Neighbourhood assistance: neighbours helping neighbours

Help from the neighbours: what was once a given is now the exception. However, exchange, support and solidarity are still just as important today. Only the circumstances are different. Spotlight on organised neighbourhood support.

How well do you know your neighbours? Do you speak to them frequently and help one another out? Can you count on each other? Is that something you would want? Social change has had a direct influence on neighbourly interaction. We've become more mobile, and our jobs and leisure activities keep us away from home. Hardly anyone stays in the same place their entire life. It is no longer a given that people know their next-door neighbours, let alone those around the corner. The social foundation may be teetering, but it is getting reinforcement through many local neighbourhood initiatives.

Why neighbourhood assistance?

Some people need something, whilst others have something to offer – be it time, companionship or practical help. These initial conditions can lead to enriching encounters that benefit both sides. They can also help to create a vibrant community. Today, however, neighbourly cooperation is reliant on outside support. We live too anonymously, and trust each other too little, to ask for help. And those who would like to use their talents and their time to help others often don't know where it's needed. This is where organised neighbourhood assistance comes in. Non-profit associations and local initiatives act as neighbourhood or community contact points to help neighbours with networking solutions. Anyone who enjoys working with people – regardless of age, gender, professional or social background – can and should participate.

Tackling challenges large and small – together

The basic idea behind local neighbourhood networks is that even small-scale assistance can improve quality of life considerably. For parents with little free time between work and family commitments, neighbourhood assistance can be an addition to their network of resources. Such initiatives are also valuable for senior citizens, who may often encounter circumstances not covered by professional care services. Neighbourhood networks can also use digitisation to build a bridge to the younger generation and their sought-after knowledge and skills. But stimulating encounters occur not only between generations; positive synergies are also created in the meeting of different cultures. Neighbourly engagement offers opportunities for new immigrants to make friends and integrate into the local community.

Where there's a willing neighbour, there's a way

Absolutely any type of service can be offered. Need help filling out your tax forms, assembling a piece of furniture or mowing the lawn? Does your child require an after-school tutor, or need to be picked up from the daycare centre? Nobody available to water your plants, feed your cat and check your mailbox while you're in hospital? Does your bicycle or your computer need repairing? There's likely someone nearby who knows just how to do that and is happy to lend a hand. Or are you looking for someone to accompany you on walks or to cultural events, or help you at government offices or with the weekly shopping? Someone in your area might be just as happy to enjoy someone's company over a coffee, cooking a meal, chatting or playing jass together. The greater the diversity of people who participate in a neighbourhood initiative, the more diverse the spectrum of services it can provide.

"Anyone who enjoys working with people can and should participate."

Voluntary basis or exchange system

A key aspect of neighbourhood assistance is the personal motivation of the helpers. There is generally no financial compensation: service is provided on a voluntary basis on the assumption that it is meaningful and has value. What you like doing, and do well, can be made available to help others. In turn, you can count on help from others when you need it yourself. After an assessment meeting with neighbourhood assistance coordinators, voluntary helpers are sent to people in their area who need their help. Their deployment may be sporadic or on a regular basis; they are reimbursed for travel, admission, materials, replacement parts, etc. Other models are based on an exchange principle involving time credits. Here, each person providing help receives a time credit from the person who received the help for the time invested. The helpers can then ask for help themselves, using the time credits accrued. All services are valued equally: an hour of guitar instruction is valued the same as an hour shovelling snow. Requests and offers are posted online so that members can easily find one another. Depending on the initiative, exchanges may include services, knowledge and skills, but also items like second-hand goods, tools or home-made delicacies.

Digital community support: apps and online platforms

Although digitisation and neighbourhood assistance seem to be incompatible at first glance, online offers have the potential to connect people, especially amongst the younger generation. A variety of apps connect their users with other tech-savvy people in their area. With just a few clicks, users can find the right assignment or the help they need. But not only that: in many cases, neighbourhood apps and web platforms like Facebook serve to promote networking based on common interests. Or even simply help busy urban residents find out who their neighbours are.

The app from brings helping hands to the right place at the right time.. Private individuals, associations and organisations can network with volunteers and organise support. People who want to get involved will find appropriate activities in their region. And those seeking volunteers for sporting events, cultural projects or support services will find the right help.

Source: Five up

The virtual village square at Crossiety connects people, associations, communities, schools and companies through social and local networks. About 50 Swiss communities now take part. The interactive platform can be used to form groups, share issues and information, announce events and conduct surveys or local exchanges.

Source: Crossiety, Adrian Bauer

This cross-generational platform connects people living in the same neighbourhoods. Members can find neighbours, learn what's happening in their region, organise or join activities, give away, trade or sell things on e-commerce marketplaces, conduct neighbourhood surveys or find out what local businesses offer.

Source: Belvita Schweiz AG

and Help others for time credits – get help with credits earned. The Zeitgut online platforms in Zurich and Lucerne operate according to this exchange principle.

Source: Five up

Services, knowledge, and self-made or second-hand goods are exchanged in Zurich's Limmat area. The exchange value is time. All services are accorded the same value, and each person has a digital time account with a flexibility of 30 hours (plus or minus).

Source: Stiftung Zürcher Gemeinschaftszentren

Crises bring us closer together

Digital or analogue: giving your time, exchanging services, accompanying others and supporting your neighbours through your time and talents helps not only our neighbourhoods, but society as well. Times of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, when our daily lives are suddenly completely turned upside down, often reveal a wave of solidarity. Managing the crisis together puts the focus of social awareness. Cooperation and mutual aid become the norm. Consider the many heartwarming musical performances held on balconies and shared through social media.

Or the signs posted in corridors with offers to shop for elderly neighbours in quarantine or support them in other ways. What all these reveal is that such times are easier when faced together. Not to mention more pleasant. We hope that this new normal remains a permanent fixture in our daily lives even after this crisis has passed. A future in which neighbours are available to help one another and look after one another.

The coronavirus pandemic has redefined the concept of neighbourhood. Concerts performed from balconies have lightened the mood in many countries.
Photo: Jörg Halisch

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