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Neighbourhood Matters at the Sydney Alliance convention

Last week Neighbourhood Matters was at the Sydney Alliance convention. We started up a Sydney Alliance Surry Hills group during the start of the pandemic and together held a storytelling event in our neighbourhood where various people shared about their experiences of Covid. Since then we have kept n touch and continued listening to our neighbourhood to see which voices are not being heard and whether we can join with others in community organising for the common good.

The convention was encouraging in that we could see that there are so many groups across Sydney that are working together for change in their communities. There is power in people getting together to bring about change to systems that need it.

We were part of a discussion group at the convention that was discussing housing affordability. People in the group ranged in ages and also represented different organisations. Each person shared that Covid has made the housing crisis worse and that rising house prices in Sydney means that young people don’t feel they will ever be able to afford a home in this city.

In the convention we:

– Shifted from reacting through the crises of the last two years, to taking proactive steps on our agenda,
– Brought together a diverse agenda through stories of our connected struggles: Walking with First Nations, A City of Dignity, Climate Justice, and Democracy and Belonging,
– Reconnected with each other through the power of stories, recording hundreds of them to start our story map,
– Endorsed the Alliance strategy through a thick stack of commitments made by organisations and individuals,
– Celebrated a milestone for Voices for Power, saying farewell to Thuy and welcoming new organisers.

Neighbourhood Matters was glad to be there and is continuing to look for opportunities to connect Sydney Alliance voices in Surry Hills.

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An “Out of the box ” gathering

Recently Neighbourhood Matters participated in the Out of the Box Missional conference run by the Uniting Church. The conference was open to all who were interested in exploring the theme of mission and even deconstructing the term. What does mission look like today?

We heard from Ellie Elia who has a creative community in Glenbrook. Covid forced her congregation to reorient around the community in different ways and also to work with other denominations. The church building was not as important as most things went online and they had to use different spaces for gathering. It also instigated more creation of art and the community had to discern carefully what God was saying to them. She described herself as not really “following the book” when it came to mission and emphasised how important relationships are.

We also heard a lot about “umu spirituality” from the lighting of the Pacific Islander umu to a panel that represented various people from cultures around the Pacific and Korea as well as our indigenous peoples.  We celebrated communion with taro and coconut juice.

Neighbourhood Matters led a workshop around pioneering which was well received. We had a panel of on the ground pioneer replicators, innovators, adaptors and activists. Our questions were;

What is a pioneer?

Why do institutions like the church, need pioneers?

How can we identify, nourish and develop pioneers?

Why do pioneers struggle in institutions?

There was lots to think about there! We loved hearing different people telling us stories about their journey of starting up new and creative ventures in existing contexts.

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Churches connecting with the neighbourhood

Neighbourhood Matters recently hosted a group of people who were in Sydney for the International Association for Mission Studies. We took them on a walk around Surry Hills and shared with them about our work. There were people from Nigeria, Germany, The Netherlands, New Zealand and the USA. What we all had in common is that we are practitioners in our churches and neighbourhoods and that we desire to see more churches connect with their communities.

We shared about our work in Surry Hills in connecting with people, establishing projects in the community and working with local partners for the good of the community. We also shared about our work in starting and facilitating groups where people meet for discussion around spirituality, ethics and deeper meaning-of-life issues.

We found that we had a lot in common with each other and that we are all asking the same questions about the church: How can the church see itself as one part of the ecology of the neighbourhood? How do we discern what God is up to in the community where we are placed? How do we see place as important? Why is it that the church seems to be answering questions that people are not asking? How can the church partner with more residents, organisations and institutions in the community?

At a time when the church is in decline and more people are instead connecting with nature and indigenous spiritualities and looking for alternative places to find community, what does the church have to offer? This is not a question of becoming “relevant” or changing our essential message of love, truth, justice and grace, but instead about becoming more integrated in our community and embodying that message where we live. It sounds easy but, in a context where people are sceptical about the church and where the church has become more insular in many ways, it can become a daily uphill climb to do what seems so simple.

We all recognised this as we continued in our discussions. But we also agreed that people today are looking for meaning. If we listen to people, we discover that many have had either bad or difficult experiences with the church, which makes them hesitant to be involved in anything religious. If we listen to people, we hear our Christian friends confessing they marked “not religious” on the recent Census but not telling anyone for fear of being ostracised. If we listen to people, we learn just what they mean by saying they are “spiritual not religious”. If we listen to people, we hear what they love about connecting with nature and other communities. People are searching for meaning in this messed-up world. Will the church connect with them or will it become more isolated in a context where the church has already lost its influence?

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Getting to know your neighbourhood- “Murders most foul”


How well do you know your neighbourhood? I have been living in the inner-city for only 6 years now but very involved in the community. So I thought I knew a lot about my neighbourhood. However on a recent tour, I realised yet again that there is still so much to learn about the place where I live.

