A few weekends ago I participated in a conference on how to build stronger community in our neighbourhoods. It had a strong relational focus, and the speakers and most participants had backgrounds in community volunteer work, church-related ministry, working in disadvantaged communities, and the like. None were traffic engineers, transport planners, or urban designers, and most did not have anything remotely technical in their backgrounds.
What really surprised me was how often transport issues came up despite this. Just about every discussion had some phrase like “main roads are terrible for trying to build community” or “my neighbour and I both catch the bus to work so we have become good friends through that”.
A couple of themes that came through from these non-technical people were:
1. Heavy Traffic Makes Community Difficult
One of the speakers was talking about a neighbour she’d become really good friends with, and said it was despite the fact that “main roads are terrible for trying to build community”. She said it was hard to cross the wide road, meaning she never really had many chances to meet those on the other side of the road. In addition people with young kids tended to not walk or bike anywhere as it was just too high a consequence if a kid were to escape their parents grasp and run out onto the road, as well as just being plain unpleasant.
In contrast, a couple of people lived on quiet culs-de-sac and said it was much easier to get to know their neighbours. People tended to spend more time on the street, walking, gardening etc. Parents would let their kids out more.
Another couple lived in a building comprising twelve flats. They said similar things, they could easily pop over to their neighbours’ without meeting traffic at any point, making it easier and safer, particularly for families with kids. As a result, they knew all their neighbours.
2. Homogeneity Makes Community Difficult
One of the speakers voiced an opinion that neighbourhoods where there are a range of things to do are easier to build community in than neighbourhoods that are all houses with nothing else. They talked about bumping into neighbours at the local school, shops, hair-dresser, park, health centre. But if your neighbourhood is solely houses you’re less likely to have those spontaneous catch-ups whilst out and about.
And I think this is related to another speaker’s comments on density. He had recently shifted into the relatively high-density Hobsonville Point, which we’ve examined previously. He said it had felt like a much stronger community there than his previous suburb – neighbours tended to know each other better. Lots of parents walked their kids to school together (82% of school kids walk) which is a prime opportunity to grow friendships. Higher-density necessarily means you can have more variety in a neighbourhood. Within the same walking distance of your house there will be more things packed in like schools, shops, hairdressers… And people will tend to walk for more of their trips so you’re not battling the high traffic volumes that you normally have to. Having said that, the speaker was quick to qualify his statement with the fact that Hobsonville Point is not some sort of community utopia. Many other obstacles to building community remain – people’s busy lives, desire to stay in their comfort zone, and consumerism to name a few.
3. Well-Defined Catchments Create Communities
This one I’m not so sure about, but found it an interesting idea nonetheless. One speaker told a story of a previous home he lived in, across a river from the main town. Only 30 homes were on his side of the river, with the rest of the town on the other side of a narrow bridge. He said the people in those 30 homes banded together in the strongest neighbourhood he had ever been a part of. In contrast, he now lived on a long road in a sprawling suburb with no obvious topographic demarcations, which is very common in flat Christchurch. He felt this lack of topographic demarcation made it more difficult for a strong community to form.
My main takeaway was that urban planning and design is not just a matter of concrete and asphalt, but one of people and relationships. Ordinary people know this, but I’m not sure that we as engineers and planners have fully realised it? I get the feeling that if our cities were designed by social workers and psychologists they would look quite different; we’d have neighbourhoods that may not be as efficient transport-wise, but ones in which strong communities flourished easily, unlike most of our current neighbourhoods where it’s a real battle.
Have you noticed any of these themes? Do you think urban planning and design needs more input from non-technical people?