It’s easy to live in our cities and feel little connection to them. There are lots of reasons for this: we spend long hours commuting in our cars or sitting in our workplaces; we fill our schedules with busy tasks that impede us from fully experiencing much of anything; we are consistently tempted to transport ourselves elsewhere through the use of our smartphones; and, at the end of the day, we are exhausted and just want to hunker down in our homes.
While it takes time and intentionality to pivot toward the places that we live in, we can trust that, when we do, a meaningful connection will be cultivated — the kind of connection that compels us toward our neighbors, that exposes us to the good things that are going on all around us, and that moves us to think creatively about how we might leverage our passions, skills, and resources for the common good of our cities.
Here are a few ways to experience a deeper connection to your city.
1. Experience it holistically
The more present we are in our cities — experiencing them with all of our senses — the less likely we are to dream of being somewhere else. Our senses are powerful tools that move us toward a more robust attachment to whatever it is we are encountering. From dining in local eateries and cycling around our neighborhoods, to smelling fresh bread in the local farmers market or reading a book in a public library, the more we encounter our cities with our whole selves, the more rooted we become in them.
Action Item: Wander your city and be intentional about utilizing all of your senses (touch, sight, smell, hearing, and taste).
2. Walk instead of drive
If your city is anything like mine, it’s fixated on car-based transit. While opinions on car usage vary, there is one thing that is abundantly clear: driving in a car changes the way that we engage our surroundings. The speed that we drive our cars — paired with their physical design and the focus needed to drive them — hinders us from fully experiencing the built, natural and social environments of our cities.
When we choose to walk, we gain an attachment to the places we inhabit because we get to observe them in all of their detail. We’re given the opportunity to choose our own pace, to look up at what exists above street-level, to have spontaneous run-ins with our neighbors, and to follow our curiosity into the nooks and crannies of our cities. Beholding the nuances, characteristics and intricacies of our cities will only help us to foster a closer attachment to them.
Action Item: Invest in a good pair of sneakers and hit the sidewalks
3. Become a regular in a third place
In his important work, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg defines “third places” as public places — outside of our workplaces and homes — where people can gather to enjoy conversation and the company of others. Practically speaking, third places are important because they provide a context where people can encounter their neighbors; where contextual ideas, for the common good of the city, can be catalyzed; and where people can be truly seen, heard, and known. From barber shops and cafés to pubs and playgrounds, third places play an important role in building communities and inspiring togetherness between neighbors.
When we choose to linger in these spaces — on a regular basis and with an openness to connection — we’ll encounter rich conversations with our neighbors; we’ll be more “in the know” about the good things that are happening in our cities; and we’ll see both loneliness and polarization subverted as hospitality is extended between people.
Action Item: Pick a third place; commit to spending time in it on a weekly basis; and seek connection in and through it.
4. Support local businesses
Online shopping has not only kept us from experiencing our local setting, it has sent a lot of our money out of our neighborhoods — often to the detriment of local entrepreneurs who are risking much to maintain businesses that make our cities more unique, distinct and dynamic. Local businesses help shape the culture of our neighborhoods, and whenever we support them, we celebrate the unique gifts, passions, and expertise of our neighbors.
Action Item: Create a checklist of local businesses; try to visit, spend money in, meet the ownership of, encourage, and post about as many of them as possible.
5. Meet—and collaborate with—your neighbors
In the context of my city, it is not uncommon to see people spend most of their time working, playing, shopping and socializing outside of the neighborhoods that they live in. Our lives are increasingly fragmented; in many ways, we have lost a sense of rootedness in particular place. While it’s never been easier to live above our neighborhoods, something meaningful transpires when we commit to an intentional, abiding presence in them.
On a practical level, our neighborhoods matter because they are one of the few things that we tangibly share with other people. They provide a context for relational connections to be established and for localized creativity to be inspired. As we sit around tables with our neighbors, listening to the needs, hopes, and ideas that exist all around us, we will be given the opportunity to collaborate for the sake of our neighborhoods — whether that be hosting local art shows, running block parties, arranging movie nights, starting book clubs, caring for those in need, or advocating for place-based projects that will inspire more community formation.
Action Item: Meet your neighbors; invite them into your home/social circles; and, over time, start to scheme about how you can make your neighborhood a more hospitable, networked, and collaborative place.
6. Befriend the networkers
Getting more involved in the life of our neighborhoods and cities can seem like a daunting task, so here’s some good news: there are people who are ingrained in the life of our cities, who are aware of the good things that are already happening, and who are more than happy to connect you to the people and projects that are making a difference. Find these people, and you will become a part of the important work that is already occurring.
Action Item: Start turning up to local gatherings; look for the people who are bringing other people together; get to know them, and you will get to know the city
As we commit to a deeper, more consistent presence in our cities, we will experience a stronger attachment to them; we’ll be moved by the needs, longings, and hopes that exist all around us; and we’ll discover our part in the story that is unfolding in our localities.
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.