(Laneway of Surry Hills near Sophia St considered one of the most dangerous streets in Australia at one time)

This was a tour of Surry Hills and we were led by Elliot Lindsay who is a historian that runs Murders most foul , “true crime” tours of Surry Hills. We walked through various streets and places in my community. We stopped at houses where there had been dodgy activities,  crimes, sly-grog dealing and brothels from the 1920s and 40s. We walked past a house where a woman’s body had been found only eight years after she had died. This is the famous Natalie Wood or “the woman that Sydney forgot“.  So I learnt more about the history, the past of where I live and this actually connected me to the present even more. It made me think about how important it is to connect with our place whether it is through the history, land, community activities or public spaces.

(Classic Surry Hills- a “dunny lane”)

Is there a tour of your neighbourhood that helps people understand the history of that place? It would be essential to have our first nations people speak into this experience so we know about the land, the native flora and fauna. Perhaps we could even learn how to engage in some foraging. Each tour of various neighbourhoods would be different. For instance, Surry Hills has a history of being a suburb that has gone though many changes and also a place that had a lot of criminal activity. Other places might focus more on the natural surrounds or the built environment.

(Tour guide Elliot Lindsay)

Whatever the context is, it’s rewarding to ground ourselves in the place where we live. This gives us a better sense of our connection as people who live in and move to different places from time to time. We begin to appreciate our short- term and long-term impact. It also helps us to be better care-takers of our neighbourhoods.

Have you ever though about running a “tour” of your neighbourhood? What a great way to connect locals and get to know where you live in a deeper way.


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Could good old-fashioned door-knocking make a comeback?

Most people find door-knocking irritating. When someone knocks at the front door unexpectedly, usually we think it’s a salesperson or even perhaps someone dangerous. In the past, door-knocking was a common practice employed usually by salespeople and perhaps others doing surveys, but it has gone out of style as people don’t want to be intruded upon in their own homes.

So it caught our attention when we read that, during the federal election this year, the Greens Party employed a strategy of door knocking over 90,000 doors to get to know the community in inner-city Brisbane and engage people finding out what they really wanted from their elected leaders. The idea was to grow a grassroots campaign based on “social work as a political strategy”. It is widely held that this is one of the reasons the Greens did so well in Queensland when this had not previously been the case.

It’s helpful to apply this lesson more broadly to community engagement. One perennial issue when it comes to community engagement or activation is making sure all voices in the community are heard before starting programs, building infrastructure or beginning community projects. How do we make sure no one is left out and all have a say so that everyone benefits from plans to build a better community?

We wonder if door-knocking, though often perceived as an irritating practice, could make a comeback and be used by community members to engage those who perhaps often do not have their voices heard. It is time-consuming for both the one who does the door-knocking and the person who is being consulted. It can also be complex in some ways to sort out what people are actually communicating – anyone is social work would know this. But what better way to really listen well to community needs?

Perhaps, before community projects are being put forward for grants, before large infrastructure is built and before neighbourhood projects commence, door-knocking people’s homes should happen on a wide-scale. In this way those with the proposals can get a better idea of community needs, get to know the neighbourhood and truly listen to what people want. The community will feel heard and will then be more likely to engage with the projects being proposed.

What are your thoughts on door-knocking as a way to better get to know the needs of the neighbourhood?

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The value of community consultation- How do we hear from each other better?

The more we get involved in our neighbourhood the more we realise how important listening to and hearing from each other is. One of the crucial concerns about working in your community for the good of the whole, is to make sure you are hearing from everyone, all voices, especially those who are on the fringes or more marginalised. This isn’t an easy thing to do but very important to try to do no matter how difficult or time-consuming t it can be.

One action that the Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney Clover Moore takes is to hold community consultation meetings regularly to hear from local stakeholders and community members. This was something initiated in lockdown with Covid. It was important then to hear from one another as to how the various representatives and organisations in the community were faring. But the action has continued as our city leaders saw the value of coming together to hear from each other and also to share with the Lord Mayor about how each organisation is going. It is also an opportunity to focus on and share concerns on key issues no matter how seemingly small that particular neighbourhoods and organisations might be wrestling with.

It is a great way to hear from our city leaders and also for each organisation to share about how our community and neighbourhood organisations are doing. In this way city leaders keep their ears close to the ground in terms of hearing what is actually going on in the places they represent. It’s also a chance for the city leaders to respond and implement actions points from these consultations.

What are the communication channels like in your community between city leaders, councillors and local community organisations that work for the good of the neighbourhood? What other things can we be doing to make sure that these channels are kept open, authentic and regular?



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Northcott Community Centre launch and re-opening

Neighbourhood Matters was at the Northcott Community Centre launch and re-opening recently and it was great to see such a wonderful turnout. People from the Northcott and Surry Hills community were present as well as Councillor Emelda Davis and State member for Newtown Jenny Leong. Leong shared that more spaces such as these were needed for people to connect and that we should keep making sure that those spaces don’t get taken away from communities.

The Community centre re-opening was supported by other organisations such as Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre, Mission Australia and Counterpoint.

There was a feeling of celebration as some locals told of their history with Northcott and also the Surry Hills community. The centre is open for locals at Northcott to build relationships, engage in various activities and share a warm cup of tea and scones with neighbours.

