The dark side of being ‘good neighbours’ in Calgary


zMR. RODGERS WOULD PROBABLY MOVE AWAY. He wouldn’t want to live in a neighbourhood where being a good neighbour includes everybody watching everybody else all the time. Tavis Settles doesn’t see it that way.

Settles organized Building Safer Communities Block Watch in his neighbourhood of Coventry Hills in far north-central Calgary in 2016. It was the the first Facebook-based block-watch group in Calgary. Today, Building Safer Communities Block Watch helps manage Facebook groups in 22 Calgary neighbourhoods.

“One of the key drivers behind why the group wanted to do this is that we wanted to know our neighbours,” Settles says. “We wanted to know [what] was going on, and we truly wanted to put the sense of community back in the community.”

But, research shows forming neighbourhood watch groups is not really the best way to do it.

Social media twists everything

“People need to be aware of the way that good intentions can also lead to exclusionary effects,” says Aimee Benoit, a cultural geographer who delved into practices that promote belonging and participation in eight Calgary neighbourhoods.

Reliance on social media and technology, like motion-activated cameras and smart doorbells, makes the new wave of community-led block-watch groups far different from those popular in Canada in the late ’60s. People have been replaced by technology.

The need for “eyes on the street” has transformed into a form of lateral surveillance on social media that relies on residents using technology to  report on anything and anyone they deem out of the ordinary in their communities.

Research suggests the result can be unintended: a sense of safety decreases and suspicion based on difference increases..

More about property than community

According to Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, neighbourhood watch groups aren’t so much about being good neighbours as they are “about certain affluent members of a community banding together to protect property.”

For Settles, the crime watch aspect of these groups is essential to give neighbours “a grounding sense of commonality,” as well as a sense of purpose. However, the result is more likely to be a deepened sense of exclusion and suspicion.

“More vigilance and more surveillance cause more harm because it’s all channeled towards a police response,” Walby said.

In his research, Walby has found that neighbourhood watch groups frequently reported on people who “didn’t seem to belong” rather than actual transgressors. “So it’s not even actual harm, but perceived harm,” Walby said.

Settles himself had his photo taken while walking his dog one night and shared as suspicious on his neighbourhood block-watch Facebook group.
“You can increase a police budget, you can have more policing, you can have more surveillance, and have almost no impact on rates of crime or transgression,” said Walby. The reason is that surveillance doesn’t address the root causes of petty and property crime: poverty, inequality, addictions and lack of affordable housing.

Surveillance is not belonging

“The desire to belong and the desire to have a community is a good thing,” Walby said.

“But there are other ways to go about seeking it. Instead of monitoring, criminalizing, excluding, what if the community had a mutual-aid project? There are lots of ways to have belonging without having surveillance.”

Benoit believes that community associations have the potential to foster alternatives—but they have to be intentional about it and reject a quick and easy fix using technology instead of people.

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