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How do you build a strong neighbourhood? One increasingly popular approach is to focus on businesses, like coffee shops, that can become hubs and catalysts for the surrounding community. But Howard Lawrence believes it’s just as important to think about what he calls “social infrastructure.” This refers to the frameworks that allow people to actually make those connections with their neighbours — like the coffee shop’s open-mic night or the walking group that meets out front each week. “There’s a sense in our society that good neighbouring is to stay distant,” Howard says. “We’re turning that around.”

Howard is the lead consultant for Abundant Community Edmonton, a grassroots project supported by the City, that helps neighbourhoods develop by looking at their assets, as opposed to their needs. Most solutions, he believes, can be found within — but to get there, we’ll all need to come out of our shells a little bit. Howard’s son once pointed out to him that Halloween was the best night of the year, because it was the one time the entire neighbourhood looked forward to interacting with one another. Howard wants to recreate that Halloween feeling year-round.

Why should people get involved in public engagement? In addition to the many practical reasons, Howard offers a technical one. “The etymology of the word citizen is always paired with polis, or place,” he says. “The citizen was responsible for that place. So democracy in its participatory form gathered you together to discuss your responsibilities to the polis, and to say, ‘I need to participate.’”

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