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Creating better neighbors is the goal of a University Extension program

A house with a picket fence
A house with a picket fence

David Burton started the Engaged Neighbor Program a few years ago, and it's grown in popularity.

"Good fences make good neighbors," Robert Frost wrote in his poem Mending Wall. But there are many other ways to be a good neighbor or to be an engaged neighbor, according to David Burton, field specialist in community development for MU Extension in Greene County. He is the founder of a program that teaches people how to be a better neighbor. The Engaged Neighbor Program began when Burton realized he was – as he puts it – “a horrible neighbor.”

A few years ago, Burton said he was reading a book someone gave him called “The Art of Neighboring.” One chapter in and he realized that, while he thought he was a good neighbor to those living near him, he could do much better.

"I would have said that I was a good neighbor because I loved my neighbor — well, I didn't hate any of my neighbors," he said. "I mean, that would have been kind of my line of thinking. But it turns out the opposite of love is not hate — it's apathy. And I just had apathy. New people moved in. We didn't even bother to get to know them."

That’s when he and his wife set out on their own personal journey to get to know people.

"And for us that began with the old proverbial plate of chocolate chip cookies and a knock on the door saying, 'here's all of our contact information. We want to do better being connected and getting to know each other,'" he said.

The Burtons began doing more front yard living – being available and being visible. Burton said he started going on walks without his headphones on so he could stop and have conversations.

"We didn't do a big block party or anything," he said. "We just found ways to include neighbors in our regular routine of things that we were regularly doing and so build those relationships over time."

A few months later he had a lightbulb moment: He was in community development, and what he was doing to be a better neighbor fit into that category. He thought – what if we challenge people to think about choices and decisions they could make to improve their neighborhood and exercise leadership skills in their own neighborhood and then expand that into the community and beyond? He got the green light from his employer to try it envisioning the program to stay within Springfield and Greene County. He began offering the online class Neighboring 101.

"And I thought if I got 10 to 15 people to join in and talk about what it meant to be a good neighbor or an engaged neighbor, that would be a success story," said Burton, "and so, pretty quickly that grew far beyond just 10 or 15, and we've got almost 800 people in that class from all across the nation."

So, what does it mean to be a good neighbor – or an engaged neighbor? Burton said it begins with knowing who your neighbors are – find out their names and then find ways to use their names.

"That can mean more front yard living or just being accessible or if I see them out, not just waving, but going over and striking up a conversation and using that name," he said. "We all love the sound of our own name, and, you know, saying that to your neighbor. It's much more welcoming to say, 'hello, Matt.'"

And he suggests having little get togethers – even something as simple as offering ice cream sandwiches on your driveway.

He said as you get to know your neighbors and hear their stories, you might find that you have common interests and other ways that you can connect.

Even if not everyone is receptive to your effort, he said, you have to tell yourself that at least you made the effort.

Why should you get to know your neighbors? Burton said, for one thing, there are health benefits that come with doing so.

"There are well-documented health benefits of being connected socially, especially in an area and a nation now where so many people are saying they're lonely and isolated," he said. "Loneliness has the same impact on your body as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It's a significant serious health impact, and making those social connections is one way to overcome loneliness."

And he said studies have shown that people with at least five friends are significantly more likely to be civically engaged.

The Engaged Neighbor Program has issued a challenge – for 100,000 people to take a pledge online by the end of 2030 to become an engaged neighbor.

You can take the pledge and find out more about the program here.