In the United Kingdom, it’s the local pub—a neutral space where members of the community can gather to relax in each other’s company. Meanwhile, in China, at dusk, people come out of their houses to dance. You see it all over the country. Residents exercising, talking, gossiping, building community.
I saw it for myself when I lived in China and I saw the importance of the local pub when I lived in the UK. When, after 10 years, I came back to live in Aotearoa New Zealand, I got to wondering where people socialise and make friends here.
That was the inspiration behind ‘Where Do We Dance?’, a research project I am leading for the National Science Challenge Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities.
With dance a metaphor for socialising, the project asks where, physically, community happens in this country and how might we improve the way we design our built environments to better serve the making of communities.
The research, which concludes at the end of June, has implications for planning. This is particularly with respect to guaranteeing spaces within a suburb that residents use to build community are protected to ensure ongoing community involvement in decision-making processes involving those spaces.
My hypothesis is I think we have given ourselves too much private outdoor space and so are never compelled to use the public realm.
I first became interested in the role of the public realm in supporting us to make friends and networks through the work of Ray Oldenburg, a US-based urban sociologist who advocated for informal public gathering spaces as being vital for a well-functioning, diverse-thinking and democratic society.
Oldenburg’s work centres on the role of the ‘third place’ in urban planning. The first places are our homes, the second places are where we work, but the third place is the really interesting one. Third places are those public spaces where a community has the chance to fully develop.
They are the 'bumping' spaces—the places where we create friendships and literally 'bump into' other members of the community. Famous TV examples include the Rovers Return in Coronation Street or Central Perk in the sitcom Friends.
In reality, our third places are also our first places—a BBQ in the evening, drinks on the deck or in the garage. This is where we seem to create community. However, there are three obvious problems with this.
First, a greater level of pre-selection occurs. That is, we tend to only invite people around to our homes if they are a bit like us.
Second, and relatedly, this has the potential to slow down community integration if there are no other avenues such as school or work for engaging with people who aren’t like you.
Finally, if there are no signals that there are third places even available to find, people may not even look for them. Take, for example, the UK. Most people when they move somewhere new would understand they could look for the local pub to engage with other locals.
‘Where Do We Dance?’ examines where in New Zealand we have created these third places and how successful we’ve been at implementing the design and planning of informal public spaces through local government.
Along with Victoria University of Wellington environmental psychologist Dr Wokje Abrahamse, five Master’s students from our Environmental Studies programme are involved in the research. They are all looking at different aspects of this idea.
We are discovering that in this country the urban form is predominantly designed to foster privacy, as opposed to strengthening local community.
Resources are put into that which can be sold—the private plot—and a relatively small amount is put into the public realm through ad hoc development contributions.
Interestingly, our research shows that the more suburban an area, the less informal public space there is for community to gather. This finding reveals the importance of ensuring informal public space is part of the local planning process.
One of the research projects, undertaken by Chantal Mawer, has looked at the role of shopping malls in communities, using the Lower Hutt suburb of Wainuiomata and Wellington suburb of Johnsonville as case studies. The key finding is that malls are really important community spaces. They are not just retail spaces; they are places where people meet people and places for communities to play.
When malls are vital and thriving, enjoyed and experienced fully by the community, they are great. But when malls—in suburbs particularly—are left to languish during times of downturn or lack of will on the part of their private owners to maintain them, they become dilapidated and the community suffers as a result. The research shows this is particularly true in lower socio-economic areas.
Take Wainuiomata and Johnsonville. These malls are now not doing very well but were previously much-loved by their communities. Because they are privately-owned spaces, the community and local council have no say over what should happen in them.
Local government needs to invest in thinking about mechanisms put in place at the point of resource consent that ensure ongoing community participation in design-making to do with key central spaces if these are privatised.
Another project, undertaken by Elaine Gyde, considers the role of green spaces as third places, and another, by Emma McNeill, seeks to understand the types of third places meaningful intercultural interactions might take place in.
A further project, by Elinor Thomas, considers the role of third places in encouraging the independent mobility of children in the Wellington suburb of Miramar. She has been working with students at Worser Bay School and they have developed their own third places around their community in a bid to get people using the urban realm, including swings, fidget boards, dream post boxes and libraries. These have become places to play and be curious.
Community engagement in the design of third places also creates more opportunities for community development.
Further findings from our research will be available soon.
This is an adapted version of an article first published in NZ Local Government Magazine.
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