30 Ways to build community connections

I live in a three-story walk-up apartment building on the west side of Vancouver. I’ve lived in the same building for over six years, yet most of my neighbours are practically strangers. While I’m polite to them, the social bonds between us are weak at best.

It’s not uncommon to hear Vancouverites complain about similar experiences in neighbourhoods throughout the city. Shrouded in an air of aloofness, Vancouver can feel downright disconnected at times.

Like in many big cities, a lack of community connection in Vancouver is a pressing social issue. According to a recent survey by the Vancouver Foundation, one-third of Metro Vancouver residents do not know if their neighbours trust each other. Not exactly the ideal basis for fostering a safer community, not to mention a friendlier one. In fact, the same study found that one-third of Vancouver residents find it difficult to make new friends here. The study concludes that neighbourhood connections in Vancouver are “cordial, but weak.”

This got me thinking: how could I help bring some small-town sense of community to a big city like Vancouver? To explore this question, I challenged myself in April to do one act a day to help strengthen connections in my community, both within my immediate personal and professional networks as well as within the community at large. My only rule was that each act must be different.

Well-connected communities tend to be more vibrant, engaging, and democratic than disconnected ones. When connections within a community are strong, its residents are generally healthier, happier, and more involved in civic life.

Some examples of things I tried this month to help build community connections include attending a community event, buying food at a Farmer’s Market, shopping at locally owned businesses, supporting local indie artists, visiting my neighbourhood library, and participating in a public dialogue to give community leaders my input about local issues. I even wrote a letter to the mayor to thank and encourage him for making positive decisions for our city. [Though I haven’t received a reply, it still felt good to put my gratitude in writing.]

Not all my efforts to build community connections have been monumental. For example, one day this month I simply made a conscious effort to praise others as I went about my day; another day I asked my colleagues about their lives; yet another day I made a point to have meaningful conversations with my neighbours. Even simple actions done regularly can make a big difference to you and others in your life.

In total, I spent $335 on my various acts this month, for an average of $11 per day. While most of my acts were inexpensive or free, I did splurge on a few big-ticket items, like hosting a dinner for friends and supporting a local band. If your budget is tight, it’s certainly possible to do this challenge without spending as much.

One of the perks of helping to strengthen community connections is it’s good for you. Getting more connected within your community helps to give you a sense that you belong, reduces social isolation, improves your health and well-being, and can lead to more personal and professional opportunities. And you might just find that some of your neighbours become trusted friends.

My acts to strengthen community connections performed in April, 2013
My acts to strengthen community connections performed in April, 2013

 

Take the Challenge

Want to try this challenge for yourself? Here are some suggestions:

  • Create the challenge – set the parameters for your challenge. My rule was to do a different act every day, and I made sure to focus on both strong and weak ties. You can adapt the challenge to reflect your own personal interests and constraints.
  • Brainstorm ideas – start the month by brainstorming a list of ways to strengthen connections in all areas of your life. To help get started, check out my list of 30 ways to build community connections.
  • Build up your strong ties – strengthening the bonds within your immediate networks of family, friends, neighbours and co-workers helps to provide a base of support for a healthy, fulfilled and happy life. While it’s a good idea to nurture these close relationships every day, this challenge gives you a chance to be intentional about strengthening the ties with the people closest to you.
  • Strengthen weak ties – it’s also important to develop broader connections within your community. Strengthening these weak ties helps to create a more vibrant and engaged place to live, and can also help enhance your own sense of belonging within the local community. Be sure to include a number of acts that strengthen the weak ties within your community. For example, shop at locally owned businesses, attend community events, or get to know a homeless person in your neighbourhood.
  • Connect with people you don’t know – try including some acts that build connections with people you don’t know or may never meet in person. For example, buy something created by a local artist, write a letter of encouragement to a municipal politician, or simply strike up a conversation with a stranger. It’s good to know you can contribute to your local community in indirect ways too.
  • Stick with it – keep at it, even after the month is up. Remember that getting more connected not only enriches your own life, but also helps to make your local community a better place for everyone.

Four lessons from building community connections

This month, I challenged myself to do one act a day to help strengthen the connections within my local community. My only rule is that each act must be different. Here are four observations from the first 20 days of the month.

Strong Ties are Your Foundation

“Strong ties” are all the close connections within your community (family, friends, neighbours and co-workers). Strengthening these bonds helps to improve the personal relationships with the people you interact with most regularly. Like the roots of a tree, strong ties provide a base of support that helps you to live a healthy, fulfilled and happy life. And just like the roots of a tree, strong ties need to be consistently nourished to provide a solid foundation. So all month, I’ve made sure that many of my daily acts focus on strengthening these strong ties. For example, one day I made a conscious effort to talk with my neighbours; another day focused on asking my professional colleagues about their life. Efforts to build up your strong ties don’t need to be monumental – even simple gestures done regularly can make a big difference to you and others in your life.

