Want to Save the World? Start With Your Own Neighborhood.

Group of people at a recycle and repair rally
Maple Ridge Repair Cafes (used with permission)

These 6 initiatives can build community, combat loneliness, and stretch resources.

The modern age has been called "the age of loneliness," since people are living more solitary, disconnected lives than ever before. It is also a time of climate crisis, of rapid environmental breakdown requiring swift action. So, ideally, we should look for ways to address both of these problems and improve quality of life all around.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and have some suggestions for community-based initiatives to do precisely that. These can get people interacting, sharing, and bonding, while reducing consumerism and teaching practical, lifelong skills. They may seem small, but they add up to a better, happier world.

1. Visit a repair café.

It's an awful feeling when you have to throw something away because it's broken and you don't know how to fix it, or the manufacturer refuses to service it. Instead, you could take it to a repair café. To quote Maple Ridge Repair Cafés in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, this is

"a community-building event where volunteers with repair expertise help people in their community repair their broken belongings. We have volunteers who can fix electrical appliances, clothing repairs, bicycles, jewelry, small furniture, and can glue anything from ceramics to shoes."

The name 'café' also suggests a social gathering, a place to swap knowledge and skills, to learn how things are done, and to make friends. If there isn't one in your area, start one. I suspect there are a good number of seniors (among others) who have stellar repair skills who would welcome the assignment. Start asking at a local seniors' center, which is where Maple Ridge hosts some of its cafés.

repair café bicycle
 Maple Ridge Repair Cafes (used with permission)

2. Cross-cultural cooking class

Food is perhaps the easiest way to connect people from different backgrounds, which is why cross-cultural cooking classes are great for starting conversations and building relationships between long-term residents and newcomers in neighborhoods, not to mention acquiring some useful skills.

Smithsonian Magazine talks about an organization called Cooking as a First Language that does away with the usual 'service relationships' that define many white Americans' interactions with immigrants to their country. Instead, everyone comes together in a private setting (a home or small commercial kitchen) to cook a dinner together under the guidance of a person with expertise in another country's cuisine. If you're not in the NYC region, there's a list of similar programs in the Smithsonian article – or consider starting your own.

3. Seed swap

It's the time of year when people are starting to think about their gardens. Rather than ordering your seeds online, why not look for a local seed swap? This is a wonderful chance to meet fellow gardeners who can share tips on growing in your particular region, as well as exchange seeds, particularly special heirloom varieties that might be difficult or expensive to purchase. It can also be a powerful act of corporate subversion, as some U.S. states have made selling seeds illegal unless you have a permit to do so. As Kimberley Mok wrote a few years ago on TreeHugger,

"Seed sharing is a simple act that ensures food security, nurtures a culture of cooperation, shares traditional knowledge and grows a direct connection to nature... It is something that should be protected from corporate agendas, and should be the right of every small-time gardener and farmer out there."

By swapping seeds without money involved, you can get around some of the regulations and stand up for something you believe in. Contact your local horticultural society to see if anything like this is happening.

4. Little Free Library... of yarn!

I read about this cute idea on Zero Waste Canada's Facebook page. A neighborhood in Philadelphia has created a Little Free Fiber Library, which follows the idea of a Little Free Library of books, except with yarn. It is maintained by a nearby yarn shop, which stocks it every morning with surplus wool, and anyone who takes supplies is welcome to come into the shop for advice, a tutorial, or to have their yarn wound. But this is an idea that could be implemented on private property, too, and could lead to interesting connections among neighbors wanting to learn new skills.

5. A library of things

Think of a conventional library for books, and then imagine if, instead, it contained tools, sports gear, camping supplies, children's toys, garden furniture, shop-vacs, lawnmowers, and so much more. You wouldn't have to buy those things! They wouldn't be cluttering your house or garage, and you'd be taking a stand against rampant consumerism, in favor of shared ownership. This is a brilliant idea that's already been implemented in many communities such as Toronto, but there's still a lot of potential for growth. You can also check if your public (book) library lends out additional things; I know mine now has fishing rods, SAD lamps, and museum passes.

6. Open a junk playground for kids

Kids need places to go build things using materials they may not have at home, and away from the scrutiny of adults who might tell them they're "doing it wrong." A junk playground is a partially supervised play zone (usually by one paid adult who's on duty, but only intervenes when asked) where kids are provided with a wide range of loose parts with which they can play, construct, explore, and take risks. It might look more like a garbage heap to parents, but it's in fact a treasure trove for imaginative kids and can result in really astonishing projects. Playing here helps them to develop gross motor skills and conflict management skills, and allows them to entertain themselves for long periods of time. Every town should have one.

A junk discovery adventure playground
Erin Davis / Video screen capture

As you can see, this is a diverse list, but the point is that there is something for everyone. We need to get out of our houses, cars, and shopping carts. We need to start talking, sharing, and interacting with neighbors, which will allow resources to go further, moods to be boosted, and a sense of community to be forged. It's well-intentioned to want to save the world, but the place where you can make the biggest difference is in your own neighborhood.