The other week, the NZ Herald reported on some new research into Kiwis’ sense of social connectedness. The results, unfortunately, are fairly dismal:
New research has found that New Zealanders are losing touch with their neighbours – and it’s affecting our wellbeing.
In the recently released results of the Sovereign Wellness Index, New Zealand trailed behind other countries when it came social connections and community, with our neighbourly relations particularly lacking.
“We came last when compared to 29 European countries that deployed the same survey, which is not only a disappointing result but, when compared to the first Sovereign Wellbeing Index in 2013, it shows no improvement,” said Grant Schofield professor of public health at AUT University, who led the research.
Interestingly, the study’s authors identified urban form as a principal cause of our weak social bonds:
The survey found that only four per cent of New Zealanders agreed they felt close to people in their local area – which Mr Schofield said was a symptom of sprawling, car-centric cities such as Auckland.
“Community design has a role to play in fostering connections and I don’t believe we are seeing the benefit of this in New Zealand,” he said.
“Work, play and home are often on opposite sides of the city and the commute is killing our neighbourly interaction and our community integration,” Mr Schofield said.
The survey also found that almost 40 per cent of Kiwis only meet with others socially once a month or less.
There are probably some other factors at work here. As I discussed in a post last October, Auckland’s commute times really aren’t that bad – the average Aucklander doesn’t seem to spend enough time on the road to explain our lack of social engagement.
On the other hand, New Zealanders do work quite long hours when compared with Europeans. The average employed Kiwi worked 1760 hours a year in 2013 – around 27% more than the productive Dutch and Germans. Long hours spent at low-income jobs is probably worse than commuting for most people.
Nonetheless, we do need to take social connectivity seriously when we think about what we’re trying to accomplish in urban and transport policy. If you think about it, social connection is why we have cities in the first place. Urban economist Edward Glaeser is fond of describing cities as “the absence of physical space between people and companies.” They allow us to be close to each other, which offers all sorts of fantastic opportunities for efficiency and innovation and enjoyment.
Cities, in Glaeser’s view, emerge from our deep evolutionary biology. We are social animals – we like being around others and become unwell when we’re isolated. Hence cities.
Growth in world incomes over the past two centuries has not coincided with a great dispersal of human population. We have not sought to retreat into our own isolated estates. Instead, we have invested our newfound wealth into making our cities healthier, more attractive, and larger: steel framed buildings, elevators, trams, subways, public health and education, reticulated water systems…
In short, humans have a preference for proximity, and we come to cities to satisfy it. If our cities are in fact isolating us, we need to re-think how we’re building them. Plonking down new houses in a paddock and calling it a solution to housing affordability is dangerously short-sighted. We’ve got to be thinking a few steps beyond that, and asking:
- Will complementary land uses be integrated? Are we going to build places that pass the “five minute pint test” of having a place to get a pint of beer or a pint of milk within walking distance? Or will people have to get in the car to run even the simplest errands?
- Will people have good access to the places they want to go? Will the housing choices we offer people respect their time, energy, and money, or will they lock people into long commutes on congested roads?
- Will we offer people good transport choices that give them freedom to opt out of congestion by taking rapid transit or cycling?
Do you think Auckland (and other NZ cities) are socially disconnected? If so, what do you think we should do about it?