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.

Avg commute times in large cities

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…

World Bank GDP per capita and urbanisation

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?

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  1. As a greater proportion of the population rents rather than owns housing, having laws that support long term tenants (like security of tenure) will be important to improving community cohesiveness. You’re not going to care much about making connections if your landlord can turf you out at (almost) any moment.

  2. The social connectedness result is the most disturbing item above. This will only get worse as the elderly are forced out of their Auckland homes as rates become unaffordable, and the massive influx of foreigners continue to be allowed unrestricted access to our stock offering massive prices (often very hard to refuse) for homes. This has nothing to do with cars (a very long bow to attempt to draw indeed) but more to do with the changing focus we are seeing in NZ of dollars becoming more important than quality human relationships and community. Most livable city? Less and less each year sadly. More likely the ‘most sold out city’. The Council and government only pay lip service to the problem.

    1. Less racism and more evidence for your unsupported views please: ‘This has nothing to do with cars’ We know you make your living drawing motorways so you really will have to try harder to make anyone believe your constant driving promotion is anything other than boosting your trade. Try using evidence, sources, coherent argument; ie not simply your opinion.

    2. Just amazing to me that you think this lack of social cohesion has nothing to with our auto dependence. It is so obvious that Aucklanders’ overwhelming tendency to get in a car and drive has cut us off from those around us. Your inability to recognise this is just another symptom of how far down the auto dependent road we have gone – we can’t even see it any more and appreciate how much things have changed, even in the last 20 years.

      Many of my neighbours never leave the bounds of their property except in a car. The only time I ever get to speak to them is if they are checking their mail or putting out their rubbish bins.

      I know the people who cycle and walk in my neighbourhood much better than my immediate neighbours because we see each other all the time without a metal box separating us.

      A really sad indictment on NZ society and yet another reason why our claims of being a great place to live become more and more tenuous the longer I am back here. We have lost so much as a society in order to allow everyone to drive everywhere while also causing terrible health outcomes.

  3. “No sorry I can’t stay for an after work drink, I have to beat the traffic”. The summary of Kiwi connectedness.

  4. We used to have an elderly couple next door. We liked them, talked to them. helped them out. Then they sold the house and now it’s rented out. We were nice to the tenants at first, but they turned out to not give a stuff about their neighbours, having loud music on at least twice a week. Now there are new tenants who are quiet, but we made a decision not to interact with them at all because it’s just a hassle if they start having parties and we have to call noise control. Community cohesiveness isn’t helped when people have to live close together and all have differing ideas about noise, litter, parties, dogs…

    1. Had a little get together at mine on Sunday Night (queens birthday weekend), got noise control because of ‘people noise’ (as we had music low as not to disturb people) at 9:20pm! We were heading to town for an event at 10:30pm so continued on as we were. Funniest thing ever, needless to say the officer was nice and apologised profusely for giving the notice so early in the night before a public holiday. As with anything social, if its unreasonable then complaining against people is ok, but it needs to be balanced out as people do live in these properties. For you’re information I own my own apartment in Newmarket area, so us trouble makers are not only renters! With city living, you tend to be a little more tolerant of others than if you were in the suburbs.

      1. “People noise” can be anything from glasses clinking and quiet laughing to loud screaming drunk girls ambling by at 3am. With us the problem is the neighbour’s stereo, the base drives us insane. We thought about blasting them with something hideous at 5:00am the next morning. From a noise hater’s point of view, the problem is that it can take noise control over an hour to turn up. You know you’re going out at 10:30, your neighbours don’t know that. For all they know you are settling in for a party till 2:am, getting louder as the evening goes on…which is what our neighbours did, regularly. So these days we ring noise control sooner rather than later. Not for people noise though unless they get to the drunken shrieking stage.

  5. Social connectedness also relates to the innovation system that drives the economy, as described by Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan in Get Off The Grass (2013). We make coincidental connections through urban living and convert social contact into professional connections. The innovation happens when ideas from disparate fields come together in a new way.

  6. Growth in world incomes over the past two centuries has not coincided with a great dispersal of human population.

    Yes, urbanised cities the world over are rich. Which is the reason they have to pay for their own infrastructure costs.

    Auckland needs the rail tunnel, Auckland needs to pay for the rail tunnel.

    1. Exactly… and given Auckland pays over a third of the national tax base through copious income tax, business tax and GST it can do just that.

      Unfortunately the Beehive seems intent on keeping its fingers pinched over Aucklands purse strings, and insists on ignoring how Auckland wants to spend its share of the pot.

      1. If we try just a little harder we can pay for it with borrowing, ticket sales and rates.

        We don’t need the government.

        1. Sure, we could, but we shouldn’t have to pay for it ourselves when every other transport project in the country get’s at least 50% government funding. If the government take your attitude then they need to give our contributions to the NLTF back.

