Human beings largely choose to live in urban “herds”, where interactions with many other people are inevitable. However the great irony is that for many, physical proximity actually diminishes a preparedness to interact meaningfully.

How so?

Well, perhaps it’s due to the daily bombardment of media messages that serve to erode our trust in one another. Constantly reminded of the threats to our safety, a growing societal default may be to seek refuge in our own vehicles, secure private spaces and cyber-networks that masquerade as true community.

The meaning of “community” which has fueled inter-personal relationships since time immemorial seems to have evolved into a much hollower, contemporary form. Never more noticeable is this than in new residential developments; be they green-field developments on the urban-fringe or multi-storey apartment towers. Whilst the human condition seems inherently geared towards a sense of belonging, increasingly it seems that we have constructed barriers that impede.

However, make no mistake……bubbling inside each and every one of us remains a yearning for a true sense of “place”.

All is not well in our new communities

In the urban-fringe residential space, new estates deliver excitement and hope for so many young couples around Australia. A brand new life in a brand new place, frequently coinciding with the joyful arrival of children.  However, such joy also comes with the financial pressures of aspirational first home ownership and frequently, the impediment of commuting as a way of life. Social alienation often derives from one or both parents spending long hours away from their community, in order to service the home ownership dream.

For so long exclusively focused upon physical construction, developers and local councils now seem to finally be developing a more sophisticated sense of the human cost of missing the mark in terms of social investment in new communities. Elevated family violence rates, childhood obesity and soaring anxiety/depression rates are a wake-up call to the wellness responsibilities that all players in the development mix must assume, as they aim to create live-able places.

There exists a growing body of evidence that identifies meaningful social connection as having very specific and measurable benefits for the well-being of individuals, communities and society as a whole.

What is the key to un-locking lifestyle treasures in our new communities?

The reality is that the lifestyle lock is not controlled by a single key. Community engagement as a foundation stone of health in the ‘burbs is more like a combination lock that requires a number of moving parts to work together.

Undoubtedly, that combination includes personal responsibility and a habitual will to reach out to others. A skilful community development professional will facilitate theopportunityto do this as a key strategy, rather than force an un-welcome interaction. Some folk will immediately embrace all that is available, whilst others will at first just dip a testing toe in the water. Others may retain a prime sense of community in another more familiar locality, that is not easily and immediately reproduced for them. Such is the challenge in a world where one size does not fit all.

The creation of places where residents have an intrinsic capacity to choose their own path rather than feeling locked into a lifestyle template that doesn’t work for them is at the heart of good development. Personal wellness can be a by-product of this. Poor health outcomes are all too common when we get it wrong.

How can we recognise a healthy community?

Measuring community functionality, social connection and resilience is an imprecise art, which no doubt accounts for it being historically under-valued. However, what we know is that the best communities have a strong sense of identification with place, a keen sense of security and also of accountability to one another. The prospect of a metaphorical kick in the backside from a well-meaning neighbour who has witnessed a young person’s growth from babe in arms, can be a powerful and potentially embarrassing disincentive to anti-social behaviour!

Volunteerism is the lifeblood of Australian community life and a key litmus test of the functionality of a community. A level of voluntary participation that is above accepted benchmarks stands as a beacon of neighbourhood health.

So, when looking to invest on the urban fringe or in an apartment tower, look beyond the physical and the sales brochure. Factor wellness into your decision by really exploring the community fabric. Challenge the developer or agent to tell you of their level of commitment to social engagement and authentic connection with place. Speak to the Council community team for a “warts and all” assessment of the estate. Look for evidence of age and social diversity.  Sit in the café and stroll through the park to merely observe people. Check the notice boards for authentic community events/forums and look for public space design that encourages human interaction.

You deserve a home, not just a house. Strong, supportive community completes the dream.

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