Our house is a minor spectacle. There are a lot of porch plants, hanging baskets, and little white lights going on. In the spring, I threw in some seeds around a tree stump in the front patch of grass (city-owned) and my downstairs neighbour plopped some bean seedlings around the parking sign. For a while, we got curious looks, including an unimpressed stranger asking, "Are you watering that parking sign?" Now that the mess has emerged as peas, patty-pan squash, kale, chard, lavender, dill, corn salad, and a few unidentified plants that I don't have the heart to pull out, reactions range from amusement to delight. And we get a lot of reactions! Half the fun of sitting on the porch is overhearing and participating in exchanges about the loveliness, homeyness, or quirkiness of our house. If I had more time and skill, I'd prettify the garden and do a better job of thinning and weeding, but for now it's doing its job just fine.
There's a sweet young family a few houses down to whom we often wave hello on their evening walks with the kids. The little ones have been curiously watching the progress of the garden because their parents have always made a point of noting how much it has grown. The other day, my downstairs neighbour and I were chatting on the porch when the little girl went to check out our new makeshift trellises for the peas. She retreated when she noticed we were there so we reassured that this is a free garden for all the neighbours to enjoy and that the peas would be ready for eating soon.
This week, maybe 15 days later, we came home to this note:
My downstairs neighbour recounted to me that the darling girl had returned with mom and a tiny watering can to care for the peas and munch on a few.
I love the call and response of the city. We speak to each other through all these subtle gestures - putting out a dog-bowl on a hot day, painting the front door, installing a free library box. It's a relay passed on from one person to another. We each have our own way of expressing kindness or humour to the people around us, and the city becomes a canvas of all these tiny acts of humanity.
These interactions remind me of some of the research around strong ties and weak ties. In a nutshell, we tend to place more emphasis on the importance of strong social ties such as family and close friends. However, research suggests that having a vast network of weak ties (people you see occasionally, like the local barista or a neighbour a few doors down) is at least as important to happiness and resiliency. To me, the call and response of the city is the volley of weak ties. We may not know know each other, but our gestures act to validate strangers and create a feeling of safety and home.
Across the street, my neighbour Anne is out caring for her plants as much as we are. She seems about the same age as my grandma and carries the same dedication to her garden which endears her to me in a homesick way. I met her while going door to door distributing event invitations in the winter, and since then she'll often walk over and strike up a few words. The other day, she met us out front and said "I wanted to let you know that I noticed your pots. They make a rainbow! I just thought you should know that the effort wasn't wasted - someone noticed." She was right. In one of my more obsessive moments, I needed to ROYGBIV my colourful assortment of pots. It was bugging me to see them out of order. It's cool how we can speak to each other through art and design, on the scale of a chalk message to an entire streetscape. No matter what we do or build, it's communicating something; art (or lack thereof) is the language of identity. It has been fun interacting with my neighbours to curate what the identity of our street can be.
GRACEN JOHNSON works as an urban strategist and communications professional in The Maritimes. Despite finishing her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats exploring that herself, including as the creator and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.
This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.