Monday, January 31, 2022

It's snowing outside - extraordinary weather communities

Winter snow in Canada

by Tarah Hodgkinson 

I’ve been back in Canada for a few months now after living in Australia for a few years. Something I missed terribly, though none of my Canadian friends could believe it, was snow. In Brisbane, the weather never dropped below 8 degrees Celsius and most of the Australians I knew had never seen snow in their life. 

I, on the other hand, had grown up surrounded by snow. For the first month every time a few flakes fell I had my face pressed against the window like a little kid. 

A few weeks ago Ontario received a massive snowfall. Several cities, including Toronto and Ottawa, woke up to a minimum of 30-40cm. It shut down major roadways and forced a snow day on the first day school classes were supposed to return to being in person. 

So why all the fuss about snow? The last time I wrote about snow, I was complaining about the injustice of snow on sidewalks for folks living with disabilities. 

Shared snow shoveling in a neighbourhood

This time I wanted to write about how snow, much like other collective weather events, has the potential to bring us together. When I woke up the day of the snowfall I couldn’t wait to get outside and start shovelling (remember it had been a while). 

But what I found amazing was how quickly the neighbourhood came out to join. I met many of my neighbours for the first time. We laughed as we tried to dig out our cars. A few local residents helped older folks to shovel out their driveways and sidewalks. It became a whole day affair. People stopped and chatted and planned who/where else needed some help. When some people ran out of steam, others took over until the neighbourhood was walkable again. 


This quickly reminded me of an oft-quoted book on this site – A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. She suggests that when we face exceptional events like extreme weather or disaster, it often creates a sense of connection and unity - something we have all been missing lately.  

While not all extreme weather events may trigger long term social cohesion, there are those that do. You may recall it was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that led to our involvement in the New Orleans, Hollygrove livability project. Back in 2010 and 2011, this site posted blogs on how Hollygrove resident teams removed blighted homes, how they launched a flurry of targeted revitalization projects, including a seniors walking group and a decade-long community farm, and how they ended up cutting crime 78%. 

Sidewalk snow shovelling often require neighbourly cooperation 

These small, but significant, moments are part of the tapestry that make great neighbourhoods. Residents take an opportunity to help one another and gain connection in the process. They get a better sense of who lives nearby and what kinds of support they might need. They are also more likely to talk to each other when issues like community safety emerge and decide to do something about it. 

Maybe this is why I like snow so much. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

My shadow's the only one - an epidemic of loneliness

"My shadow's the only one that walks beside me"
- Lyrics by Green Day

by Gregory Saville

The opening lyrics of The Boulevard of Broken Dreams disclose: “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me…My shallow heart’s the only things that’s beating”. 

As we wallow in our current cult of self-care and self-healing, I remember that twenty-two years ago Robert Putnam published his book Bowling Alone about the collapse of traditional community and the rise of loneliness. And here we are, decades later, about to emerge from a Pandemic into an epidemic of loneliness! We drive our cars alone! Ride the transit alone. Walk through crowded spaces, still feeling alone. We can feel alone in social gatherings and in a marriage. 

We have all felt the pain, at one time or another, of that kind of loneliness. It is truly a terrible thing.

Research suggests over 40% of our population often feels alone, which is not at all the same as seeking solitude or being alone. Loneliness is insidious! It is harmful to our mental health and it poses a significant public health risk to everyone. Scientific studies also correlate loneliness to higher levels of violence.

Even colorful urban design can trigger loneliness


It is the condition of our communities that matters most when it comes to preventing loneliness. When we house people alone in single flats, in alienating nursing homes, or fail to provide opportunities for social gatherings, we build the foundation on which loneliness rests. It arises when people live alone, have no intimate partnerships and few friends, or suffer strained relationships. 

None of those things are easily fixed, but all of them can be prevented.

Mateja has blogged about the Happy-to-Chat benches in Helsingborg, Sweden and also about speaking to strangers on transit. Tarah has written about the importance of Third Places to create opportunities for connection. She’s written about how the best form of self-care is to care for others


I too have written about the damage loneliness can do to our health (lonely people get sicker sooner and have higher mortality rates), all of which is backed up by behavioral science.

Simple axioms for fighting loneliness offer hints

A decade ago I blogged about the well-known Roseto Effect  – the town in Pennsylvania where residents experienced a powerfully strong sense of community with a huge circle of supportive family and friends. That in turn had a role in reducing stress, mitigating isolation, and cutting loneliness. Roseto had among the highest health rates and the lowest mortality in the nation. 

Intimate connectedness and social support networks – those are the assets of great neighborhoods. If we are not creating neighborhoods, places, and relationships that eliminate loneliness, then what the hell are we doing?

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Self-governing urban open spaces

The creativity of an urban open space - Pixlapiren

by Mateja Mihinjac

During my work travels over the past years, I have found – often by accident – many interesting places with an alternative local subculture. These places always intrigued me to learn more about how they emerged and who manages them to keep them alive and flourishing.


I recently discovered one such place by the pier in Helsingborg, Sweden. Pixlapiren is a meeting place intended for everyone to visit and explore, and for local residents, organisations and groups to create. People have opportunities to meet, initiate and share ideas and form place identities to strengthen local democracy and challenge segregation problems. 

