Few things encourage me like seeing everyday people—with everyday jobs, commitments, and schedules—extending small acts of presence, hospitality, and creativity in their localities. This is, in part, why I’m compelled by the notion of micro-neighbourliness: the small, patient, and practical ways that we pivot toward our localities and the people that we share them with.
From supporting local entrepreneurs and tending to community gardens to hosting bonfire nights and sitting on our front porches with an openness to connection, small acts of neighbourliness deepen our local presence, move us toward the people we share proximity with, and subvert the loneliness, isolation, and fragmentation that exists in our local contexts. While we do not always hear the story of micro-neighbourliness being told in our cities, the tangible effect that these small acts can have on our places is reason enough to celebrate them.
Here are three ways that micro-acts of neighbourliness impact our localities.
They subvert our tendencies toward apathy.
The small, ordinary work of micro-neighbourliness keeps us from the apathetic inaction that can occur when our ideas, for the common good of the neighbourhood, get too big, too complex, and too hard to get off the ground. If we aren’t careful, large, elaborate ideas—paired with a lack of margin in the daily rhythms of our lives—can overwhelm us into passivity. By shrinking our vision and committing to simple, attainable, ongoing actions, we end up challenging our strong defaults toward indifference while encountering the profound impact that neighbourliness—even in its smallest form—can have on our places.
They have a cumulative influence on the places we inhabit.
Small acts of neighbourliness—in a particular place and over a long span of time—are far more impactful than we tend to recognize. Acknowledging this is one of the ways that we resist the tendency to overestimate our immediate influence on our local contexts. When we take the long view of being present in a place, we start to see micro-acts of neighbourliness for what they are: gestures that, in the immediate, can offer goodwill, welcome, and connection and that, over time, can have a meaningful, more expansive impact on our places.
My friend, Tim Soerens, refers to this as the “compound interest of local presence”—the idea that the sum of these micro-acts, over time, is far greater than each of them as singular, isolated contributions. This is a helpful way of reconsidering our immediate, local impact while acknowledging what becomes possible when we take the long, patient road of being an active participant in our localities.
They inspire others to consider what their small acts of neighbourliness might be.
While we often find ourselves drawn to the large stories of neighbourhood impact, micro-neighbourliness invites us to ponder, learn from, and celebrate the small stories of everyday people who—in local, contextual ways—are engaging, supporting, and working on behalf of their places. These small, localized stories of presence, collaboration, and community formation are powerful because they are both accessible and catalytic; that is, they are small enough that we can see ourselves in them, and they are inspiring enough that they move us to consider how we might engage our own localities in thoughtful, attainable ways.
A great example of the inspiring effect of micro-neighbourliness comes by way of my friends, Bre and Josh Black. They live in a newly built, suburban neighbourhood—the kind of neighbourhood that has a permanent layer of dust on it from the ongoing construction of new homes. While they had formulated relationships with their immediate neighbours, they noticed that their neighbourhood lacked third places where people could encounter one another. With a background in coffee and the longing to participate in the life of their neighbourhood, they decided that, every Friday morning, they would convert their garage into a neighbourhood cafe where they serve up coffee, spark conversations, and create space for their neighbours to be seen, heard, and known.
For Josh and Bre, this isn’t a big, complicated project; it’s one small way that they can leverage their time, their skills, and their ideas for the good of their place. Along the way, the story of their garage cafe has spread, and it’s inspiring others to consider the ways that they might initiate small, contextual acts of neighbourliness in their neighbourhoods.
Micro-neighbourliness is having a profound impact on our cities: it is moving people beyond apathy; it is sparking subtle ripple effects of change, kindness, and generosity; and it is inspiring others to discern their own activity in the local context that they inhabit. While big stories will get most of the attention—and don’t get me wrong, we need those stories, too—beautiful, disarming things are happening through small acts of neighbourliness.
Of course, I do not want to overstate the impact of micro-neighbourliness; it will not solve all of the pressing issues in our cities, and it does not erase the need we have for local organizations that specialize in seeking the well-being of our places and the people we share them with. Serving our cities is a group effort that will, no doubt, require a diverse range of skills, resources, backgrounds, and passions. That said, celebrating the small is a positive step in the right direction—a step that will welcome everyday people into the story that is unfolding in their localities.
(All photos courtesy of Robin Sassi )
About the Author
When Steve MacDouell is not teaching history and professional communication at Fanshawe College, he's instigating place-based projects, hosting workshops, and inviting everyday citizens to leverage their time, their ideas, and their creativity for the sake of their neighbourhoods. He's the co-founder of Good City Co., a civic organization that creates projects, platforms, and activations to help citizens take greater ownership over the places that they call home.
He lives, dreams, and conspires in Woodfield—a neighbourhood in Central London, Ontario.