There is neighbourhood group centred around one of the parks near our house. It is not one of the city’s official neighbourhood groups, because there are too many limitations on these organizations. It is simply a group of neighbours who gather to make an icerink or have a community BBQ or run free soccer for kids, and it is by far the most active and functional neighbourhood group in the city.
My wife was talking to a member of this group at the park the other day, and he suggested that the neighbourhood around this park was so strong partially because its school is still exclusively a walking school, so that most of the parents in the area see each other twice a day, five days a week. He was explaining that this sense of community is what makes the school’s PTA so strong, but I think that it also goes a long way toward explaining why the city’s most active and most independent neighbourhood group is centred around the closest park. There are only two walking schools left in the city, both of them less than ten minutes walk from my front door, and I do not think it is any coincidence that both of them are also within easy walking distance of a strong and effective neighbourhood group.
It is not that there is anything especially magical about walking schools. They are merely what forces people in our area to walk through their neighbourhood, passing each other’s houses, meeting each other in the street, talking with each other on the school’s front lawn. This function could be performed by many things, by a church or a community centre or an employer, but it is a function that is no longer performed by anything in many of our communities. The walking schools bring otherwise isolated people into the street, makes it possible for them to encounter one another.
Even though my children do not attend the school, many students and parents pass by my house every day, where I am usually sitting on my front porch with a coffee, and I have come to know many of them over the last few years, some of them so well that they will beg a cup of coffee from me if they have not had the time to make their own. My children know them too, shouting and playing and arranging times to meet in the park. Once my eldest even put up a stand to give the kids free lemonade on their way home from school.
When people interact in this way, not occasionally, but continually, as a part of the way they live, the natural outcome is that a sense of community will develop. It will be impossible to avoid this development. It will lead us on the way community, however much we try to avoid it.