WALK | How people connect

Posted on 09/04/2012

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This weekend, I walked around my locality with a colleague and friend to discuss a creative project he is working on. The project involved an engagement with the social and cultural dimensions of localities like mine. And so, at my invitation, he visited and we walked and talked – the purpose of the walk was to think about the ways people connect in places like this and what opportunities they have or create for connection. As we walked around the quiet residential streets comprised significantly of detached housing of the post-war period, he points out that his own locality of Bardon, only a few kilometres from the city centre, was not much different.

When I check the ABS for census data (2006), I find that the population density is higher in the larger SLA of Aspley with 2,071 persons per square kilometre (13,049 residing in 6.3km sq) and 1,768 persons per square kilometre in Bardon (9,905 residing in 5.6km sq). Dwelling density, derived from occupied dwellings only, in Bardon is  582 per square kilometre (3,260 occupied dwellings in 5.6km sq) and 724 per square kilometre in Aspley (4561 occupied dwellings in 6.3km sq). Perhaps the difference in housing density is due to the prevalence of businesses. In Bardon, business density is 160 businesses per square kilometre (896 businesses in 5.6km sq) and in Aspley there are 199 businesses per square kilometre (1254 businesses in 6.3km sq).

According to SEIFA, Bardon is wealthier with no social disadvantage present, and there is a greater mix of incomes in Aspley, where social disadvantage is present. Based on this data, you could realistically expect that Aspley should be more interesting. The ACF Consumption Atlas can provide information on ecological footprint and consumption, recognising a general trend that wealth tends to determine household environmental impact.

My friend also notes how difficult it is to make connections with other residents, saying that play trips to the park with his child brought him into contact with other parents. This comment affirms the role that intimate social spaces like parks play in the shaping of social relations. A good quality public realm is generally lacking in my locality, as is the political will to make any improvements. The highway dominated local centre in Aspley results in a polluted and bleak environment.

Some of these considerations of public realm are raised in the Gratton Institute’s Social Cities Report by Jane-Francis Kelly. The report considers the social impact of urban development and presents the importance of social connectedness in cities. Social connection is defined as “meaningful, positive interaction” and is foundational for a sense of belonging and successful communities (p. 7).  Kelly observes increasing isolation and loneliness as a result of diminishing relationships and changing demographics. She states that the economic and environmental costs and benefits weigh heavier in built environment considerations than social impacts.  The report makes a contribution to debates about the relationship between social connectedness, infrastructure and urban form at the scale of structure, neighbourhood, street and building. If social connectedness is not regarded as a planning issue, Kelly and others warn of increased public expense to address exacerbating social and health problems (p. 49).

An aspect of social connectedness is the creation of local destinations, a local sense of identity, walkability and mixed use development. In this context, the design of neighbourhoods, streets and buildings can contribute to the creation of social opportunities, especially in situations with low traffic. Kelly proposes that cities must help people connect through their planning and design. By many accounts social connectedness is achieved through well serviced places that offer a diverse range of accessible opportunities for living and meeting.

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Posted in: community, culture