by Professor Jane Farmer, Swinburne University Social Innovation Research Institute, and Associate Professor Andrew Butt, RMIT Centre for Urban Research

As the suburbs of Australia’s capital cities continue to sprawl outwards, we continue to experience challenges with establishing new communities with strong social connections. A new research project is seeking to understand these issues and offer pathways for local government and other agencies to make change.

Australia’s fringe suburbs remain the places where the highest rates of population growth are occurring – effectively doing the ‘heavy lifting’ for creating new housing, new services, retailing and helping people to find belonging during a long period of high population growth nationally.

These places are the engine of new community life in Australia’s cities, but the challenges associated with these new suburbs are well documented – a lack of transport options and local work, and gaps in early delivery of community and commercial services.

Increasing interest in planning for community health and wellbeing is also an important part of these new suburbs, adding in designs for physical health – such as generating primary health care hubs, outdoor ‘urban gyms’ and walking tracks – has become a mainstream consideration and selling point in many new developments.

COVID-19 revealed the value of a quality, ultra-local urban ‘health environment’ for many people, but also forced people to consider the less obvious issues that influence mental health and wellbeing, bringing a new exposure to the need for infrastructure to help generate social connection.

Outer-metropolitan suburbs are arguably at particular risk for social isolation, with lack of services and transport one issue, as is the time it takes for new people to come together to form a community.

For example, elements of neighbourhood design, the absence of local services and car dependency are each factors that appear to offer fewer opportunities for incidental meetings between neighbours.

What is a community, and which community are we planning for?

The experience of new suburbia is not usually presented as being varied – advertising for new estates often presents young families, and facilities can be aimed at an ideal type of new resident. Yet the reality is that these areas have a wide array of age groups, cultural backgrounds and day-to-day experiences with the city that they are in.

While the often cited examples of long commutes, or delays in local services, create challenges for households and communities, there are many other issues in making social connections. The place of young adults and older residents are examples of this, especially when the development is geared to young families.

We often see new communities integrating into older established communities, with newer younger residents who are often from culturally and linguistically diverse groups, who are now neighbours, and interacting often, with older people or others ‘left behind’ in formerly rural, and sheltered, communities.

The urgency of placemaking in many fast growing fringe locations is challenged by the previous understandings of place, locality and community.

What can social connection look like?

There is considerable dispute in the literature about what social connection looks like. Is it simply connecting people for one-to-one interactions? In our project, we understand social connection as more complex than this.

Based mainly on Robin Dunbar’s extensive work combining evolutionary psychology with brain science, we understand social connection as experiencing quality in a number of domains or ‘circles’.

First, social connection involves having close connections who are good friends or family members, and second, it also involves having people who can give help if needed, in reciprocal arrangements. Thirdly, social connection involves belonging to ‘identity groups’ – these could be around culture, interests, community, online hobbies, sports or fandom, etc.

Finally, social connection is about feeling a sense of belonging in locale and society.

Building cities to be pro-social connection

A partnership between Australian Red Cross and researchers at Swinburne University has previously focused on an intensive search for research evidence about ‘pro social connection infrastructure’ in order to construct guidance targeted at planners, community development staff and human services providers.

This led to identifying a whole set of design features that can be built into communities to help people feel they belong. Foundations like accessibility, choice and cultural safety, as well as a range of incidental ‘bumping’ and ‘facilitated’ spaces are significant.

Additionally, important community-making activities are pro-social connections, such as problem-solving and mentoring, alongside synchronous activities like music making and singing.

Environments that resonate with peoples’ backgrounds and cultures are significant for making people feel like they belong. In new communities, social connection can be helped by services committed to supporting people to connect and having appropriately designed community infrastructure that supports social connection.

Social connection isn’t entirely something individuals and families can do for themselves, but having a pro-social connection community can be realised through design, support services and community action.

Bringing together urban planning and community support in local government and beyond

For local governments, bringing together different departments is important, but often difficult. Urban planners are often keenly aware of the way design and the use of space matters in placemaking, and of the long-term nature of new development, while community service providers in local government, and their networks, are often used for addressing the needs of specific, often vulnerable, cohorts in society.

One aim of our project is to bring these ways of thinking, and framing the issues of new suburbs into better dialogue, with each realising the significance and the limits of their own policy domain in delivering connected communities.

What does the project aim to do next?

Our research project involves working with partners in local government and community sector organisations – Australian Red Cross and Neami, a national mental health and wellbeing services provider, to understand how social connection occurs in three communities on the metropolitan fringe of Melbourne.

It builds on examples of this in research, policy and practice, but aims to bring together new techniques to understand how people interact in place and online, and what the experience and barriers to connection look like in different types of neighbourhoods.

Over the next year we will be working with communities directly, with service providers and local government. In the first year we will be conducting in-depth and repeat ‘go-along’ sessions with around 60 people from a wide range of backgrounds, including those experiencing social isolation, those who have forged new connections in communities over time and those active in supporting others in their communities.

As well as exploring physical aspects of communities, we are interested in peoples’ experiences of connecting with their communities online, especially through ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ place-related experiences, some of which may have been particularly activated during the pandemic.

In parallel, we have mapped existing social connection infrastructure across these suburbs, such as parks, transport routes and online place-related services. We are keen to extend this mapping, informed by what we find out about social connection places and spaces from ‘go along’ sessions with community members.

Along with councils and other service staff, we will be sharing our findings about local peoples’ social connection activities, places and barriers and seeking to understand if these match practitioners’ perspectives and what surprises are revealed.

Subsequently, we will build on existing tools and methods used by councils and services, using the evidence we have found to codesign enhancements; for example, tools to plan for social connection for particular groups, ways for measuring social connections and their impacts, structure planning design principles and guidance for generating digital placerelated services.

Given its complexity, it is obvious why social connection can be difficult to form – it takes a long time and firm commitment from people to make long-standing connections.

However, in return for these social connections, there are proven mental and physical health benefits, as well as confidence in help from others and a sense of belonging.

This project is supported by the Australia Research Council and partners at the City of Casey, City of Whittlesea, City of Wyndham, Australian Red Cross, Neami National and Today Design.

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