Adam Greenfield is a Strong Towns member and blogger for Plaza Perspective. Today he's sharing his tips for throwing a successful and simple neighborhood event.


My birthday party and neighbor social a couple of years ago.

My birthday party and neighbor social a couple of years ago.

One of my earliest memories is attending a kids’ disco at age 9. At the start of the evening, the girls were pressed anxiously against one wall and the boys stood nervously against the opposite wall. Everyone wanted to come into the middle and dance together, but we were all too shy to be the first one to step forward. Eventually, encouraged by each other, we got a little more confident, edging forward until the two groups finally met. The rest is dance history.

Isn’t reaching out to our neighbors for the first time a similar situation? We’re social creatures. We generally like knowing our neighbors and coming together is usually fun. Yet, who among us wants to be the first to step forward, to experience that nervous feeling of putting yourself before your neighbors face to face, not knowing what reaction you’ll get?

Starting is always the most difficult part. I’ve been there: Standing on a stranger’s doorstep on a chilly night, nervously ringing the bell, hoping that the answer won't be hostile. But, as I’ve discovered from my early doorbell ringings at age 8, the majority of neighbors are happy to open their doors to good intentions.

Let’s say you want to organize a social get-together for you and your neighbors. What do you do? How do you make it a success? Let me share what I’ve learned over the years about organizing neighbor events. The following four steps will make it simple to host any type of neighborhood gathering. And know this right now: It’s going to be fun.

Before we get into the event organizing process there’s an important preliminary step you may want to take: Find an organizing buddy. Just one other neighbor, or even a friend, for support and encouragement, to bounce ideas off, and to help with outreach, can make a world of difference.

Found your organizing buddy? Great, now let’s begin…

1. CHOOSE YOUR EVENT, ITS LOCATION, AND WHEN IT’LL HAPPEN

The closer your event’s location is to people’s homes and the more visually/physically accessible it is, the better. Try to locate neighbor-oriented events on your street.

What kind of a event would you like to organize? A potluck, round table discussion, or something else? Keep it simple with broad appeal for the first event. Be clear about the event’s purpose and how its format will contribute to that purpose. Make sure there are ways for people to contribute – the potluck is the most common approach. Food and drinks are crucial at every event.

The closer your event’s location is to people’s homes and the more visually/physically accessible it is, the better. Try to locate neighbor-oriented events on your street. I’ve found that organizing events out on the sidewalk, which is neutral territory, often gets the most attendees and doesn’t require anyone to open up their home. Similar venues include front yards and garages. If organizing an outdoor event, you may want to have a plan B location, such as inside someone’s house.

Set your event’s date at least two weeks ahead of when you’ll start event promotion. Social events can be fine any day, including weekend mornings/afternoons. Serious events might be better for mid-week evenings (people might want to be outside having fun on the weekends). But really, the time and day is down to your own judgment.

Yes, this is really how I promote events. It doesn't have to be fancy.

Yes, this is really how I promote events. It doesn't have to be fancy.

2. PROMOTE YOUR EVENT

Let your neighbors know about the event at least two weeks in advance. Hand deliver an event flyer to every household you want to come. Typed flyers work fine, although photocopied hand-written flyers (see the flyer on the right that I made recently) might catch people’s eyes better. Generally, I tuck a flyer halfway under someone’s front doormat. For apartment buildings, I tape a flyer to the front door. If you already have some neighbors’ email addresses or phone numbers, use those too.

For the most direct and effective outreach, ring your neighbor’s doorbell and introduce yourself, in addition to dropping off a flyer . Most people will be touched by your sincerity. If a neighbor knows your face they’re more likely to come to your event. And you can also collect an email address or phone number for updates leading up to the event.

3. THROW YOUR EVENT

Time to enjoy your event! Be as friendly yet genuine as you can. Welcome people, shake hands, introduce yourself, use people’s names (especially in the first minute of meeting them; this will help you remember names). Show a sincere interest in getting to know your neighbors.

Here are what I try to include at every event:

  • Food and drink – absolutely critical. Pull out your best recipes!
  • Sticky name tags – this will help people remember each others’ names
  • A contact sheet – make sure everyone gives their name, email, phone number, and address

Finally, at your event talk with your neighbors about what you might do together next. Another social, a block party, movie night, work party, a meeting to discuss something serious, or something else?

4. KEEP UP THE MOMENTUM AFTER YOUR EVENT

You’ve organized a fun event, met new faces, and now you have a solid collection of neighbors’ contacts for the future. Great work! If you want to build on your success, it’s time to keep the momentum going…

Contact your neighbors soon after the event to thank them for coming and to set up next steps. The next event shouldn’t be too far into the future. The nature of that event is up to you and your neighbors to decide.

Consider setting up an email list or Facebook group for your block, which will allow people to communicate on an ongoing basis. Our block uses Google Groups. Actively participate in your group and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Post your own topics and reply to other people’s. Here's an example of a recent email exchange on our Google Group:

IT MIGHT BE THE BEST THING YOU’VE EVER DONE…

Bringing neighbors together for the first time requires a bold step forward by just one or two people. That could be you. If it is, I bet you'll one day look back and see it as one of the best things you’ve ever done. Knowing your neighbors and being a part of each others’ lives is one of the greatest joys.

You have my warmest encouragement in getting started. Don’t hesitate to contact me for further advice or support on reaching out to your neighbors for the first time.

(All photos courtesy of Adam Greenfield)


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About the Author

Adam Greenfield is a community organizer and public space advocate based in San Francisco, California. He’s the author of The Plaza Perspective and founder of Streets For All, an initiative to build community through block parties.