Editor’s Letter (September 2013): what makes a great neighbourhood?

Editor’s Letter (September 2013): what makes a great neighbourhood?

Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford
Almost two years ago, one of my neighbours proposed we have a block party. We’d close the road to traffic and all hang out together. Other streets in our neighbourhood did it, he said, and it looked like fun. Why not us? He called a meeting one weekend morning, handed out flyers and invited everyone on the block to come. I attended more out of obligation than enthusiasm. Frankly, I was a block party skeptic, put off by the organizational effort required. We would need to get insurance, draft a garbage collection plan, rent road closure signs and submit our proposal to the city for approval. Then, once we got the go-ahead, we’d have to decide on a social itinerary. A talent show? Organized games? A group meal? If yes, what would we eat? A block party planning committee has no natural decision-making hierarchy. What if we all disagreed? The whole thing sounded like a big headache.

I came up with a counter-proposal: a group picnic in the local park. It would achieve the same goals as a block party but with zero advance planning. Someone sends out a Facebook invitation, and next thing you know you’re swapping raccoon stories and gossiping about the monster home renovation on the corner. But I didn’t dare propose it; I didn’t want to be known as the lady who thwarted the block party.

So at the initial planning meeting, I just smiled and nodded as the to-do list grew and more meetings were scheduled. Someone volunteered to ask a nearby grocery store to donate juice boxes. Someone else said they’d ask the community centre if we could borrow their tables. Yet another neighbour said he’d rent audio equipment for a talent show. I then watched from the sidelines as a core group of organizers paved the way for the big day.

Then guess what? Our little block party was a huge success. The kids loved drawing with chalk on the road and playing with their Pokémon cards where cars usually whiz by. Strangers became friends, sat on each other’s lawns and looked after each other’s children. At suppertime, we arranged tables along the street and ate a potluck dinner. I had interesting conversations with people I’d never met or even seen. A neighbour who sings opera gave a performance, and we lingered at the table as the sun went down. It all felt sort of European. I was a block party convert. This summer, I was first in line at the party organizing meeting.

My neighbourhood has lots of things going for it—a good elementary school, mature trees, a public pool, a variety of restaurants and shops. But my opinion of it depends just as much on my relationships with the other people who live there as it does on the amenities. Which is one reason why it’s so hard to quantify what makes a great neighbourhood. And yet there are some factors that we can empirically assess. A neighbourhood rife with crime is going to make life tough on its residents. Easy access to transit makes life better.

In this issue, we have partnered with the researchers at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank affiliated with U of T’s Rotman School of Management, to compile a list of quality of life factors and rank the city’s neighbourhoods based on how well they perform in each category. The results are on page 43.

There is no scientific way to measure the value of a block party, but I’m willing to wager there’s a correlation between hanging out with your neighbours and enjoying where you live.