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Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Aerial of urban neighborhood
Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

Today I read about two methods that may help guide people towards a more civil discourse. As a fan of Ryan Holiday's "The Daily Stoic" I am grateful for the distillation of ancient knowledge that appears in my inbox each morning. Today's post was about disagreement and how, at present, even the slightest appearance of disagreement tends to send people into fits of unbridled rage. Marcus Aurelius - one of the most famous Stoics, Roman Emperor, and author of Meditations - explained how he would often practice writing/using his non-dominant hand so he can get better (and more balanced).

Holiday says: "We should do the same with viewpoints we disagree with. Instead of being upset when someone makes a point we don’t like today, try to really listen. Assume good faith on behalf of the person on the other side of the issue in question and engage.

This is not only how we get stronger and better as people, but it’s also how civil society is supposed to work. Debate and disagreement are good. Diversity of opinion is good. If you let it bother you, you will never be at peace and, paradoxically, actual peace will be less achievable as well."

This approach seemed to dovetail perfectly with the second article I read this morning from The Guardian about how Dutch neighborhoods are using a technique called wijkwandelingen, or neighborhood walks, to foster stronger connections not only between neighbors, but also between neighbors and City Hall. Every three months neighbors get together to walk a route prescribed by analyzing the locations of concerns - a crooked sign, pothole, broken streetlight - that had been sent to the neighborhood organizer. Because of this method, the route will undoubtedly change each time a walk is held. Anyone is welcome on these walks. If something can be fixed while the group is out walking, they fix it. If it requires city intervention, they send their request in, and the neighborhood organizer follows up in six months if the item has not yet received attention.

These walks also allow neighbors to get to know each other better, to build stronger relationships and that increasingly elusive sense of participating in a community. People look out for each other, they help each other, they learn things from each other - whether that's a recipe or a new cultural perspective. People representing the City also join the walks, hoping to find ways to better connect and understand their constituencies. Refreshments and more conversation are provided after each walk as a way to continue to build rapport. City representatives can also use this time to inform neighbors about things that may/will be occurring in their neighborhood.

According to one of the city council members from The Hague, Rachid Guernaoui: “Engaged citizens take care of their neighbourhood and their neighbours. They don’t feel indifferent, because they experience positive change as soon as they are asked for their ideas, suggestions and of the most important things a city’s governing body can do is to promote genuine dialogue, transparent city management and open communication with citizens always and everywhere." Key to this is “taking both big and small topics as important”.

Reading about this approach reminded me of a piece I'd read years ago by a Fellow of the German Marshall Fund that had been exploring different methodologies of participation in Rome/Paris/New York. She found that in Paris, city planners not only have their offices in the neighborhoods, but they also host walks similar to the wijkwandeling once a month to better get to know and strengthen ties with their constituents.

What I am seeing in the Dutch and Parisienne methodologies is an embodiment of Marcus Aurelius' push towards balance by continually testing and bettering his opposite hand. If we can make the conscious choice to walk with our neighbors, our representatives, or those we may disagree with and explore how to strengthen the places we live - together - I'm hopeful that civility can find its way back to the forefront of our world.

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