ends of our street. I am grateful he gets to experience the joy of living on a block with people whose company he genuinely enjoys.

In my opinion, there can be a better way for the dark end of our block. Having lived in suburbia for most of my life, I find that it can be easy to avoid hurt feelings and small slights from escalating into bigger wars.

It just takes a little effort to get to know your neighbors and forge the bonds which come from sharing a little corner of your neighborhood.

Below, I share eight old-fashioned yet practical tips for getting to know more of your neighbors, increase neighborhood activity, and grow community engagement. These are small steps anyone can take to make themselves a greater part of their own neighborhood.

1.  Bring an Unexpected Gift to a Neighbor

There’s nothing quite like an unexpected gift. My wife loves baking cookies, and so when she does make cookies, we’ll make some extra and drop them off at a neighbor’s house. It is a very simple gesture, but one which will go a long way.

We’ve gotten some incredible reactions out of neighbors over the years. One time, a neighbor who had just been through a rough breakup almost started crying because she was so touched by the gesture. I wanted to say “hey, it’s just cookies,” but, wary of an elbow to my ribs courtesy of my wife, I restrained myself.

2.  Invite a Neighbor for Drinks

Breaking open a bottle of wine on a Friday after work is a nice way to keep relations friendly between neighbors.  To keep the idea manageable, make it clear in your invitation that you’re inviting a neighbor over for just a drink and appetizers; that way, you don’t feel obligated to turn it into a full-fledged dinner party.

It’s easy to put off a more formal dinner engagement, because of the commitment and expectations involved.  But you can have neighbors over for a casual drink with short notice and less preparation, and you will be less likely to continue pushing the idea off to some future date.

3.  Organize a Block Party or Potluck.

Some neighborhoods have an annual tradition of throwing an old-fashioned block party once a year. These events are a great way to introduce yourself to neighbors you’ve never met and to reconnect with neighbors who you rarely see.

If your neighborhood doesn’t have a tradition of an annual block party, then you can be the catalyst. It doesn’t need to be all that hard. I suggest working with 2 or 3 other neighbors to ensure all of the work doesn’t fall on your shoulders, and to divvy up responsibilities for bringing food and getting the word out.

A few weeks after our new neighbors moved in, we did exactly that – we had an old-fashioned block party. I got to meet a number of other Dads I hadn’t met before, and it was a wonderful bonding experience.

4.  Organize a Yard Sale

You’re probably wondering: how does selling off my crap help me to meet my neighbors?

Yard sales are, by their very nature, local. They tend to attract people from the immediate vicinity. For that reason, yard sales are a great excuse for talking to your neighbors, not just from your own block but also from the surrounding area.

A number of years ago, I had a yard sale right before I was about to move out of a neighborhood. The experience made me wish I had done the yard sale the week we moved in. Dozens of neighbors from the surrounding area stopped by. I met people who had lived down the block from me for years but who I had never met before.

5.  Go for a Walk.

There is no better way of getting to know a place than by walking it. Yet for so many of us who live in automobile-centric communities, we actually are least likely to walk up and down the streets surrounding our own neighborhood.

By actually getting out of the car and walking around our own neighborhood streets, we may meet new friends, discover nearby hiking paths, parks or stores, or stumble across new neighbors moving in.

Walking has been embraced by everyone from Presidents to titans of industry. Legendary Apple founder Steve Jobs developed a love for walking at a young age, and he was famous for going on walks in the neighborhood around his suburban Palo Alto home.

These walks influenced Apple in at least two significant ways. As a child, Jobs would walk around his parents’ Cupertino neighborhood. Jobs was heavily influenced by one neighbor he met, Larry Lang, who was an engineer for Hewlitt-Packard.

Jobs later told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, “He was my model of what an HP engineer was supposed to be: a big ham radio operator, hard-core electronics guy,” Jobs recalled.

Lang would bring the young Jobs electronics to play with, and these experiences made up some of Jobs early introductions to electronics and computers.

Jobs was also influenced by many of the neighborhood homes that were built by the real estate developer Joseph Eichler, whose company built more than eleven thousand homes around California in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jobs was inspired by Eichler’s vision of simple, clean and modern architectural design for the homes.  Many of Eichler’s design features later influenced Apple retail stores and even Apple products.

As Jobs told Isaacson, “Eichler did a great thing. His houses were smart and cheap and good. They brought clean design and simple taste to lower income people.”