  7. Isolated in the four-acre pavlova paradise?

    Frankly speaking, at this point having a city 1/4 acre sections with buses & trains would almost be a dream scenario of compact living.

    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.

    Couldn’t agree more. Over the past 2 census periods a full 27% of all Auckland’s population growth has occurred in rural Auckland. A car dominated, urban planning insane, nightmare of 4 acre sections stretching from Bombay to Warkworth. We have restricted suburban growth and got this instead.

    1. If that’s a comment on social connectedness (for want of a better term) in rural areas, then you couldn’t be further from the truth. But unless you’ve lived in such an area I guess there’s no way you’d know that.

    2. The same thing has happened in Canterbury but it is the 10 acre/4 hectare low density urban form that fit the regulatory requirements which is spreading across the plains…..

      1. Arbitrary numbers pulled out of some planners arse only serve to expand the area so called life-stylers take up. There’s demand for blocks under 3 acres, hell this one is only 1/2 hectare, but thou shall not ruin the ‘rural feel’. Whatever that’s supposed to be.

        But that’s well away from the topic of social cohesion.

    3. It’s called leapfrog growth. Auckland’s insane obsession with restricting suburban expansion has made 500sq m sections inside the urban boundary as expensive as multi-acre lifestyle blocks only a few minutes’ drive away. Unfortunately Auckland Council wants to continue the stupidity, railing against “urban sprawl” while mandating minimum 2 hectare section sizes in “countryside living” areas. The hypocrisy is staggering.

      1. As is the NIMBY obsession with stopping intensification. No problem with removing urban boundaries out as long as we also remove the restrictions on going up.

        1. Absolutely, do both. I never understand why it’s presented as an either/or. It lets people live where they want to live and makes housing more affordable.

    4. Those small holdings will be the villages of the future feeding the cities, maybe a good way of breaking up the monoculture and bringing back diversity to the land. we have a 2 acre small holding that is full of fruit and nut trees with vegetable garden more productive any given area under modern agricultural practices, soil tests have shown our soil to be some of the best in the area after 35 years of composting and returning every thing to the soil something monoculture rarely does.

    5. “4 acre sections stretching from Bombay to Warkworth”

      Is that true? Archaic units aside, it seems like an atypical figure for the area in question.

  8. It’s the roads that divide us now, were at one time they united us, when you could wander along with only bikes or horse drawn carts it was easy to be a community, now with high density traffic that’s traveling at much higher speeds the roads are barrier to neighborliness, every road now makes one side out of bounds to the other, as a kid over 70 years ago I new all my neighbors, we walked to school meeting friends on the way, the population of our local area would have been a few hundred but attached to a larger small town of 8000 people, it was connected by a good rail service to, Stockport and Manchester were people worked if they weren’t employed in farming or the local cotton industries.

    I would hate to live in a city with people in close proximity, the only reason cities became popular was for the need for work, after they had the enclosing acts you had the industrial revolution, you starved or went to work were the work was, it still applies today only we think we like it because we have been socialized to it a bit like brain washing.

    1. “I would hate to live in a city with people in close proximity” – And that’s fine as long as you don’t try and restrict the choices of people like me who don’t hate it. So don’t fight intensification in your area, move to a small city where it will never be needed.

      1. It’s the fear of not being in control of my food supply as much as any thing that puts me of being in close proximity to neighbors in cities, plus the music and noisy parties. I like being able to walk down our field and pick some fresh fruit at any time of the year, I worry about the people in cities, do they realize how precarious food production is and how dependent on modern farming and monoculture, leading to depleted soils and more need for fertilizers that do even more harm, and NZ population just hit 6 million and rising.

        1. just to clarify NZ population has not hit 6million, there have been 6 million births registered since records began- many of those are now dead obviously. Living in Cities may not be for everyone but go and visit Manchester or Liverpool now and you will find many many do. One issue they do face though is the productive farm land of SW Lancashire being turned into lifestyle blocks.

        2. Thanks I only saw the news report on the TV and thought it was for the population which rather surprised me. The UK could not feed it’s population without imports but that must apply to many parts of the world and why I was concerned by what appeared to be a fast growing population in NZ. In England in the last war we actually produced more per acre on allotments than the farms so come the crunch there is hope in diversity, I can see all these people on lifestyle blocks digging for victory when their ride-on mowers run out of fuel.

    2. People are different, there is a huge shift to urban living. People love having choice of restaurants, bars, cafes, entertainment, art galleries, museums, large events, free sponsored events, sport events, shows, stuff that only city life can provide, not to mention just the urban environment that brings interesting people and places together and we need to give choice to these people who are now the majority looking at international trends. That’s while maintaining choice for people like you who’s not so keen on city life. That’s what the benefit of shared spaces, street improvements, cycle and pedestrian improvements are doing to the city however, they are giving us our space back.

