The art of being a good neighbour

Two neighbours laughing together in front of house

Larissa Dubecki

Posted March 22, 2021

Everybody needs good neighbours. Here’s why being one is good for your health.

It was Robert Frost who wrote the famous line, “Good fences make good neighbours”, but he clearly hadn’t just lived through a pandemic that upended everyday life across the globe. Among the many lessons learned from the hardships of 2020, the importance of neighbours was one of the most powerful. 

As onerous as they were, Victoria’s rolling lockdowns proved an antidote to the busyness of modern life. They helped reinvigorate the notion of community, as neighbours checked in on each other, ran errands for those unable to leave the house, stuck teddy bears in their windows to entertain passing children and baked endless lasagnes. 

The good will generated is certain to add extra meaning to this year’s Neighbour Day, on 28 March. 

Held each year on the last Sunday in March, the initiative run by not-for-profit Relationships Australia is a celebration of community, designed to encourage people to connect with others in their neighbourhood. 

“The original Neighbour Day in 2003 was actually a response to a tragic story,” says Relationships Australia national executive officer Nick Tebbey. “The remains of an elderly woman were found inside her home two years after she had died. An activist named Andrew Heslop was shocked by how easily she had been forgotten by her neighbours and family and friends. “That provided the seed for an event designed to fight loneliness and embrace the positive outcomes of being part of your community.”

Get involved in Neighbour Day 2021

Getting involved in Neighbour Day is easy. You can sign up to host an event – a morning tea for neighbours, a picnic, a working bee or any other thing that piques your interest – or to perform a neighbourly action such as mowing a lawn or putting a kind note in a letterbox.  

Appropriately, this year’s theme, “Every day is Neighbour Day” is designed to build on the foundations laid in 2020 and the growing movement of people taking neighbourly actions every day of the year. 

“Crises like bushfires bring out the best in everyone, but everyday actions like borrowing tools or collecting the mail are still important although they’re often forgotten,” says Nick. “The coronavirus pandemic saw us looking out for one another especially in tough times last year, but the benefits of connection occur in good times and bad. This year’s event is a really good chance to reflect on that.” 

The science of community

Being a connected neighbour is feel-good stuff, but it’s backed by science. Studies have proven the nexus between good neighbour relationships and individual health. A growing body of evidence demonstrates links between the subjective experience of neighbourhood belonging and mental wellbeing – particularly in those aged over 50. Research has shown that low levels of contact with neighbours, or no contact at all, is associated with declining levels of psychological wellbeing in middle and later life. Lonely people are known to visit a GP more often – in fact, being lonely is a better predictor of premature death than physical inactivity or obesity.

Charis White Vanaelst (left) and Linda Chilcott have lived across the road from each other in Northcote for 16 years. Photo: Matt Harvey
Research shows that children who know their neighbours and are connected to their community feel happier and safer. Photo: Matt Harvey

Safer streets

Strong communities and friendly streets are also a factor in reducing crime, says Neighbourhood Watch chief executive Bambi Gordon. “If people know each other and recognise who should be there and who shouldn’t be there, that pro-social lens is a far more powerful thing than an isolated household with CCTV cameras.” 

The Neighbourhood Watch community-based crime-prevention program, which is supported by RACV, highlights the symbiosis between the quality of life within a neighbourhood and minimising crime. 

“Just knowing your neighbours again is such a big thing,” says Bambi. “Seven out of 10 cars stolen in Victoria are stolen using their own keys, usually taken from the kitchen or hallway.” 

She cites a recent study by criminologists from the University of Sydney and Monash University that surveyed nearly 3000 residents from across 70 Victorian communities on their worries about crime. It found social activities – like talking with neighbours or joining a community group – can help make people feel significantly safer. 

“It’s also important for the elderly, and for families with children, to know their neighbours in order to feel secure. Research shows that children who know their neighbours and are connected to their community feel happier and safer.” 

When neighbours become friends

The link between strong neighbourly connections and wellbeing and security is not news to Charis White Vanaelst and Linda Chilcott who have lived across the road from each other in Northcote for 16 years, and share a close family friendship and a history of dinners, holidays, child-rearing and lockdown lasagne. “We live in each other’s pockets,” says Charis, 42. “I just really can’t imagine life without them. 

“Being Canadian it took me a long time to plug in to Melbourne and Linda just took me under her wing,” says Charis. “She and her husband Reg and their two boys have literally been my family here.” 

Linda, 64, is clearly the kind of neighbour who always looks out for others (as is Reg, who has a reputation as the street’s go-to handyman). Her bond with the newcomers was forged when she stepped in to offer help with her nursing skills over Charis’ fretful first baby.  

Linda’s now-adult sons Jarrod and Blake are like brothers to Charis and her husband Rohan. Charis’ children Andersen, 12, and Lucia, nine, are Linda and Reg’s “extra” grandkids on top of their biological two. “They refer to us as their grandparents across the road, which is lovely,” says Linda. 

Neighbours waving at each other

Strong communities and friendly streets are a factor in reducing crime, says Neighbourhood Watch chief executive Bambi Gordon. Photo: Getty


How to be a good neighbour

So how do we become good neighbours? To co-opt the theme song from a certain long-running Australian soap, “Just a friendly wave each morning helps to make a better day”.  

The advice of Relationships Australia is, don’t rush it. Start with a smile and a wave, progress to a conversation, and throw in small gestures such as bringing in a neighbour’s bins or sharing extra produce from your garden. Offers of help can be a real ice-breaker, but make sure you read the play. Some people simply prefer to be on polite nodding terms. And remember that you can be a great neighbour without actually becoming intimately involved in other people’s lives. 

Join the growing virtual neighbourhood

The very notion of a ‘neighbour’ has undergone a rethink during the pandemic. Thanks in a large part to technology, neighbours no longer have to live in immediate physical proximity – as proven by the WhatsApp groups that united coalitions of neighbours under lockdown.  

This shift in thinking was presaged by Amy Churchouse, who founded the first Good Karma Network on Facebook in 2016 to facilitate Kensington locals helping each other with advice, support and a free circular economy. “There’s no judgment, no negativity, no selling, no advertising,” says Amy of her initiative that now comprises 37 different Good Karma Networks in suburbs across Australia, with around 130,000 members. 

“A lot of mutual aid groups started during Covid, but people are actually in crisis all the time,” says Amy, who first had the idea as an emotionally struggling, socially isolated newcomer to Melbourne dealing with a lost cat. “Social isolation is a huge health risk in the modern world. But when we’re connected, we can solve problems. It gives people the opportunity to feel valuable… it gives them a chance to make a difference.”