By Julia Benford
In the modern world, people interact with their neighbors very differently than they did a century ago. Acording to a recent study by the National Association of Realtors, today 70% of Americans live in single-family houses, separated from people outside of their immediate family. The design of American neighborhoods also means that people use personal cars to get almost everywhere, from home to work to the grocery store. As a result, most people don’t spend much time interacting with their neighbors in a meaningful way.
Childhood development research shows that cultivating relationships with people outside of one’s immediate family is important for social engagement and mental well-being. Unfortunately more and more we don’t have as many opportunities to make those kinds of connections in today’s world.
Luckily, a few spaces still exist where community members come together. Parks are one such space, and they’re especially important because they’re free for everyone to access. Neighborhood parks allow people to interact in casual ways while doing other activities-- joggers say hello as they pass one another, dog owners chat as their pets play in the dog park, and parents schedule playdates with other families. These interactions build familiarity and trust, strengthening the sense of community in the neighborhood. A well-maintained park can truly serve as a “third space,” where people create social relationships outside of the home and the workplace.
Improving the stewardship and accessibility of Portland’s parks is a big part of our mission here at the Portland Parks Foundation, but sadly not everyone has access to a safe and well-maintained park in their neighborhood. However, people still recognize the value of parks, and they often come together to support the parks in their neighborhood. Mark Wells, Portland’s Neighborhood Watch coordinator, spoke to us about some community efforts to promote safety in local parks. A new Neighborhood Watch program called Park Watch serves as “a collaboration between neighbors and crime prevention, where both work together to bring positive activities back to neighborhood parks.” In Sellwood, the local Neighborhood Watch has teamed up to help take care of nearby Sellwood Park, cleaning up trash and reporting maintenance issues. Many of these types of programs have been very successful, showing how positive the effects can be when communities come together around parks.
Everyone deserves access to a clean, safe neighborhood park. The space that parks provide is incredibly valuable for creating connections between neighbors and helping reduce the sense of isolation that some people feel. Even if your local park needs some work, chances are good that others in your community feel the same and want to help create positive change. If you spot maintenance issues in your neighborhood park, you can report them using the PDX Reporter app. Or you could get involved by volunteering at a park near you with Neighborhood Watch! When you volunteer, you not only make connections with people in your community, you can also help create parks that forge those connections for others.