Report Written by: Kayley MacGregor

On Thursday, June 9th, 2016, a group of LYAC councillors, alumni, volunteers and staff met to discuss the London Strengthening Neighbourhoods Strategy (LSNS). Generally, the meeting focused on how we define neighbourhoods and community, barriers to creating change in our neighbourhoods, and accessing/ creating resources for neighbourhood groups in London, Ontario.

Who Should Read This?

●  Young people who want to create initiatives in their neighbourhoods and communities

●  Londoners who want to learn more about how to build a good neighbourhood

●  City administrators who have a role in providing resources to neighbourhoods

How Should I Read This Report?

LYAC reports are a different kind of report. They are conversational, friendly and honest. These reports don’t try to trick you by using complicated language or pretend to be based on the opinions of experts. They are based on the best information that the Youth Councillors have at the time of each discussion. We hope that the reports make you think, make you act, and challenge you to consider things that you haven’t considered before.

Defining Neighbourhoods

Before we even got started, one councillor mentioned being unable to find information on the City website about what areas are considered ‘neighbourhoods’. Would the areas our group defines as neighbourhoods (like White Oaks, Tol Puddle, Byron and Woodfield) be the same as the ones defined by the City?

Before we could talk about decision-making and resources for neighbourhoods, we needed to go back to basics and answer the question: What is a neighbourhood? Right away, one councillor said that a neighbourhood is a pocket of people who are looking out for each other and ensure that the area where they live is safe, which was met by the other participants with nods in agreement. Another councillor added that a neighbourhood is defined by the people in it, because the people you spend time with  determines what your neighbourhood is. While this was a definition of a good neighbourhood, one councillor made a point that there only seems to be small pockets of London that are like that ideal neighbourhood.

The group also shared some of their experiences in their own neighbourhoods. One councillor described their neighbourhood as a place that they live, but that it was not necessarily their community. After saying that, the councillor added that it makes them feel a bit uneasy that they do not feel an urge to interact with their neighbourhood. On the contrast, one participant recalled growing up in a small rural area, where neighbourhood and community were considered to be the same because everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. They commented that their experience has not been the same in London, drawing a distinction between having a neighbourhood and a community by the lack of interaction they have with the people in the building they live in.

One thing that the councillors felt similarly about was that neighbourhoods are very important. People who look out for each make good neighbourhoods, which in turn makes London better. One councillor used a biology analogy: cells (people), make up tissue (neighbourhoods), which create organs (cities). Without the cells, you don’t have anything.

Neighbourhoods and Communities:

One councillor asked if neighbourhoods are the same for people in apartments as they are in houses. They explained their thought further, adding that they think people are more separate in houses than in apartment complexes. Another councillor agreed, saying that a person would be more likely to bump into someone and have conversation in an apartment complex.

The group then switched gears to discuss a pressing question: are neighbourhoods and communities are the same? The group was torn on this question: some unsure, some saying they are the same, others saying not. One participant said that some neighbourhoods are communities, but that not all are. A councillor compared their perspective a year or two ago, when they would have defined a neighbourhood as somewhere in your general vicinity and a community as a specific place with a boundary, like Old East Village. But they said that now, they amalgamate the two. Another participant said that their neighbourhood is where they live, but that their community is where they spend most of their time, at University in their case. Communities seem to have a common goal, whereas neighbourhoods contain more diverse residents that can differ in their opinions. However, sometimes issues that affect neighbourhoods are a part of a community, which blurs the distinction between the two.

Strong Neighbourhoods:

Something that struck one of the councillors in the LSNS report was that diversity was identified as being an indicator of a strong neighbourhood. Diversity to the group did not just mean racial diversity, but also socio-economic diversity. One councillor commented on the high level of racial diversity in the housing co-op that they live in, but that it is not diverse socio-economically. Another participant shared a similar story of the area that they live in, that has students, families, newcomers to Canada, and a seniors population, which makes it pretty diverse. But on the other hand, they were surprised to learn that their neighbourhood has little socio-economic diversity.