Learning to garden in Pixlapiren

They can also obtain a pixel (a development space measuring 10 x 10 metres) to create and display their creative outputs. Other activities occurring at this place include street art festivals, community gardening, skateboarding, beach volley, swimming, water skiing, various festivals and workshops. 

Pixlapiren is an example of urban commons, a form of self-governance that was originally established by the local government as part of the urban renewal project with the purpose of exploring new forms of co-development. The space is now self-governed by users, NGOs and non-government actors that manage and steer the resources while the municipality acts as a facilitator. In the process, governance changed from open co-governance to self-governance. 


The second example of a self-governing space, the Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural Centre, is in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

“Metelkova” is an autonomous social and cultural centre that since the early 1990s occupies the space of the old military headquarters. It started as informal commons with the tension between squatters occupying the space and the municipality. At one point, it was even declared illegal. 

Art installation in Metelkova, Slovenia

The space remains contentious due to non-compliance with the building codes and urban planning regulations. However, due to its extensive contribution to cultural activity in the city and its attractiveness for tourists, the municipality is now also linked to the site through its institutional actors. It capitalises on recognition of this space as a tourist attraction as well as a national cultural heritage status that was awarded to Metelkova in 2005. 

Today, Metelkova is a self-governed and self-managed community that receives European cultural funds. It has become a home to many artists and creatives, a place of art exhibitions, art installations, festivals, concerts, performances and clubs. LGBT associations and NGOs now also hold offices in the space. While independent, connections with many institutions and organisations, and its cultural and tourist prominence have solidified its position in the city.

Metelkova also hosts Hostel Celica, with renovated rooms from former prison cells


The literature on urban open spaces teaches us about the prominence of these spaces as a “vital element of the urban matrix”. From SafeGrowth we also know how important they are for the social sustainability and the cultural character of the neighbourhood.

Pixlapiren and Metelkova add an important social, cultural and tourist character to their respective cities and are based on collective movement and self-governance. 

Seaside seating on recycled materials in Pixelapiren

While the journeys of these two places started somewhat differently (the first one was initiated by the city government while the second started as an illegal occupation), the evolution of such spaces in the years ahead teaches us about the importance of government/non-government/civic society partnerships. The success of these spaces also speaks to the importance of the community that manages the space and assumes self-governance. 

Urban commons strengthen local democracy and they offer a great opportunity for local governments to involve people in local decision making. That is an excellent way to prevent tensions that might arise from unwanted activity in those spaces. Urban commons like these provide local governments with a way to leverage social sustainability and cultural character into neighbourhoods of the future. 

Saturday, January 8, 2022

A loaf of bread to feed a family - Food insecurity in our communities

Food is much more than a "CRAVED" item - a Denver area food bank notice 

by Tarah Hodgkinson

A few years ago, I was at a conference listening to a colleague of mine talk about theft in Australia. They noted that most of what was being stolen was food. I raised my hand. “Wait. People are stealing food? WHY are people stealing food?”

I received the standard opportunity theory answer. The academic crowd around me clucked about the lack of guardianship and easy targets. Fine, fine, I’ve written about all of that. But this is food. 

Food isn’t a CRAVED item. (CRAVED is a theoretical list of characteristics that make items vulnerable to theft - consider the sad irony of that acronym in this context!) Some food items are easy to steal but not easy to resell, and not particularly valuable. Unless they are!

When I was conducting research in the Canadian prairies about 5 years ago, small shop owners there also told me that their most common stolen item was food. They told me that they rarely confronted those stealing food or reported it to the police. They claimed it wasn’t worth it for them and assumed that, if they were stealing food, they probably needed it. 


I think food theft is indicative of something bigger. For as much as certain criminologists don’t want to talk about offender motivation, how can we not talk about it what is being stolen is a basic human need. 

Covid-19 has changed the game for many people around the world. Jobs have been lost and neighbourhoods are struggling. Add to that, the many recent crises making the problem worse: 

  • a shipping crisis in North America that threatens to raise the cost of basic supplies like food,
  • a growing number of community food pantries,  
  • food banks desperately asking for donations as they are running out of supplies. 

I’m seeing my own students struggling to feed themselves and their families. 

We need to do better. People shouldn’t need to steal food to feed themselves or their families.  

A facility for food-for-the hungry in Ottawa


First, demand a living wage (or provide one if you own a business). $15 an hour is not a living wage in North America. Multiply that by a full-time work week (37 hours) and 2 weeks of vacation and that’s $27,750 BEFORE taxes - barely over the poverty line in Canada ($25,153 in 2021) for one person. What if you are providing for your family? 

Free community food refrigerator in Ottawa 

Second, if you are able to contribute to food banks, be sure to give the right things.  Remember that most non-perishable food items require can openers and other items to make them (like butter and milk). So think about pop-top cans and staple items. Your local food bank will have a list.   

Third, support and grow community gardens. These not only grow food locally, but they help make fresh produce accessible to everyone. We have blogged about the power of community gardens all over the world, from Indianapolis to Brisbane.

Fourth, buy local. Support organizations that support your community back and help provide a living wage to your neighbours. 

All of these are small ways we can address the actual underlying issue that the opportunity theorists miss: food insecurity. But there are others as well. Food theft shouldn’t be a discussion of crime opportunities or guardianship and security. It should make us ask ourselves: what kind of neighbourhood do we want to live in? If you ask me – one where people have their basic human needs met.