Love thy neighbour, and stop spraying water on their cat
As the well-worn song goes, everybody needs good neighbours. But how many of us even know who our neighbours are?
The days of passing a cup of flour over the fence, back lane barbeques and collecting each other’s mail have faded into obscurity. They’re totally, utterly gone. Replaced by cranky, surly, aloof and self-interested people who just happen to live next door to each other. Guarding their compost bins and tending to their own backyards. Or filming someone else’s. Yes, filming. But we’ll get to that.
As news.com.au reported yesterday, the Local Government Association of NSW is meeting this week to debate 100 or so separate items that are dividing the fences and driveways of our sunny state. Items on the agenda include: the rights of harangued neighbours to film each other, stinky nappy disposal and people who ride motorbikes on other people’s front lawns.
Association President Keith Rhoades has described it as the most “important event” in the association’s calendar. Yet something tells me it will be hard to convince everyone of the merits of this four-day gabfest. Because this debate is about more than second floor renovations and nature strips. It’s actually about community.
Remember that quaint old thing? When your neighbour was someone you actually knew, and your “neighbourhood” was not some trumped-up fantasy in a real estate brochure but an actual community? A place where people looked out for you?
It wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t. Old-fashioned neighbourhoods were last seen in 1982 according to last year’s British Good Neighbour Index. Back then, suburban residents knew the names of at least six of their neighbours, and spoke to at least one of them once a day.
We’re not that different here. Most of us struggle to offer a civil wave to Ethel next door as we’re reversing out the driveway. And that’s a problem. We haven’t just forgotten to talk to each other when there are issues to discuss. We’ve forgotten to even acknowledge each other’s existence.
Take Sydney’s Hornsby Shire Council. Every week customer service officers field dozens of phone calls from aggrieved suburban residents angry about trees, fences, DA approvals and noise. These are understandable concerns. Many people in Hornsby live on large, leafy blocks and raise families.
The problem is that most people don’t talk to their neighbours about the problem before putting in a call.
“We’re always reminding people to speak to their neighbours about the issue first,” says David Hayes, a spokesperson for the council.
This sounds obvious. But if you’re the type of person who takes joy in turning the sprinkler on your neighbour’s cat (that’s me!), or dumping papers in your neighbour’s recycling bins when yours gets full (me again!), it can be tricky starting up a conversation about fences or something that affects you both.
The fact that you’ve never bothered with so much as a simple hello before can make it even harder. Scary even. But it’s time to man up. Communicating with your neighbours doesn’t have to mean being best friends. But it would all be so much easier if we decide to wave once once in awhile. Take their newspaper in. Wheel the bins up the driveway, throw their kid’s ball back over the fence. You might even drop a bottle of wine around at Christmas.
At first you might feel a bit weird. And - let’s face it - their cat isn’t going to like you after all that water you sprayed over the fence, but take heart. When you press ahead with the second floor renovation, you’ll be glad for all that groundwork. You’ll be armed and ready for negotiation. Heck, you might even know their names by then.
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