Last weekend we had our first two street events of the year. Returning for the second year of street events gave us an opportunity to reflect on why we do them, what impact do they have, and why they have become such important ‘entry points’ for people into community life.
Street events are a simple concept. Our neighbourhood was built with lots of small-ish plots of green space amongst the housing, with each green space being surrounded by 100-ish houses. We felt these would be ideal locations to bring ‘community’ as close to people’s door-steps as possible.
Street events happen through unearthing ‘hosts’ who who are natural connectors, who know lot’s of their neighbours, are deeply passionate about bringing people together, and making people feel welcomed and included in our community. This is the first crucial step and we don’t plan a street event unless there is at least one local host. This is because they are not about doing street events ‘for’ people, we do street events ‘with’ people, with a hope these events will become a regular pattern of activity in our community led ‘by’ local people.
When the hosts are found, the location and the date are set, the next step is going door knocking to the 100-ish houses around the event. This is about letting people know the event is happening, asking people if they would be willing to contribute through bringing some food, drinks, bringing some chairs, games, and helping set-up. What we have learned is this is a crucial step because it creates the first encounter between neighbours. It provides a face and a name to the people hosting the event, and most importantly it starts neighbours getting to know each other better. When a conversation starts with ‘Hi I’m Tracey, I live over the road, and I’m helping to host a street event next week. I would love you to come along.’ this becomes a much more significant conversation than just promoting a street event. It’s a step towards bringing people together, building connections, creating a culture of welcome, and building trust.
Then we have the event itself. The structure of the event is again simple: set up a few gazebos with tables and chairs underneath, an event shelter (new this year!), some outdoor games (a tennis net, small football goals, swing ball, jenga, etc), a speaker with music, and most importantly a bouncy castle. In our community no street event would be without a bouncy castle! The hosts play a crucial role that goes way beyond being the ones setting up, packing away and giving out some tea and coffee. They set the culture of welcome by encouraging neighbours to chat to each other and feel part of the event. Another key element of these events has been food. It’s a great way for neighbours to contribute something to the event, share a gift and talent for cooking or baking, and also show generosity and care for their neighbours. Also the act of sitting and ‘breaking bread’ is important as the conversations flow whilst sharing a meal together. It’s important that there is a space for this sharing in the midst of the games, activities, and bouncing!
We have learned that these events are so important because they are small. They provide a space where the hosts can be aware of everybody attending, and seek to find ways to ensure everybody can participate and feel connected to others. We ask people at the events if they have spoken to somebody they didn’t know before today and got to know someone new by name. The overwhelming answer is yes!
The events get between 50 to 100 people attending, with over half being children. The feedback we get is people value the events because they provide a space for the children to play with each other. This is great and probably the most ‘visible’ impact of the days. But what we have learned through listening to people’s stories is these street events are important ‘starting’ places for people as they journey into community life. So many people identify a street event as where it all began for them, either as the first thing they came to, where they met someone who has become a significant friend, or where an idea for a new activity emerged through a conversation with a neighbour. They also provide opportunities for neighbours who have experienced community to invite others to join in. We have learned that their can be a number of barriers which stop people from coming to relationships of trust with their neighbours, and the street events.
If you currently don’t do these kinds of events in your community, I ask you:
How would a street event work in your community?
Who are the people in your street, or community who are natural connectors who would love to help host a street event?
If you do these kinds of events, then my questions to you are (these are questions we are asking ourselves)?
How can we make these street events even more accessible for people?
How could the street events be further developed to be spaces where even more conversations happen that lead to a more connected community?