Our backyard adjacent to our neighbours.

At just about every land use public hearing I’ve sat through for the last seven years, the issue of privacy comes up. Often neighbours are opposed to new developments because they feel like their privacy will be compromised. Applicants building the housing go to great lengths to stress the “privacy screens” they’ve incorporated into their developments: six foot fences, tall hedges, fast growing trees, frosted glass.

We’ve heard strong support so far for the City’s Missing Middle Housing project – which will replace single family zoning throughout the city with zoning for houseplexes and townhouses. But one argument we’ve heard against is the need to maintain privacy. Some people don’t want new neighbours in two and a half storey townhouses looking into their backyards.

And, one proposed rental apartment building at 1475 Fort Street has been sent back to staff three times because the neighbours nearby don’t want to lose their privacy. The new building would be approximately 30 feet away from their homes.

We are obsessed with the privacy.

Yet we are also so lonely.

An article in the Capital Daily in August, “Isolated in Victoria: Forging Friendships in a City Renowned for Its Chilliness,” shared stories of Victorians struggling with loneliness during the pandemic.

But the phenomena of loneliness predates the pandemic and is a chronic condition of modern western societies. In their 2018 article, “The Growing Problem of Loneliness,” in The Lancet, John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo write, “Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centred, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. Imagine too that in industrialised countries around a third of people are affected by this condition, with one person in 12 affected severely, and that these proportions are increasing. Income, education, sex, and ethnicity are not protective, and the condition is contagious. The effects of the condition are not attributable to some peculiarity of the character of a subset of individuals, they are a result of the condition affecting ordinary people. Such a condition exists—loneliness.”

The constant demands for the protection of privacy when new buildings are proposed has me wondering why we are so fiercely protecting our privacy even when we are so lonely.

When our new neighbours moved in a few years ago, we brought cookies over as a welcome. It was the first and last time we used their front door. Our backyards are adjacent; there are no privacy screens. We watched Whitney go from crawling to walking, Zoey get really good at ball hockey. We can hear when bedtimes are difficult. They can see right into our kitchen at night.

We built stairs from the slope of their yard down into ours so the kids can get here easily. We’ll be out in the garden working in the summer and then all of a sudden all four of them are over here, kids crawling all over us, adults talking up a storm. Summer dinners at the big picnic table in their yard. During COVID, they became our bubble.

They aren’t exactly our friends. Not really our family. They are our neighbours. And it has become a sacred bond.

Last week Naomi had surgery. At 3am the morning she was supposed to go to the hospital, Zoey woke up throwing up. The chaos unfolded from there. Between sick kids and surgery complications that saw her back in the Emergency Room later that night, our four-person text stream became logistics central. We concluded that with four adults and only two kids, we could work everything out. And we did. Hospital pick ups were arranged. Cookies were baked. Prescriptions were delivered. And when she needed to go back to the ER later that night, she didn’t have to go alone.

We are already together. We were already connected. Dealing with an emergency felt easy.

It seems that even when people aren’t connected, in emergencies, privacy becomes less important. With the recent catastrophic floods in BC, when 1100 people were stuck in Hope, residents opened up their homes and took in perfect strangers to stay the night. The media accounts of these heartfelt stories didn’t talk about people worrying about their privacy, or strangers seeing into their homes. The stories were about generosity, the triumph of the human spirit. They demonstrated our instincts as humans to care for each other.

Why does it take an emergency to throw our privacy out the door? Maybe because it’s only short term and we can bear it for the time being. But I wonder if those full houses in Hope had a sense of connection and belonging, a sense of deeper purpose, that would be missed when the stranded residents left. And I wonder what our communities would be like if we lived every day with the same sense of responsibility and connection as when stranded strangers show up on our doorsteps.

Doing so isn’t only important because it makes us feel less lonely and more connected. It’s also the only way our communities will be resilient in the face of the climate catastrophe that is coming. One of my wise mentors recently said that the most successful climate adaptation will take place in living rooms across the city. With forest fires, heat domes and atmospheric rivers here to stay, it’s probably a good time to take down those privacy screens and invite our neighbours in.

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