Jobs may not have discovered these homes and come to appreciate their design had he not walked his neighborhood streets.

6.  Coordinate a Running Group, Cycling Club, or Walking Group.

Exercise doesn’t need to be a chore, and it doesn’t need to be a solitary pursuit. You can use exercising as an opportunity to meet new people.

If you organize a group of friends or neighbors to go on regular runs, bike rides, or engage in some other form of exercise, you’ll make friends in your area and your friends will help to keep you accountable for your health goals.

7.  Organize a Play Date.

If you have children, a great way of getting to know your neighbors is by organizing a play date with kids in your neighborhood. You can either invite other families over to your home, or simply make a date to meet at the park.

My wife and I have struck up some great relationships with other parents in our neighborhood through setting up play dates with kids my son’s age. Better yet, once you start introducing these parents to other parents in the neighborhood, your network expands and the entire community benefits.

 

8.  Ask Your Neighbors Questions

One very easy way to meet your neighbors is to simply knock on a neighbor’s door for the purpose of asking them a question. You could ask for a restaurant recommendation, or about local parks, or for directions.

If you’ve just moved in, you could ask what day is trash pickup or how to dispose of lawn waste. The question is really just an opportunity to knock on someone’s door and open up a conversation.

A few weeks ago, a neighbor actually knocked on our door and asked for an egg.  That’s right, one egg.  She was baking cookies and literally didn’t want to drive down to the store.

I loved that she felt comfortable enough to ask us. We ended up chatting for about 10 or 15 minutes, about a variety of topics.  The point is to make an effort to reach out and get to know your neighbors, even if the question is just a ruse to open up a conversation.

9.  Provide a Small Service to your Neighbors

There are countless little obligations that come with daily domestic life.  Things like cleaning out gutters or mowing the lawn, fixing a broken appliance or getting a toy down off the roof.

You could be known as the neighbor who has a band saw for cutting wood, or who can help replace the garbage disposal when a misplaced spoon causes its premature demise.

Whatever it is, try to become known as the go-to person in your neighborhood for a particular service, and you may find it a vehicle for meeting more neighbors than you would otherwise.

Reach Out to a Neighbor Today

As my son grows older, he won’t always be blissfully ignorant to the presence of neighborly discord on his own block.

I can’t save our particular neighbors from their bitter feud, but I am hopeful that if more neighbors were to engage in just a few of the ideas I mentioned above, then it would mean that type of neighborly discord could be a thing of the past. And that would be a good thing.

What tips do you have for getting to know more of your neighbors? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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  • Gene Tanakawa

    I help my neighbors if they have something that breaks or if they need to borrow something small, like a tool or some ingredients for something they are baking or cooking. I think it’s a great idea to do this – the stronger the bonds you can create with your neighbors, the better off you will be. Five years ago, I lived in a condo where no one knew anyone. It was awful.

    • http://www.smartbusinessrevolution.com/ John Corcoran

      Thanks, Gene. I don’t have many tools in my house, so I can’t be of much help in that way. But I do think sharing an egg or some sugar or flour is definitely the least you can do as a neighbor – and if any neighbor asked, I would definitely give it to them.

  • Kevin Cuccaro

    Great post John! It is so easy to forget out local “real” community in this day and age… This post makes me think I should be out in our neighborhood more.

    We’re getting new neighbor’s soon (house next to us just sold) so, after reading this post, I’m making the commitment to meet the new owner’s when they move in.

    Thanks for the reminder that hospitality (and networking) starts right outside the door…

    • http://www.smartbusinessrevolution.com/ John Corcoran

      Thanks, Kevin! Definitely march over to your new neighbor’s house when they move in and introduce yourself. That can really set the tone – they will remember it. (Hopefully they are also good people, of course.) I have moved a lot in my life, and I always think it’s so nice when people actually do come over right as you move in (or shortly thereafter) and introduce themselves.

  • Rhonda

    I absolutely love this article John. You are right.. As a Local Welcome Company, I get to see the wet eye syndrome (as I call it) often. Face to face greeting is almost a forgotten art.. it’s nostalgic. People are so touched by it.
    “People don’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care…”

    • http://www.smartbusinessrevolution.com/ John Corcoran

      Great quote, Rhonda – you have to start by caring for people. Then you can win them over with what you know.