The Nature Of Neighbourhoods

Clare Wishart is keen for a community comeback.

There is something going on at our local park. At the base of the tree in the farthest corner, broken bricks form lines like Hadrian’s Wall. Sticks appear and disappear. Sometimes a red bowl filled with dirt sits wedged in the ‘V’ of the tree, or a hole without council approval materialises. Just lately, I’ve seen a blue bucket suspended on a rope over a branch – an ancient pulley system in operation. My two sons are fascinated. They call it the ‘house tree’ and are always drawn to the narrative that is being acted out away from the playground equipment.

Our suburb was developed in the 1950s. Back then, there were plenty of vacant lots. There was space to run around and create secret places. A local mum whose family has been in the area for years tells me about her brother: he grew up finding lizards and snakes and bringing them home. He is now a snake handler. My kids look askance at the millipedes that come up through our ducted-heating vents. Seeing a giant mock-up of a centipede on the back of a museum brochure, my son once asked tentatively, “Do they eat little boys?”

I thought I was aware of the alarm bells ringing in urban areas: cries of ‘nature-deficit disorder’ and kids deprived of playing with natural objects. Surrounded by brightly coloured plastic, so begins a lifelong disconnection of our kids from their environment.

I thought I had provided ample opportunity for my boys to experience nature. So I was surprised when, on a recent trip to stay with their grandparents on the Sunshine Coast, the beach overwhelmed my boys during the first few days of our holiday. They didn’t quite know what to do and seemed tired and grumpy. However, if we stopped off at the local shopping centre, they suddenly perked up. They ran around the paved areas delightedly and were their usual impish selves. ‘How can this be?’ I thought. ‘Am I raising two desperately suburban children?’

That’s why I am inspired by what I see going on in our neighbourhood – a cluster of kids all drawn to this secret place in among the trees at the park. Sometimes the gaggle involve my children, who are much younger, in their play. “We’re forming a club,” the older girls say, and they dictate some rules. But mostly, they are caught up in their own worlds, and we just get to look on from the edge. I’m encouraged that when left alone, kids do gravitate to natural spaces and make up their own stories.

These kids are even allowed to ride around on bikes without supervision. They seem to be familiar with being outside and in charge of their playtime, and that makes me hopeful that the next generation will work things out in their own way using their own skills. I want to thank the parents who allow their kids to go out solo.

However, I am concerned about what I’ve coined as ‘Community Deficit Disorder’. Coming back home after our holiday in Queensland, I realised how much I relied on the car to get from activity to activity. Hunched over the steering wheel in our little box on wheels, we were removed from what was going on around us, not to mention at the mercy of road rage and dodgy parking. So I decided to try a remodelled concept of ‘park and ride’. It’s called ‘park and walk’. I’ve axed one weekly activity, and we are going to park the car some distance from daycare and use Shanks’s pony instead.

I’ve noticed that when my boys and I are outside, we walk down quiet streets. And when we do pass people, my older son says, “Who is that?” and I have to tell him that I don’t know.

I know we live in the age of ‘helicopter parenting’. I’ve heard stories of primary-school teachers using code when a particular parent appears at the classroom door: “Black Hawk approaching – duck for cover, Black Hawk approaching”. I know about the over-scheduling of kids. And now I see the consequence: quiet streets and neighbours who don’t know each other. But if you are trying not to be caught up in the whirlwind of activities, it’s hard to be that lone parent out pounding the pavement; knowing it’s just you and the boys till their dad gets home at 6.30 pm.

I wonder if it’s time to bring back the corner shop – or a revamped version for the 21st Century. Not the store of old where kids spent pocket money on things that would rot their teeth, this would be a space where locals could go and hang out together. A space that is always open during the day.

Imagine a place where adults can be outside too. I like the idea of community gardens; places to feel proud of and to own collectively*. I dream of a friendly local building that little legs can walk to easily and then explore; where people can share ideas and try them out at home. Places to be hooked into while our precious charges are in the slow business of growing up and discovering the world.

I remember reading somewhere that communities in developing countries sometimes decry the arrival of running water in their villages. The water pump in the town centre had provided a chance to gossip and exchange news when everyone came to fulfil a basic need. Where are our watering places? Where can we be nourished and linked into who we are as people without the scream of merchandising and the endless cycle of wanting shiny things?

I envisage weeks based on concepts such as Earth Hour, where everyone eats dinner in their front garden every night. Or when retired men throw open the doors to their garages (which are usually the closest room to the street), and people can drift in and out for a chat or some advice on how to fix things. I dream a lot… It’s cheap, and it gives me hope that someday things will change.

But for now, I’ll look at the neighbourhood kids and smile. They seem to know what they want to do and what’s important to them. Maybe it takes a generation for things to change; for people to want things to be different from the way it was when they grew up…

*Community gardens do exist already on a local and municipal level. For some further information, visit Community Gardens Australia

Illustrations by Natasja van Vlimmeren