The Power of Weak Ties

Not all connections need to be close ones. “Weak ties” are all the broader connections within your community – some of these connections are with people you may know in passing (the local butcher, librarian or even a homeless person) while others may be with people you don’t know personally (a local artist, politician or a stranger you pass on the street). Strengthening these weak ties is important because it enhances the cohesiveness and sense of belonging amongst all types of people in your community. This can help to create a healthier, more vibrant, prosperous and engaged civic society. Some examples of things I’ve tried this month to help build weak ties include supporting the neighbourhood economy by shopping at locally owned businesses, attending community events and classes, checking out local indie artists and simply being more conscious about smiling and saying hello to people on the street. It’s good to know these efforts not only enrich my own life, but also help to make the broader community a better place for everyone.

Focus on the Action, Not the Outcome

Not all of my acts have produced a warm-and-fuzzy outcome. One Sunday morning, for example, I decided to surprise my fellow apartment dwellers with a small treat. I left a $25 gift certificate for the neighbourhood cafe in our building’s lobby, attached to a sign that read:

Hi neighbours: Do you love your morning java? Treat yourself to a coffee at the cafe across the street. Please make sure to return the gift certificate for someone else to use after you’re finished. Enjoy!

The gift card was gone in 30 minutes, and unfortunately stayed gone. Perhaps my neighbour didn’t see the request to return the card for someone else to enjoy? [Though, it was kind of hard to miss. I wrote the sign with a big black felt marker and attached the card directly to it.] Just in case, I left the sign up for a few days to appeal to the person’s better nature. No such luck, the gift certificate was never to be seen again.

What’s the moral of this story? Don’t let someone else’s behaviour get you down. Rather than dwelling on the outcome, focus on the positive intent behind your actions – it is the only thing you can control.

Positive Outcomes Pack a Punch

One benefit of not being attached to the outcome of your efforts is that positive results are much more rewarding. Undaunted from the gift card fiasco, the very next day I decided to write a thank-you card to our building’s property manager. I figured that most property managers only hear complaints or requests from their tenants, and so a note of gratitude would be welcome. I thanked my property manager for her hard work, responsiveness and attention to detail in dealing with all the past issues at my apartment. A couple of days later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a short, yet warm, note expressing her sincere gratitude for my card. These kinds of small, unexpected gestures really do make your day.

Challenge Four: Get connected

Growing up on the outskirts of a small town, the importance of home security was never really instilled in me as a child. As far back as I can remember, our home’s front door was kept unlocked. In fact, for most of my childhood I wasn’t even aware the door had a lock on it. Perhaps we didn’t have much to steal in those days, but I’d like to think it had more to do with the small-town sense of community.

Since our family had strong ties with all the people in the neighbourhood, there didn’t seem to be any reason to be concerned about a break-in. It turns out my family had good reason not to worry. When people have strong social connections within their local community, it tends to be safer and have less crime.

Strengthening the connections in a community is beneficial in other ways too. Residents are generally happier and healthier compared to those living in more disconnected communities. When social ties are strong, people feel less isolated and have a stronger sense of belonging within the community. This helps to improve people’s overall well-being and lowers the risks of depression and loneliness. Not only is this good for the individual, but it also helps the community at large since less strain is put on the public health care system.

When people have a strong sense of belonging within their community, they have more reason to get involved and contribute. Residents in connected communities are more likely to volunteer, participate in community events, vote, give their input about community issues, and support local businesses, arts and culture. The net result is a healthier, more vibrant, and more engaged and democratic civic society.

A more cohesive community is also better equipped to manage problems and adapt to crises. Whether facing persistent social problems such as poverty, or sudden emergencies like a fire or flood, people in well-connected communities are more likely to come together to help and support one another.

Not only are people in connected communities more willing to help each other, they are also better equipped to solve community problems. When connections are strong, people can act as a team and leverage the power of group problem solving. A collective effort is often more productive and effective than if people work in isolation. This is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Getting more connected in your community helps give you the sense that you belong, diminishes social isolation, promotes health and happiness, and can lead to more personal and professional opportunities.

To explore these benefits, my challenge for April is to do one act a day to help strengthen the social connections in my community. My only rule is each act must be different. Some of these acts will help to reinforce the close connections within my networks of friends, neighbours and colleagues (so-called strong ties), while others will help to strengthen the broader connections in the community (weak ties).