We love seeing places like these thrive in our neighbourhood and also supporting those who do such hard work to make these places for building relationships possible. Some of the biggest threats to our urban contexts are loneliness, fragmentation and displacement so supporting local expressions of community such as this is crucial.

What sorts of space exist in your neighbourhood for building relationships and making community?

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Engaging in “civic ecologies”

How do you care for the place where you live? Do you know very much about the land? About the indigenous connection to the land? Do you know how to forage in your neighbourhood? Are there people committed to nurturing the place and land where you live?

These are some questions that The Green Square Atlas of Civic Ecologies gets us thinking about.

The “Atlas” was put together by Mapping Edges at University of Technology Sydney and it’s purpose is to be a resource to help the neighbourhood of Green Square on nadunga gurad , sand dune country become more sustainable. It’s a great model for anyone who wants to care for the place where they live.

“Civic ecologies” is a term that encompasses “stewardship activities that combine care for the environment and care for the place” Examples are when people “tend to verge gardens, share produce with neighbours, set up community gardens and contribute to habitats for wildlife or become urban beekeepers.” The hope is that “local sustainable practices can drive small-scale environmental change.”

We went on a Civic ecology walk with some guides from Mapping Edges around Green Square recently and it was wonderful to see the way nature was pushing through any design that humans had imposed. There were also lots of instances of human design and nature working beautifully together. It was fabulous to hear some local stories and also learn the names and functions of indigenous plants.

So what are some ideas on what you can do to care for you place?

1.Save and exchange seeds

2.Follow plants while walking

3.Get to know the Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub

4.Make and maintain a verge garden

5.Start or join a community garden


7.Observe and conserve water

8.Create habitat for urban wildlife

9.Reduce waster

10.Look for special trees and find relief from urban heat.

What does it look like to activate civic ecologies in your neighbourhood?

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Changing the church


Neighbourhood Matters did a consultancy workshop at Garden Suburb Uniting Church this week. The church realises that it is struggling for its existence and they are thinking about what it means to “die well”. This is a very confronting thought! However, in the midst of this more sombre note, the exciting question they asked was, “What needs to change for our church to be the church today in these difficult times?” We all know that not many people in our culture wake up one morning on a Sunday and decide to go to church, no matter how interesting we think our sermons are or what we feel we have to offer. People are finding community and spirituality elsewhere. So what do we do?

It was wonderful to be with a church that believes in the death and resurrection cycle. It means we believe the church must sometimes die in order to be reborn – sometimes in a shape that looks different to the past. The church has always gone through times of growth, struggle, persecution and change, and these days are no exception. It’s not always about growth but it is always about being faithful in the world. It can mean letting go of the old in order for the new to emerge.

In the workshop we explored what it looks like to reorient the church around the community rather than itself, and talked about how this seemingly simple shift can take many years and a lot of internal reshuffling. It can cause a lot of grief for us as we need to let go of some dearly- and long-held practices and values we might have grown up with in the church.

We are very encouraged that today there are many churches that want to change and engage more with the community, neighbourhood and world.

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How do we build community in “vertical villages”?

People can often experience loneliness and fragmentation in urban contexts. This is due to the nature of cities as places of diversity and transience. It can leave inhabitants of such places feeling a lack of connection to the place where they live. This is even more true as we see people moving into high rise settings where community-building can be more difficult. These high rises known as “vertical villages”, can make people feel more isolated from others and not know their neighbours. So how do we build community in “vertical villages”?

The Vertical Villages project decided to look into this

The research conducted in 2020 by a team of researchers at Macquarie University explored the role and potential of FBOs (faith-based orgainsations) to facilitate placemaking and community development in multicultural high-rise/high-density urban environments. The report engages with international and Australian-based literature on high density living, place-making, faith-based organisations, social mix and urban design.

A toolkit will become available soon offering resources for anyone wanting to build community in apartment complexes.

Neighbourhood Matters contributed a paper to the toolkit. This will be published soon but for now, here’s the introduction to the paper. You might find it helpful if you are interested in building community in high density areas.

A theology of building resilient communities in vertical villages: the role of churches and faith-based organisations

As Australia’s population grows and governments sell land for development, more and more people are living in high-rise towers. Developers often promote these buildings and estates as ‘communities’ and ‘villages’, however in most cases there is little if any strategy in place to live up to these ideals. The Vertical Villages Project “explores people’s experiences of living in multicultural high-rise, mix-tenure and high-density urban environments”. As part of that project, this paper explores ways in which local churches and Christian faith-based organisations can partner with communities in vertical villages to build resilience. We start by exploring the idea of resilience and the role of social capital in bonding people together within groups and bridging them between different groups. We look at the challenges and opportunities of building resilient communities in vertical villages and briefly look at successful models. We ask what specific contribution churches and faith-based organisations can make in this space. We then suggest five theological concepts that relate to the idea of resilience – community, shalom, incarnation, creation care and place – and how these concepts can motivate and inform churches and faith-based organisations as they partner with vertical villages to build resilient communities. Finally we provide some spiritual practices and practical tools to help you get started on the journey, followed by some check-in questions and practical suggestions.