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How to turn strangers into friends

Johannesburg - Let’s face it, cities aren’t villages – people don’t get together to raise barns, nobody pops around with a basket of baked goods for new neighbours and strangers don’t break bread with each other.

Life in concrete jungles crams together millions of people but keeps them anonymous to each other. And 21st-century digitally plugged-in living means people have hundreds of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but no one to water their plants when they’re out of town or to call up for a movie night at the last minute. It makes for lonely spaces and an increased sense of disconnection between people.

But some city dwellers are pushing back, recognising they can stake a claim on their cities and that anonymous masses can equal a community.

James Happe is one of these boundary pushers. He is the founder of Critical Mass Johannesburg, the group cycle event that takes place every last Friday night of the month, starting out from Braamfontein.

It started back in 2007 with about 20 people and now attracts upwards of 1 000 riders every month in Joburg. There are also Critical Mass events in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.

“For me it started as wanting to share the city with others. I kept thinking there’s a whole city out there beyond the suburbs, so why not check it out and ride the city at night?” says Happe.

He saw the potential to create a sense of community and camaraderie among people with a shared interest of riding and exploring the city.

He believed it could make riders more personally responsible for things like safety and respecting the spaces they cycle in. It was also about championing the idea of freedom of movement in their city and, most importantly, to have fun.

Critical Mass started in the early 1960s in San Francisco as a kind of two-wheeled protest platform for things such as cyclists’ rights and raising social issues. In Joburg, Happe saw the group as having the potential to change people’s perception about the inner city and a way to break down social barriers.

“Our first ride started as a few friends and friends of friends,” says Happe. Then Critical Mass swelled to become a monthly cycling highlight in cities across the country, with offshoot events including the Jozi Hustle and the Full Moon Rides.

Seven years on, Happe says their initial intention to get cyclists into so-called “no-go” areas in the city, especially at night, was achieved and it’s a starting point to get Joburgers thinking about how the city’s inhabitants can share urban spaces better.

The concept was started by Briton Paul Sinton-Hewitt in 2004 with a series of short-distance timed runs. The idea caught on and now there are over 760 000 registered parkrunners across 10 countries including Denmark, Ireland, Australia, the US, Poland and New Zealand.

Bruce Fordyce bought the concept to South Africa in November 2011 starting with the Delta Park parkrun when about 20 runners showed.

There are now 30 parkruns in South Africa, including Modderfontein, Bryanston, Lonehill and Roodepoort in Joburg to Voortrekker in Pretoria, Green Point in Cape Town, Hobie beach in PE, Naval Hill in Bloemfontein and Uvongo in KZN, with thousands of participants each weekend.

Runners register once online for free and meet to run at designated venues, at a designated time, at any parkrun. Volunteers organise the events in the spirit of getting people who never believed they’d ever run to lace up their takkies and give it a go – and people turn up!

The concept, bought to South Africa by Stephan Dau, is inspired by similar group dinners in open spaces in cities across the world, but Dau aims to grow The Grand White brand with its own South African identity. One aspect of this, says Johansson, is the flash of green guests are asked to wear. It’s a reminder of the imperative for a lighter carbon footprint on Earth.

The Grand White Dinners insist on sorting waste and recycling at their events. They also offer various ticket options as a way of making the events more inclusive and non-restrictive. There’s a no-VIP section policy, because the events are about promoting a sense of community, says Johansson.

They kicked off with a picnic in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town in March that attracted 1 500 people. In Joburg, more than 3 500 people arrived at the Wanderers Club’s fields. There were also events held in Port Elizabeth and they ended off the season this month with a boardwalk picnic overlooking the Indian Ocean in Durban. The events have been so popular that pre-registration for next year’s events clocked up more than 1 000 names in one day.

“People in cities are looking for events where they can come together with others in the city, appreciate the outdoors, dress up for a sense of occasion and bring their families along and know that there will be something for everyone,” Johansson says.

The Meetup concept originated in New York as an online platform for people to connect online but to meet in real life, joined by their shared interests and hobbies.

Once signed in as members, people can choose a group in their area they’re interested in, interact online and choose to attend an actual event, if it takes their fancy.

It’s a concept that’s spread around the world and Meetup claims more than 125 000 interest groups in close to 200 countries.

In South Africa, there are groups all over the country, with interests from computer geek networking, singles groups, hikers, foodie groups and dinner clubs. Their tagline is “Neighbours getting together to learn something, do something, share something…”

Steve Krummeck started a Meetup group in the Joburg area in April that he’s called the Adventure and Fun Lovers group. As host of a group, he pays a small subscription (about R20) to Meetup to list his group and its events.

In just under two months the group already has 192 members. They have got together for tenpin bowling, indoor rock climbing, and theatre and movie nights.

Krummeck says he has organisers in different age groups, to make sure events cover a mix of interests and appeal to as many members as possible.

“These days I’m never bored, there’s always something going on and something to do. The most amazing thing is that when we host events, people who come are not busy checking their phones or updating their Facebook statuses. They actually want to be there and are engaging with each other,” says Krummeck.

“As modern people we are online the whole time, instead of actually being with people. On top of that, it’s not always easy to find people to do things with, because sometimes your friends may not have the same interests as you do. There are a lot of lonely people out there and Meetup has definitely filled that gap.” - The Star

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