Mehroo Rigby (Unity Streets Coordinator) & Julie Ridley, Community Connectors member and UCLan researcher have written the following story for Podio Preston about a street initiative to get neighbours together this summer.
Last year, Broadgate and Hartington/Christchurch Community Connectors held the Big Launch Lunch at Preston Sports Club celebrating community and connecting people across generations, faiths, cultural and social divides but this year because of the pandemic we needed to do something different. Inspired by the national ‘Great Get Together’, and Jo Cox’s words – “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us” – neighbours in streets across the area connected with each other in different (socially distant) ways and still had fun. Mehroo Rigby was commissioned to co-ordinate the Unity Streets project to bring residents together. Mehroo’s connection and passion with the area started when she moved to Broadgate in 1990 and through working with the children and parents of the community for 15 years at St Stephen’s School.
In just a month, Mehroo built good rapport and relationships with many people across the area and helped create links and motivate people to take a lead in organising activities for their streets. Sharing ideas and supporting plans encouraged neighbours on the streets to work together, sometimes for the first time. One resident said:
“It’s been ages since we’ve done anything like this – I think it was the Silver Jubilee!”
Unity Streets was staged on Sunday 26th July by the people of Broadgate and Hartington/Christchurch. Physically distanced activities included a Broadgate bake off, quizzes, boot camp exercise, best dressed competition, a resident’s talk, communal food and refreshments, ‘go find who’ games to initiate conversations, choosing the music on the jukebox, games such as kiddies cricket and Jenga, fancy dress starting with wearing masks and evolved into a fun masked parade! People assisted with providing tables, food, refreshments, speakers, drawing materials and lots more. Mugs with the Community Connectors logo were distributed to mark the celebrations. Streets and houses were festooned with handmade Unity Street bunting and other decorations.
One street created a chalk communal art wall and children made colourful drawings on pavements across the area. There was a vintage themed street and a very popular ice cream man, Andy Pratt (Community Connector’s Treasurer) on his vintage ice cream bike delivering free ices.
Participation far exceeded our expectations with more than 400 people getting involved in some way, and on some of the streets enthusiastic neighbours rallied together. In some areas, adjacent streets with just a handful of neighbours joined forces and visited each other’s streets. A total of 13 streets took part with upwards of 150 households from the area participating and learning about each other, generations mixing and sharing experiences and stories of present and times gone by whilst living on the street. One street’s two hour planned activities continued on for four hours! Bootcamp activities on the day offered residents keep fit activities and information about keeping fit, having fun and creating healthier habits. Many people enthused about the day:
“It was an amazing day. We managed to put names to the many new faces on our street. My little lad has made some new friends and thoroughly enjoyed the day.” (neighbour on Cliff Street)
“In this Covid 19 period it was just wonderful to see people with their ‘heads-up’ and speaking to neighbours they hadn’t really spoken to before. My overall impression was of peoples smiles and laughter.” (ice cream Andy)
‘Bringing neighbours together’ is the core aim of Community Connectors, which recognises the many health and wellbeing benefits from good connections and closer neighbourhoods. Neighbours feel a greater sense of belonging and purpose when friendships, trust and social relationships are built. Understanding that there is help nearby provides the stability needed by old and young. As a resident who took part in Unity Streets explained, she now feels reassured that she can call on her neighbour if she needs anything, and a little girl commented:
“It’s great because I now have a new friend who I can call for down the street… and I now talk to aunty across the road… and us kids play together and look after each other.”
Unity Streets cut through cultural, age and racial boundaries and prejudices by helping neighbours get to know each other better. Its effects will be long lasting.
Research commissioned by the Eden Project’s Big Lunch in 2019 identifies a widening gap in the relationship between neighbours that is ‘damaging our mental and physical health and reducing the ability of communities to cope when crisis hits’. In short, they found that disconnection is bad for our health. The problem is that people don’t want to intrude, or they don’t have a particular reason or excuse to talk to their neighbours, they have little in common, or they never see their neighbours. Unity Streets has helped break down some of these barriers. Finding that they shared things in common, neighbours in Broadgate and Hartington/Christchurch felt more confident sharing experiences and their areas of expertise, thinking about volunteering and partnering up for future events.
We’ve learned from Unity Streets that there are so many natural connectors in this community! The most important thing is keeping the community spirit alive. Residents say they were inspired from this to continue with the get togethers (at a social distance for the time being) and they feel more connected and less isolated than before. It’s still difficult to organise things that are Covid safe and organising outdoor activities is important. One resident offered to run an autumn guided nature walk along the river and tramway. Other things we’re looking at are starting up a doorstep cuppa at a regular time each week, producing a recipe book reflecting the diverse cuisines of the area, community clean-ups making the environment better for everyone including decorating alleyways, and creating more safe playtimes for the children in streets.
This is a time when we need to reach out to the most isolated people in our communities and more streets might take a leaf out of South End’s book and organise a street WhatsApp group to keep in touch, have fun and call for support, which in turn also reduces social isolation. Over the next year we’ll be working to put these and other ideas into practice – watch this space!
More photos and a film of Unity Streets will be posted on the Broadgate and Hartington/Christchurch Community Connectors Facebook page in the near future:
For more information contact Dave Hanson, Community Connectors Chairperson – email: firstname.lastname@example.org