Tobah: Neighbourhood projects pay dividends in engagement, belonging

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Earlier this month, the City of London announced the results of its neighbourhood decision-making program. This annual program allows community members to propose ideas to improve their neighbourhoods. Many of the submitted ideas included upgrading playground equipment, inserting park benches on pathways, and planting pollinator gardens.

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City staff reviewed and revised the submissions prior to a public vote. This year, almost 10,000 Londoners voted on 78 proposed projects with 24 receiving funding to be completed by the end of 2023. The winning ideas included a community pantry, bat houses, and tree planting with almost $250,000 allocated in total. The purpose of the program is to facilitate a feeling of belonging and enhance community agency.

When I first heard about the program, I was affected by the idea of the city investing in and facilitating community decision making. No idea was too small to propose. I came across program staff at community gatherings promoting the program and saw digital ads on my social media, a clear product of a multi-pronged engagement strategy. Some of the online ads even were in Arabic.

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Former program staff member Mohamed AbuGazia says advertising material for the neighbourhood decision-making program was created in English, French, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi and Gujarati. Team members hired on to the project spoke those languages as well, encouraging the engagement of a broad spectrum of Londoners.

Program staff created videos in these languages answering questions about who can participate, specifying that an individual needs only to reside in the city and does not need to have their permanent residency or Canadian citizenship. This messaging, coupled with the linguistic diversity, was a clear attempt to remove barriers to participation for all Londoners, defining community beyond a legal status to include all those with whom we share space.

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It’s clear the strategies to engage Londoners paid off with the highest participation yet for the neighbourhood decision-making program. In addition, a winning project included a little free library of Arabic books in northwest London.

Reading through the submissions, it’s easy to tell that behind each initiative was an individual who wanted to improve their neighbourhood, caring for all those with whom we share this environment. Bat houses provide shelter for bats during the day, pollinator gardens help attract diverse ecosystems, community meals and pantries help provide for those most vulnerable in our communities, and benches and bike racks enhance communal spaces.

Not only are the ideas innovative but the program is a prime example of that of which we need more: creative low-barrier opportunities for facilitating community connections. The program’s engagement strategy also demonstrates that there are ample ways to remove barriers and ensure all feel rightfully welcome in the community-building process and truly represent our city.

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Audre Lorde once said that without community there is no liberation. We need each other. The recipe for a safe and flourishing community lies within our neighbours, friends, and those who reside in this city with us.

I believe there is a desire for more opportunities to come together in new ways. The neighbourhood decision-making program is just one example of this appetite for community connection and care. And as we continue to face challenges as a city, whether they be the evolving conditions of the pandemic or climate change, it’s worth remembering that we are capable of investing in and taking care of each other.

Selma Tobah is a community development worker at the London Inter-Community Health Centre and has been active in a number of Muslim community organizations in the city.

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