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Where did all the children go?

Street cricket is something that many of us grew up playing, or remembering others talk about. Hit the ball over the neighbours fence and that’s 6 and out. It was a thing. Now its something we are more likely to feel nostalgic about.

One of the litmus tests for how socially disconnected we have become in our local neighbourhoods is the lack of street play. Perhaps we’re too busy, working longer hours, more protective, streets are busier, its not safe, council won’t let us – the list goes on. There are a lot of reasons, which I won’t go into here (although check out Play Streets Australia is working hard to cut red tape, and bring back street play),

The bigger story is one where we have weaker ties to our local neighbourhood than we used to. Social isolation is growing. Only 1 in 3 Australians now knows their neighbour. That is a challenge for our long-term resilience.

Learning from my new neighbourhood

I recently moved into a new neighbourhood, in a new city, in a new country: in Apia, Samoa. That’s a tiny dot in the South Pacific, east of Fiji. This completely different context has challenged many of my assumptions about what it really takes to build a connected neighbourhood.

To look at, our new neighbourhood breaks all the urban design rules for creating safe, inclusive streets: Houses are on individual lots with high security fences to the street (including barbed wire). There are large setbacks with heavy tropical vegetation in the front yard – no ‘eyes on the street’. No footpaths, in fact, not much in the way of sealed paving at all. And to top it off there are packs of quite vicious dogs along the street. The dog problem is so bad in fact that kids generally don’t walk to school, which is less than a kilometre away. That right, its not the traffic, or heat or lack of footpaths – its dogs that stops people walking!

Yet, this is a play street. Sometime around 5pm each day, gates open and a trickle of children come out to play. Kids chase each other up the street, duck into each others houses to get this or that. My son owns a cheap plastic cricket bat which has earned him a lot of street cred. (The dogs seem to be strangely quiet at this time of day, or at least hold back when there are larger groups of kids)

This is followed at intervals by parents, and other neighbours, who come out to chat. And then the connections grow. Last week a neighbour asked to borrow a spanner, today my neighbour even gave me a chocolate cake, for no reason. It feels like a real neighbourhood.

What’s required

I don’t intend to compare this experience to Australia, as the context is so completely different. However what I have recently observed is that the pre-conditions for building good neighbourhoods may not be what they seem.

In my current context, the most important factors are:

  1. Reliably knowing that other children will be home, and playing in the street at the same time, in the same place, most days. This is the lynchpin.
  2. This means parents and other neighbours also need to be reliably home at the same time.
  3. Feeling comfortable to let children play with neighbours, mostly unsupervised, in the street.

Perhaps one of the success factors of our current street is that it does break the urban design rules. I’m not suggesting we ever design high security fences, large setbacks and no footpaths. What is good, however, is the street does not tell you exactly what you should do in this space. Your behaviour is not completely pre-determined by its design (or lack there of). 

Too often in shaping safe, inclusive places, we (the design and technical professions) also rule out any opportunity for flexibility by designing out choice: this is where you will walk, sit, look at the view etc. This level of control doesn’t lend itself to community life which is messy and unpredictable.

Urban design certainly has an important role to play in creating local community (and I say that as an urban designer), but sometimes we rely on this too heavily. It can only give a neighbourhood a better chance of success, it can’t create it. We need to design-in greater flexibility in our projects to enable the unexpected. This will help us build stronger neighbourhoods.

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