Community & urban life

Art installation at Chelsea Flower Show 2011

Community has been a word close to my heart since my late teenage years and a subject that my husband, Neil and I talk about a lot.

Let me set the scene. We live in London, a 24-hour city of 10 million people, which is not readily associated with a sense of community. The pace is fast – try slowing down when you walk in some busy places and you feel the annoyance from the people behind you. The cost of living is such that people often have to work long hours with little time or energy left over to invest in being and building community.

I remember when our friend, Nina, visited from a small village in Northern Finland (we often comment on the fact that there are more people in London than in the whole of Finland!). She got off the plane and onto the London Underground system. The experience dizzied her – all these people rushing past her! Where she comes from, she told us, you acknowledge everyone you pass by looking them in the eye and saying hello – hardly possible on the London Underground due to the sheer number of people, the high-speed pace we all keep and the risk of getting duffed up if someone thinks you looked at them ‘funny’!

Despite the dynamics that make ‘community’ harder in a large urban setting, Neil and I often challenge the misconception that London has no community spirit. Our experience of over 15 years of living in London has been quite the opposite. We know many of the people who live on our street and the streets around us. We regularly go into each others houses, borrow and lend things and have keys so that we can water each others plants when on holiday. Parties are had and old and new neighbour’s invited to meet each other. We love living in our little London neighbourhood, precisely because of the sense of community.

Years ago we belonged to a local church that was very community minded and that too gave us a foundation of friendships in our local neighbourhood that have been like jewels, long after our connection to organised religion faltered and ground to a halt. For us, the church became a meeting point, a lighthouse at which we were able to meet other humans, some of whom have become friends for life. Those little lighthouses, or meeting points, are everywhere in London. Be that faith communities (with their failings and limitations), art classes, choirs, community centres, pubs and bars. Friendships are formed, connections are made, community is created.

I think one of the challenges is to make sure we don’t just live focussed on ourselves, our own little unit and cosy circle, but nurture the seeds and saplings of community and look out for those who are struggling to find it. Despite the positives, there is an awful lot of fragmentation and loneliness – some people are so cut off from meaningful relationships. Mother Theresa, when visiting the UK, said the loneliness she saw was worse than the poverty in Calcutta.

We can also try and create little ‘lighthouses’ for people to connect with each other. Be that Sunday lunch, parties, music events….whatever. We have done storytelling evenings where different circles of friends have come together and we regularly have parties where we invite our neighbours, whether we know them or not ! Then we wait (nervously) to see who turns up. What we have found is that when you take these risks, actually many people are just waiting for an opportunity to get to meet their neighbours. It just takes a bit of courage for someone to make the first move! As one couple a few doors down from us said after they came to our Christmas party two years ago “This is the first time we have ever been over the threshold of a neighbour’s house in 11 years of living in London”.

All they were waiting for was to be asked. Go on…throw a party and see what happens!

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