Thursday, 14 July 2016

Striking up a conversation

Landcare grows from a robust sociability. On holiday here in Montreal, I'm learning a lot about sociability. Walking with our friend Linda Rabin through her neighbourhood is a leisurely affair. She's lived in Mile End, Montreal, for 35 years, and she knows a lot of people. Georgio calls out from the veranda of his first storey apartment - his wife Anna had a dream about Linda last night and she's coming down to tell her about it.

We're happy to linger on the pavement. The houses are three storey terraces, a separate residence to each level, with a stairway entrance for each running down to the street. An area about five metres deep accommodates the transition from residence to street, and each building handles this transition with its own configuration of staircases, rubbish bins, bicycles and gardens.


Fences are low or dispensed with all together, so that the street frontage is an open, permeable zone, where private and public spheres overlap. Conversations are possible, with immediate neighbours and with passersby. As we discuss an unusual renovation, a man joins in from his doorway - the first two floors, he tells us, are one residence, the second two, another.

This easy sociability is the most remarkable feature of my three weeks in Montreal. People are helpful. Standing at the kerb of a major city street late one night, searching in vain for a cab, a passing public bus pulls over, the door swings open and the driver offers her help. Where are we headed? To Outrement? Jump on board then, she'll take us to a Metro station that will get us home. 

People are considerate of each other. Cars slow and stop as I prepare to cross at corners. Drivers look out for pedestrians, anticipate their movements and defer to them. People give each other space in queues, and don't barge in front of others. This care in the public realm flows over into care for the public realm. People are attentive to the quality of relationship. What happens between people matters to them. 

And the people I've met are great talkers, who are interested in ideas. Conversations begin easily, and move easily to matters of consequence. Standing at the bus stop wondering when the next bus will come, I get talking to a 50-something lawyer with a three day growth heading to his office late on a Sunday. We begin with the vagaries of the buses, then turn to the benefits of travel in loosening up one's expectations, then to the journeys brought on by his father's death this year, on the other side of the country. 

Montreal-eans move easily from 'bonjour' to the state of the world around them, and to their creative projects. For a traveller without connections, this matters. I’m not just looking at people, I'm conversing with them. My habits are slowly adjusting to the physical realities of a new city (stay to the right on footpaths, look to the right when cross the road), but the big stretch is social. There are deep challenges to my (Australian) expectations of disinterest and defensiveness in the public realm. 

The people I've met are thinkers, and makers, and contributors. They understand the social as a living thing that has to be maintained and cultivated. They seem to enjoy their shared social space as a collective achievement. It's summer, and they have made it through another winter (think 20C below). They are French-speakers in an English-speaking country. They stick together, and look after each other.

It's a good feeling to live in the circle of that care, to stand in the sunshine and strike up a conversation.

The start of democracy

Riddells Creek Landcare is embedded in a mesh of government plans and programs of government as complex as any ecosystem. Consultation mediates differences and connects local communities with government. Consultation is part of our politics, for the old presumption that public servants make decisions for others, independent of the community and politicians, has broken down. With the 24/7 news cycle, politicians have stepped directly into the activities of the agencies in their portfolio. The public narrative must be chivvied to chime with the Minister's, and consultation is the chorus between the verses of Ministerial pronouncement.

As a consequence, our humble Riddells Landcare group now finds itself subject to countless invitations to comment on the strategies of government agencies and programs. On offer are workshops and briefings, carefully engineered to present the options as the professionals understand them, and online surveys that ask yes/no, like/don't like of options that capture just a part of the complexity of living. And there's the emailed comment, where we can let loose with what we think, pent-up frustration spilling out as we hammer away at the smorgasbord of issues or draft recommendations put before us.

Excellent, I think as I hit the 'send' button; I've had my say. A storm of collective opinion is swept by a digital wind into vast strategorium cloudbanks, lining a distant horizon, simmering for months, eventually precipitating glossy brochures that rain down into our in-trays and letter boxes, with assurances that we have indeed been listened to.

Sometimes, but rarely, we are invited to speak directly to those who will make recommendations. The Macedon Ranges Protection Advisory Committee, set up by the Minister for Planning to decide what policy instruments are needed to protect the character of the Macedon Ranges, recently invited community members who had written their views, to come and speak to them. A rudimentary conversation was held.

What is missing in all of this is time where we talk with each other. What do you think? What do I think? What has been our experience around an issue like roads, or health services, or residential development, or recreation? Put those categories aside …. what is it like for you living here in Riddells? What is it like for me? Do we have goals in common?

These are conversations best run by the grassroots. Riddells Neighbourhood House is inviting community groups to hear each others' priorities. At the Forum for Democratic Renewal in Riddells Creek in April, 50 residents put their heads together on what they think needs attention by local government (google it).

These are places when we can talk with our neighbours, and listen, with no public officials or strategy in sight. It's here that we get a sense of who we are as a community, and what we want for our common life. These conversations are the start of democracy.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare