Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Peter was originally published in June 2015.

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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21 comments

  1. One thing I need to note is that Auckland is easily the smallest city on the “Average commute times” chart so, no surprises it’s the second-lowest.

    I’ve said for decades now that NZ is, for the most part, is a giant dull suburb of detached housing. There’s negative effects to this; New Zealanders are typically limited by their narrow-mindedness, dullness, social insularity etc. And being isolated at the end of the world doesn’t help.

    How did this happen? NZ was especially unlucky in that its shift to mass urbanisation occurred simultaneously with the onset of automobile dependency. So there wasn’t a great deal built in the way of blocks of urban flats/apartments before that.
    And let’s be frank (with no intention to offend anyone); people who grow up on farms have an aversion to living in flats/apartments and things inherent with urban areas in general like crowds of people. They struggle to handle facing the reality of not knowing everyone around them and what’s generally going on (even though they don’t really back in the country either) and they struggle with becoming comfortable amongst things that are different from what they’re accustomed to. They like to have grass and trees on their property. So naturally; the people who’d grown up on farms in the ’30s and ’40s etc. wanted a detached single-story house in suburbia when they moved to the big smoke as a young adult.

    1. By and large I agree with your comments Daniel but I think you are overlooking the considerable vested business interests, and a captured media totally dependant on advertising revenue from these same interests, in promoting the urban sprawl mode. Together they have had little difficulty finding polititians willing to further their interests. Building “bespoke” MacMansions provides fullsome profits, for a myriad of small building firms and our very concentrated building supply industry. Profitably building mass housing and high rise apartments has been much more fraught.
      Sprawled housing also creates considerable opportunities for large scale upzoning property speculation and considerable profitable civil engineering infrastructure work, both on site, and between the sprawled developments and their parent town centre.
      These same developments require a high use of motor vehicle use for access, increasing demand for the supply of these vehicles and their related services. Retail too has evolved to take advantage of the consequential availability of motor vehicles to provide the big format stores situated within large carparks.
      These business interests and their influenced politicians have been quite effective in both resisting intensification by opposing upzoning already developed land and instead promoting upzoning more and more rural land for housing. They have also been effective in resisting public transport enhancements in favour of more and more road building.

      1. A lot of what you say is true.
        But let’s not pretend that flats are no less prone to speculation. And that vested business interests have also promoted suburban developments of apartment blocks (if not in New Zealand).

        1. Tony,
          I am sure you have sincerely held views, views held by lots and lots of other people, so in an open society they must be considered.
          You can use this forum to put them forward. Some will agree with you and some will disagree. The rules of the forum are there to encourage discussion and discourage simplistic sloganeering.
          For the record Daniel and I normally disagree, but for the most part we continue to engage. Daniel puts forward his views, I put forward mine. As a result of posts and submissions on this forum I for one have modified my views on some subjects.

        2. ‘New Zealanders are typically limited by their narrow-mindedness, dullness, social insularity ‘
          And some weird rubbish about people moving off farms
          And you agreed.

          How does this promote discussion?
          He’s a tosser.

        3. (*rolls eyes*)
          @”Tony”
          You’re entitled to whatever opinion you may form of me. Rest assured that as you’ve merely dismissed what I’ve said as “complete horseshit” and/or “weird rubbish” with not even any attempt at elaboration on how/why , displayed such sensitive intolerance of what I’ve said (never mind if it might be true to any extent) to the extent that you can;t even bring yourself to discuss it and used it as a basis for ad-hominem: The feeling’s at least as mutual.

          This entire post links to an article about research into the low level of social connectedness of New Zealanders. Yeah, I’ve said “New Zealanders are typically limited by their narrow-mindedness, dullness, social insularity” and I stand by it and are more than willing to back it up. The saying that “New Zealand sucks the life out of you” has long been an old one, have you never heard it before or something? And your overreaction to what I’ve said could ironically be used as an example of small-mindedness.

          If you really can’t handle what I post on here: Nobody is forcing you to read it. There are two or three people who post on here whose posts I avoid. Yet I’ve never attempted to shut down what they’ve had to say.

        1. I gave Daniel the benifit of doubt, in that that was probably fairly accurate of the majority New Zealanders at the early stages of mass urbanisation and urban sprawl. When I grew up in an outer suburb in the early fifties that was a fairly accurate assessment of our local inhabitants. It is interesting that the government of our neighbour is now consciously appealing to this group “The silent Australians”
          I am sure that we have a similar grouping here in NZ, that are also being appealed to elements of our media, and the politicians from one side of the House.

        2. “You’re not as clever as you think.”
          Where on earth did that come from?

          “New Zealanders are ‘narrow minded, dull and insular’ isn’t an argument for anything.”
          It was an opinion of mine about a side-effect of NZ’s urban development pattern of detached housing that I stated, I’m certainly far from the only person who holds it and I base it on facts. Don’t know where this “argument for anything” comes from.

          At this stage, I can only conclude that the problem here is with you.

        3. To tell you the truth Don; not much had changed when I grew up in NZ’s suburbia in the ’80s and ’90s. And I grew up in one of the less-backward and more exposed to outside influences areas of New Zealand and was in for a shock when I left home.

          Not sure if the Current Australian government is trying to appeal to any Australian equivalent as he seems to be courting the more conservative elements of Australia’s considerable immigrant communities (which let’s be honest; Australia has a lot more of than New Zealand does).

        4. Are you talking about Mike Hosking? I could be wrong but I’d be surprised if most Australians have heard of Mike Hosking.
          Of course, Alan Jones and Derryn Hinch (who’s actually originally a Kiwi) still pull an audience in Australia that is slowly but surely passing away. But Australia’s got a bigger population with more diverse interests and values/opinions than NZ does.

        5. “Hoskins has an audience. Do I need to say more?”

          Well…yes, you do. Who is Hoskins and how does he/she/it having an audience support your claim?

  2. “The survey also found that almost 40 per cent of Kiwis only meet with others socially once a month or less.” → on one hand, wtf. On the other hand after living here for a while I’m not surprised. You can spend an hour walking around in your town centre of choice without encountering any trace of social activity.

    The five minute test sounds almost like a joke over here, most people have only a handful of other houses within a 5 minute walk. Note that we don’t build apartments within town centres, which is a serious setback if you’re looking for somewhere you can get around easily without driving.

    I thought the thing that emerges from our ‘deep evolutionary biology’ would be villages and small towns. Cities are too large to function as a community. It is not possible for humans to have tens of thousands of acquaintances.

  3. You are right. Mike Hosking. Only the dull narrow minded and insular could find him appealing but our second? biggest New Zealand media organisation finds it commercially worth while to give him a star billing.

    1. And let’s be honest; Hosking’s not the first. Remember that dreadful Paul Henry? Or John Banks when he was on Newstalk ZB?
      And I know some may hate me saying this; but Paul Holmes wasn’t much better.

      And Hoskings isn’t just a bit… …awful. He’s also pretty much the epitome of mediocre…

  4. Interesting post.

    Went to the Mt Wellington local meeting Monday night. Quite relevant to this. Pretty much most people agreed that the suburb lacked a heart, a main street & something of a Master Plan needs to be done for it. Sylvia Park Shopping Centre has been both good and bad for the place but is becoming the defacto centre which is not really the “local” go to place. Big box US style retail you drive to but does have a lot of PT access at least. Quite a hard one to solve with the motorway interchange right there and the Countdown area of Mt Wellington on the intersection of two very busy arterials.

    1. Big shopping malls like Sylvia park are inherently built on automobile dependency and are going the way of the dodo anyway. They’re something we’ve adopted from the leaders in disastrous urban development: The USA.

      Communities need avenues for people to meet and socialise with their neighbours and find what they have in common. Things like pubs, cafes, libraries, sports clubs, musical bands, communal gardens etc. A big busy main road down the middle of your community is an anathema to communities.

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