Social Cities

The Grattan Institute is an independent research group that collects empirical data related to the wellbeing and social characteristics of Australians, and their interactions with built and social environments. Through subsequent analysis, recommendations are provided to government for the improvement of people’s lives via public policy change.

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In March 2012, the Grattan Institute released a report entitled Social Cities by Jane-Frances Kelly. The report addresses questions regarding the importance of social connection for the individual, and the impact cities have on our perceived sense of wellbeing.

These days, we collectively put a lot of emphasis on the creation of sustainable and highly productive cities, yet we often fail to consider the social welfare of the people that populate these cities. Wellbeing and social welfare are difficult to gauge just by looking at a person, and are often misinterpreted when there is the presence of material goods (which more often than not encourage antisocial behaviour). Australian society idealises independence and self sufficiency, a state reflected by the rapid growth in single dwelling unit[1] On the other hand, the pursuit of independence often leaves people more susceptible to loneliness and facilitates a loss of social connection with those around them.

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People with a greater need for transport (i.e. living in the outer suburbs of the city) experience a higher commuting time and have significantly lower perceived feelings of wellbeing than people who live closer to their places of work.

As aspiring architects, we are interested in the way the design of the built environment impacts social relationships. Architecture and urban infrastructure have the capacity to hinder or encourage social interaction, but we are often not taught to explore the social potential of design. The Social Cities report highlights the influence cities have over social connections and is a useful resource when designing with the intention of facilitating and nurturing social interaction.

The interaction between external and internal environments is not a new field of study. Studies were conducted in the late 1960s by William Whyte, which showed the following:[2]

  1. People prefer the edges of spaces over their centres, as they provide an open vista and a sense of protection (there is no chance of being attacked from behind).
  2. People like to have the choice between sun and shade.
  3. People are more sociable when provided with seating that faces each other.
  4. People like to be where other people are.

An example of design for social interaction is the concept of co-housing. This is a form of housing with an emphasis on community. It enables social interaction with neighbours via the sharing of facilities and spaces such as a backyard, laundry or even walking paths.

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Co-housing is a strategy to overcome social wellbeing disadvantages associated with living in isolation. Co-housing first emerged in Denmark in the 1970s.

The endeavour to increase and improve social connection raises the importance of direct engagement with the outside environment. A study conducted by VicHealth in 2011 suggests that children who walk to school are better oriented and better connected to their local community and the people who live there.[3]

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In the VicHealth study, children were asked to draw pictures of their route to school. The drawing on the left is by a child who walks to school each day. The drawing on the right is by a child who is driven to school each day.

The study suggests that we are better off out of cars and directly interacting with our environment. This is the underlying principle of Streets Without Cars.


Footnotes

  1. Kelly, Jane-Frances; Social Cities; Grattan Institute; Melbourne; 2012; p. 5. Single dwelling units represent 25% of Australian households and are the fastest growing household type.
  2. Ibid., p. 24.
  3. Ibid., p. 29.

Image sources

  1. Grattan Institute, logo and map sourced from Grattan Institute website.
  2. Causes of loneliness #1, author’s own image.
  3. Causes of loneliness #2, author’s own image.
  4. Commuting time and reported wellbeing, sourced from Social Cities report, p. 16.
  5. Cohousing community, sourced from Social Cities report, p. 47.
  6. Children’s drawings  from VicHealth study, sourced from Social Cities report, p. 29.
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