The Grattan Institute has recently launched Social Cities, a report that emphasises the importance of human relationships in maintaining the wellbeing of city folk in particular.
“Australians have put a lot of emphasis on trying to make cities more productive and sustainable, but devoted far less attention to what makes them friendly places to live,” Grattan Cities Program Director Jane-Frances Kelly explains.
Ms Kelly notes that isolation and loneliness are becoming increasingly more widespread in Australia, and these are two conditions that can put our health at risk. The report cites evidence that over the past two decades there has been a significant decline in the number of friendships people have, and relationships among neighbours are less common.
The report also found that a quarter of Australian households now consist of people living by themselves and this is the fastest growing household type.
“By no means are we saying that everyone who lives alone is lonely,” said Ms Kelly. “But if more Australians live by themselves this makes connecting with others outside the home all the more important.”
Ms Kelly believes that we can build and design our cities in a manner that can either foster the development of new relationships or prevent them from flourishing. “For example, we tend to hurry past a building that presents a blank wall to the street, whereas an open façade can create inviting spaces to stop and talk.”
The report provides an array of instances where a city’s design can make it easier for people to connect with one another. These include the layout of transport networks, the availability of parks and sporting grounds and the architecture of public spaces and buildings.
Improving such social connections does not have to be a costly process, either. In many cases minor modifications to public places can bring about change. For example, installing a few benches at the edge of a public area can make a space much more inviting and compel people who would usually hurry past that area to use them.
Australian cities are expected to keep growing for the foreseeable future said Ms Kelly. “If those cities are to improve quality of life for all then they will need to meet our social as well as our material needs,” she explains