Diversity can also have its challenges, such as language differences. Language barriers can make it hard for residents to get involved in the community, and this challenge becomes harder the more diverse the area is. Having an association, facebook page or somewhere else where people can get information in multiple languages would make it so that people could easily be involved regardless of how long they have been in that area. Awareness of existing neighbourhood associations was also mentioned, as several of the councillors were unaware of whether or not their area has one.

Creating Change in Neighbourhoods:

One of the most important things that a neighbourhood group needs is dedicated members. After all, you can not work alone! Members will be dedicated if they feel like they are getting rewarded. Some members will join to help their communities, but others have obligations that can pull them away such as: internships, jobs, family commitments, etc. Giving members job titles that they can add to their r resumes, certificates, references and honorariums were all listed as ways to encourage people to volunteer consistently. High school students also have 40 hours of volunteer service required to graduate, which can be used as an incentive to get involved.

Young people in particular may face challenges with being a part of neighbourhood groups. One councillor mentioned being less willing to get involved if they feel like they are only going to be in the area for a short amount of time. Another councillor felt like they might not be taken as seriously, or their input might not be valued as a young person in a neighbourhood group, as it is likely to be made up of a lot of senior members (people who might have more time to volunteer). Being able to communicate as a group is also very important. Language barriers can result in people not having their full ideas understood or being heard. The language barrier of different classes was also brought up, in that when different classes of people speak differently with each other, it can lead some people to feel like their opinions are not valued. Besides the rewards of references and volunteer hours, people want to feel valued as a member of a group, or else they likely will not return.

Having an important topic that people want to discuss, or a common goal is also very important to any group that wants to create change. One example that was brought up was the basketball court in White Oaks that young people from the White Oaks community have been working to fix. For them, they volunteered their time because they knew that the payoff of having a new court for their neighbourhood was worth it. In that case, it was really important that the neighbourhood was also a community that could rally behind the group, regardless of whether they used the court personally or not, to ensure that the project was successful.

Even if a neighbourhood is not a community, a neighbourhood group could be a way to form community, through projects like a new basketball court, or anything else a neighbourhood group works towards. Neighbourhood groups also need a physical space for people to meet, which can become a community hub over time.

 Neighbourhoods and the City:

One of the main goals behind the LSNS strategy was to gather feedback on whether or not neighbourhoods interact with the city, and what those experiences are like if they do. Our group was asked if the City comes to mind as a resource to create change. The City is thought of as the “keeper of knowledge”, a place where you can find information on almost anything you need in London. The City can offer helpful suggestions, do things like shut down parts of roads for events, and be a source of funding as well.

While the group did see the City as a resource, some of the group found the website for the City to be overwhelming. One councillor commented that the information available should be simplified. Despite some of the difficulties in understanding the information on the website, none of group said that they would directly contact the City. Sometimes people are looking for information without a specific purpose in mind, or it is something that does not necessarily require the assistance of City staff. There is also a stereotype amongst some people that the government takes a long time to respond to a question from a citizen, even if it may not be true. Having limited access to the internet is also a problem for some people, especially those who feel intimidated about contacting the City directly.

When the group was asked if they would consider going directly to City hall to get information or help, immediately one councillor said they did not know where City Hall was. Others in the group who had been to City Hall in the past had very different perceptions. City Hall can seem kind of scary, as it is such a big professional building, and there are security guards around which can make it kind of intimidating. There is also a perception that City Hall has high security like Queen’s Park, and that you need to be someone “important” to be in the building. Some people may be fearful to go up to someone with authority who works for the City, even when they are perfectly friendly. Another councillor commented how “chill” it was at City Hall, in that you could just go into the building, and no one is asking questions about why you are there, which surprised them. Despite the fact that the City is seen as a resource, it can also be seen as an intimidating place, and the information can be confusing.

Big Questions:

1. How can we balance a strong sense of neighbourhood identity and a strong connection to London?

2. What kinds of spaces exist to communicate and congregate in neighbourhoods?

3. How can we respond to the unique needs of diverse neighbourhoods?

What We Still Need to Learn:

1. What ARE the neighbourhoods of London? How are they defined by the City?

2. The City will be reaching out to 100 people in each neighbourhood. How many neighbourhoods are in London?

3. Who are the kinds of people who will be contacted to complete the survey in the future? Will it only be online?