Having immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom in 2012, Michael Hamilton and his family didn’t know a soul when they moved into the Highlands community in June of 2013. Several weeks later, they received a visit from a neighbour up the street. She introduced herself as the Block Connector and had dropped by to welcome the Hamiltons to the neighbourhood.
“She had a questionnaire and asked us what our interests were, our hobbies,” says Hamilton in his thick Yorkshire accent. “The visit made us feel welcome and the questionnaire helped us connect to others in the neighbourhood.”
The friendly visit and questionnaire were part of a pilot project, the Abundant Community Initiative, whose goal is to strengthen the social fabric of the neighbourhood. It’s what Howard Lawrence, who was contracted by the city to lead the initiative, calls “building a culture of connections.”
The formula is simple enough. Make your neighbourhood safer, more vibrant and dynamic by getting to know your neighbours.
With support from the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues and the City of Edmonton, Lawrence and an army of volunteers set out in January 2013 to take an inventory of who lived in Highlands and, more importantly, what their skills and interests were.
It’s an asset-based approach that taps into what residents can offer in order to build stronger and more sustainable neighbourhoods.
“People are drawn together when they can participate in an activity that matches their skills, interests and passions,” says Lawrence. “It’s also a shift in thinking away from volunteerism and toward neighbourliness. Why do I shovel my neighbour’s walk? Because I’m a neighbour, not a volunteer. What we’re trying to do is build neighbourliness back into the community.”
Connection is at the heart of The Abundant Community. It starts with Connector Coordinators – residents who already know a lot of people in the neighbourhood make great candidates for coordinators, a role that entails identifying and organizing Block Connectors.
The job of the Block Connector is to visit every resident on an assigned block to initiate a conversation, using the questionnaire as a guide. That conversation focuses on your vision for your neighbourhood, what activities and interests you have, and what gifts, abilities and experiences you possess. Once all the questionnaires are complete, the Connector Coordinator compiles the data and connects residents who have common interests.
“Sharing gifts and talents is important,” says Lawrence. “People love to share their gifts. We don’t ask ‘what do you need?’ We ask, ‘what can you offer?’ and, in that way, it gives residents the power to shape their neighbourhood.”
In Highlands, several groups have formed as a result, including a lawn bowling group and a new mom’s group, along with soccer and hockey teams.
For Hamilton, it was hockey that helped him bond with the community. He was introduced to the quintessentially Canadian game as a lad growing up in the U.K. “Being Brits, we weren’t very good, but we liked playing,” he says. “It’s great playing here. The guys, we meet every Thursday for a fun game of shinny.”
When he needed a notary public, he was put in touch with a neighbourhood lawyer who offered his services at no charge. In return, Hamilton, a carpenter by trade, is more than happy to give back to the community by offering his skills.
The model works well in Edmonton because the city already has a basic framework in place in the form of community leagues. The City provides administrative and organizational support and is eager to see the initiative grow.
“We are in phase two of the project and are assessing eight other communities, including Oliver. A whole lot more have expressed interest,” says Lawrence.
He is optimistic about the role the Abundant Community Initiative can play in shaping and strengthening our neighbourhoods. “It’s a workable structure that, in the end, celebrates strength and diversity. People are more invested in and more emotionally attached to their neighbourhood, which, in turn, makes it safer, stronger and a more inclusive community.”