Before the pandemic, when we occupied the same physical space as others, we paid little attention to them. Now, under the current circumstances, we’re more attentive to each other — we’re actually less socially distant while being more physically distant.

Troy Glover, chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, explains the notion of ‘neighbouring’ and the positives – and negatives – associated with it.

Other than the physical benefits of moving your body, what else is taking place when you walk in your neighbourhood?

When people walk their neighbourhoods, they may be doing so simply to escape the confines of their homes, but the activity of walking puts them into social contact with their neighbours. This face-to-face interaction, from a safe physical distance, is crucial to feeling secure and connected to others, especially right now.

We have a fundamental need to know and communicate with others that we’re in this together. Unlike driving or even biking or running, walking enables us to slow down and take our time to acknowledge others. It enables us to engage in something called “neighbouring” – what I would describe as active engagement in authentic social interactions with our neighbours. While there’s no guarantee neighbouring will survive the pandemic, right now it’s clear that walking plays an important role in strengthening social connections in our neighbourhoods.

What is ‘social infrastructure’ and how does it affect neighbouring?

Social infrastructure refers to the physical places that shape the way we interact. The environment around us, in other words, influences our ability to make meaningful connections and offer mutual support. Traditionally, we tend to think of community centres, libraries, and parks as important examples of social infrastructure, but the pandemic is making it clear that sidewalks, streets, porches and front lawns also facilitate meaningful social interaction.

The pandemic has underscored the importance of public space to our well-being. If we have insufficient social infrastructure, our level of social connectedness hurts. For these reasons, we’re seeing more and more calls for local governments to close streets to car traffic and open them up to pedestrians.

Is neighbouring always positive?

No, neighbouring can also breed “social distancing shaming” or give rise to “virus vigilantes” who report their neighbours to authorities for violating physical distancing rules. So, while neighbouring can include displays of genuine concern for the well-being of others and has the potential to strengthen social ties among neighbours, it can also trigger greater surveillance of neighbours’ behaviour. Whatever the response, crises like a pandemic lead us to give more attention to each other. The increased attention we pay to our neighbours, I believe, has the potential to make our communities function better.