In The Neighborhood

How the built environment influences our mental health

Neighbors: When Things Go Wrong

Three common causes of neighborly disputes

I’ve lived in over 30 houses, sharing my neighborhoods with more people than I can remember. While I’ve been extremely fortunate to have chosen friendly and supportive housemates, the same can’t always be said of my neighbors.

I’ve had neighbors who were evicted for running illegal drug laboratories, whose “clients” almost hit our car on more than one occasion. I’ve had neighbors who turned their head whenever we passed, feigning interest in random objects and pretending not to see us.  I’ve had a neighbor who smashed our car window and stole a prized laptop, and of course, the ubiquitous party animal, who seemed to entertain every other weekend.

While I wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of knowing our neighbors, I’m conscious that neighbors are not always a source of support and wellbeing. Many times they can be a source of unrelenting stress.

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There are many ways in which our neighbors can annoy us. Below are just three common causes of neighborly disputes.

Unwanted noise is the complaint I’ve encountered most during discussions with friends and colleagues. Noise can come from loud music and conversation, machinery, traffic, screaming children and barking dogs.

Noise within the neighborhood has been associated with irritability, aggression, stress and anxiety, and has been shown to interfere with people’s likelihood of assisting others (Evans, 2003).

As high density living becomes more commonplace, it is important that houses are designed with noisy neighbors in mind.  There have been many occasions I’ve wished for thicker walls and double-glazed windows.

Researchers believe that the effect of noise on people’s wellbeing may be related to their lack of perceived control, with sense of control an important predictor of mental health (Chu, Thorne et al. 2004).

Overcrowding can be particularly problematic for people living in high rise apartments.  Although high-density living can support positive interactions between neighbors, it can also result in a perceived loss of control (Evans, 2003).

For example, it can be difficult avoiding problematic neighbors when you share a common walkway or elevator.  This, in turn, can lead to stress and social withdrawal. 

I have a friend who leaves for work 10 minutes after hearing the click of her neighbor's door following awkward encounters on their staircase. 

Different values held by neighbors can also create tension within the neighborhood.  An oft-cited study by Brodsky (1996) reported that women living in impoverished areas felt their children benefited by distancing themselves from neighbors due to conflicting values and potential safety concerns.

I know from experience that the area in which you live takes on greater significance once you become responsible for other young lives.

So, what should we do when we encounter these problems? There is no easy answer, with the solution depending on the issue at hand and the temperament of those involved. Some conflicts can be resolved with a simple knock on the door or note in the letterbox, while others may be so extreme as to require legal action or relocation. Generally speaking, it is preferable to approach your neighbor before involving the authorities (assuming you feel safe in doing so).

In my case, I’ve never left a property because of problematic neighbors. Fortunately, the drug manufacturers, party animals and thieves moved on relatively quickly. 

As for the neighbor who turns their head rather than engage in conversation… well, occasionally, that neighbor is me! While I generally find it takes more energy to avoid someone than raise my hand and say a quick hello, there are times I’m still in my pajamas, preoccupied with a problem, or simply too exhausted to partake in the game of catching their eye at just the right moment.

For the most part, however, I love talking to my neighbors, exchanging stories about our families and the neighborhood in which we live. Of course, this exchange is made easier by the fact I now have good neighbors. Perhaps for those of us who can’t always choose our neighborhood, our relationship with our neighbors is best summed up by Carl Sandburg: “Love your neighbor as yourself; but don’t take down the fence”.

 

References

Brodsky, A. E. 1996. Resilient single mothers in risky neighborhoods: negative psychological sense of community, Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 347-363.

Chu, A., Thorne, A. and Guite, H. 2004. The impact on mental well-being of the urban and physical environment: an assessment of the evidence, Journal of Mental Health Promotion, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 17-32.

Evans, G. W. 2003. The built environment and mental health, Journal of Urban Health, vol. 80, no. 4, pp. 536-555.

 

 

Jacinta Francis, Ph.D., is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Built Environment and Health at The University of Western Australia.

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