Kristiina Äikäs, Photos Tarina Tommiska
A tall apartment building from the 1950s glows yellow in the sunshine on a crisp winter’s day. “This is a good place to live,” thought Johanna Zalagh when she moved in to a SATO rental apartment in Haaga, Helsinki, in May 2019. She is a SATO resident and voluntary neighbour mentor who helps new residents adapt to their new building and living environment.
“I welcome the residents of SATO buildings in the nearby area and ask them how they are doing. Recently one of my neighbours was surprised and delighted when I brought an old chair that I no longer needed for their balcony,” Johanna says.
The objective of the neighbour mentoring service is for residents to enjoy living in their homes and get to understand their neighbours better.
According to a recent survey commissioned by SATO, Finns do not know their neighbours very well, whatever the reason. Only eight per cent of Finns living in a rented home are on first name terms with the neighbours. For those living in owner-occupied homes, the percentage is somewhat higher: 13 per cent.
Neighbourliness thus requires more support. SATO homes are located in apartment buildings, where the neighbours are nearby: you bump into them outside the building, in the laundry room or in the bike storage room. Open communication creates a good atmosphere.
“Basically, our aim is to make sure that no one thinks of their neighbours as something scary. When you say hello to your neighbours, you also learn to understand them,” says Community Manager Piia Matilainen who is in charge of SATO’s neighbour mentoring service.
Neighbour mentor Johanna agrees.
“My neighbours say that life is simply more fun when you have nice neighbours. And talking to them is the only way to get to know them,” says Johanna, who has had a lot of talks about neighbourliness with the residents of her building.
As a neighbour mentor, Johanna’s tasks include providing advice in daily matters related to living, and raising the team spirit. In her opinion, the key is to make it easier for everyone to discuss matters related to their building.
“I want people to feel they can approach me. In the laundry room, I might ask someone if I can help them. Sometimes I help neighbours in sorting waste, which gives me the chance to ask them if they have any wishes or simply ask how things are going,” says Johanna.
However, there is no need for the neighbour mentors to deal with all of their neighbours’ concerns. To report defects, residents should contact maintenance directly or go to the OmaSATO service or online, and the practical matters related to SATO buildings are the responsibility of the service managers. SATO also offers housing advisory services in different languages to help overcome challenges in daily living. The neighbour mentors have agreed that they should not intervene in settling disputes between neighbours; more serious matters will be addressed elsewhere.
The neighbour mentoring service, which is now in the pilot phase, currently covers 11 buildings in the Helsinki metropolitan area. In addition, there are neighbour mentors in Turku and Tampere.
SATO’s survey into neighbourliness also looked into things that were perceived as irritating in neighbours. Littering in public areas and spaces and the untidiness and inappropriate use of the waste collection point were top of the list. However, the majority of respondents (76%) have not intervened in how their neighbours are behaving.
Johanna, who talks to the residents a lot, has noticed that enhancing the sense of community and open discussion can reduce irritation and increase understanding. She would like people to adopt a less biased attitude towards their neighbours.
“Our neighbours might have a different rhythm or culture, but if the lift is out of order, we are faced with the same problem. In situations like that, it makes no difference where the neighbour is from,” says Johanna.
In Piia’s opinion, a safe environment ensures that residents enjoy better living in their apartment and want to stay there longer.
“A home is more than just four walls and a ceiling. By creating an added sense of community and familiarity in the outdoor areas and public spaces, we can enhance the residents’ feeling of safety,” Piia sums up.
The neighbour mentoring service is not SATO’s only development project aiming to promote neighbourliness. In addition, SATO is developing the shared facilities of the buildings, creating new concepts with a stronger sense of community, such as StudioHome, and expanding its housing advisory services.
According to Piia, neighbourliness is promoted proactively and by closely listening to residents’ feedback.
“The residents have requested communal events and information about recycling, so we decided to roll these two things into one and organise a sorting and recycling event for them,” Piia says.
The neighbour mentors also develop events and initiatives that foster the sense of community. Johanna has gathered development ideas from her own neighbour mentor community and from her neighbours. She already has a complete action list to make her home building a more pleasant place to live.
“A Facebook group for the building, a light carnival, planting greenery, tidying-up parties,” she says, listing the things she has planned for her neighbours.
Neighbour mentor Johanna’s tips for neighbourliness.
1. Greet your neighbours!
“Saying hello and exchanging some small talk with neighbours is an easy way to create a better atmosphere in the neighbourhood.”
2. Participate in shared gatherings and events
“Tidying-up parties and light carnivals make our shared living environment a more pleasant one. The ‘we’ spirit is strong and we can discuss matters related to the building.”
3. Express your wishes to the neighbour mentor or SATO
“You should speak up if you have any wishes, feedback or questions! Maybe your neighbour is thinking about the same thing. I’m happy to discuss any wishes, and I plan to create a Facebook group for our home building as a platform for giving feedback and discussing common matters in a positive spirit.”