  9. What a load of cobblers, blaming “sprawl” and “cars” for every social ill. With the exception of a few thousand people in a couple of inner-city areas, almost everyone in New Zealand lives in a “sprawling”, “car-centric” state, and this has been the case for several decades. So why are things getting worse? There must be other factors involved, but chastising 99% of the population for our preference for suburban, car-centric living is almost a reflexive response from health researchers these days.

    1. Hmm can you back up this claim of 99% of the population, land prices and location of housing demand seem to suggest otherwise.

    2. Most of the people who live on the isthmus still live in a suburban state. Auckland’s truly urban (CBD) population is only about 40,000, which is about 1% of New Zealand’s population. Add a few in Wellington (very few in Christchurch or any other NZ city) and maybe it’s closer to 2%.

      1. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population lives in New Zealand. I guess we have nothing to risk by throwing our borders open to all immigration, because it’s obvious that almost nobody wants to live here!

        Snark aside, I find it quite instructive to look at the the _marginal_ change rather than the totals. For over a decade, Auckland’s city centre has been one of the fastest-growing places in the city. Land prices have also been increasing rapidly in and around the city centre. To me, this says that things are changing, and that there is growing demand for urban living.

        1. The CBD is also an area that has had the most attention and money (in a single place) spent on it. If there hadn’t been growth, I’d be pretty worried. I’m not saying it’s the wrong thing to do, in fact the success shows it’s the right thing to do, but some planning in other areas wouldn’t go amiss. The same problems that affected the CBD also affect other parts of the city – pedestrian unfriendly streets, lack of density etc.

        2. A lot of the city centre expenditure has been funded by a targeted rate levied on city centre properties over the 2005-2016 period. It’s raised around $20 million per annum, or over $200 million in total. Heart of the City’s targeted rate adds another $3-4 million.

          So while the city centre has been getting more investment, it’s also been putting up the money to pay for it. As you said, it would be great if other areas of the city learned the lessons!

      2. But the only reason we can attribute to that is Urban density limits we have created, as we have seen when an area is allowed to intensify it has done, and units are sold out before they are built. examples are Parnell, Newmarket, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, New Lynn, Mt Eden, Eden Terrace, Newton, areas of Remuera, areas of Mt Wellington just to name a few in Auckland. It seems that people want to when they are given the option to.

      3. I dont think characterizing all of the suburbs outside the CBD as being car centric is fair. We live in a relatively old North Shore suburb, within 5 minutes of the town centre (as do many other people, it has a reasonable density and is intensifying further). We walk or cycle and as such bump into people. I am not a particularly social creature, but my wife knows who half the people on our street are and is always meeting people around town. Walkable town centres is where it is at I reckon, even if you do have to commute to work.

        1. Excellent point. Most areas of Auckland have the population densities to support good local amenities – parks, neighbourhood shops, bus routes, etc. There’s a lot of potential for sociability throughout Auckland.

          In my view, what’s holding things back is not physical proximity so much, but the street environment. Typical post-war suburb design has focused on separating different uses and providing for auto-mobility in a branching street hierarchy. This makes it difficult for people to get out and about.

          In that regard, I’m a bit less concerned about where the city grows than how it builds the places it’s growing into.

        2. “In that regard, I’m a bit less concerned about where the city grows than how it builds the places it’s growing into.”

          Agree on that point. The new Westgate development is a prime example.

        3. Yes agree, look at places like Te Atatu South, to allow traffic to move through quicker roads are being widened. It is the local community who suffer, who wants to cross a de facto motorway to get milk.

        4. Relatively old is the magic word here. They stopped making those a long time ago. What we got is 2 newly constructed ratmazes at Long Bay and Silverdale.

          Maybe one day someone familiar with planning rules can count in how many ways constructing a walkable suburbs has been outlawed.

  10. I grew up in a rural, 200%-car-dependent-for-anything area, and I can confirm that long commutes and car dependency will definitely not prevent people from socializing.

    I always thought social connectedness (aka. knowing your neighbours) are just a thing of the countryside. Mainly because you will often meet the same people again when you go out in a small town. In cities on the other hand you will meet a lot of different people, but you’re less likely to connect because it’s unlikely you’ll meet the same people again.

    And then there’s suburbs, which I indeed always associated with isolation. You just leave your house to go to work, and then you come back home and don’t go out any more. Because there’s just nowhere to go, except for your home. Suburbs probably fare worse in the “five minute pint test” than rural towns.

    1. Agree entirely on your view on suburbs – with the focus on safety and privacy, more and more people erect high fences around their properties, and keep their kids indoors and won’t let them play in the street. They never get a chance to meet their neighbours.

  11. “the absence of physical space between people and companies.”

    I would consider the thing MOST likely to make me homicidal. But maybe I’m just more similar to a rat than most humans 🙂

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