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Urbanism

Mar 7, 2017

Connectivity isn't the same as social connection

Increased connection via walking and cycling paths sounds great but it can erode social connection, argues guest writer Dr Brenda Mackie; it's not a guarantee of ‘liveability’

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The City of Hobsons Bay proposed removing a fence across this path to connect a group of 19 dwellings with a proposed development of 108 dwellings

Guest writer Dr Brenda Mackie is a disaster sociologist, specialising in risk communication and developing safer and more resilient communities:

Connectivity in city planning has become one of the key characteristics and design principles of a ‘liveable city’ and indeed, in urban design, connectivity is an essential theme. Strategies for increasing connectivity are based on the premise that the built environment can inhibit interaction. Good connectivity can provide easy access to key destinations for pedestrians, whilst excellent connectivity actively seeks to discourage car use by making local trips easier and more pleasant by foot than by car.

These ideas are echoed in a 2009 national collaboration between the Australian Local Government Association, Planning Institute of Australia and Heart Foundation titled ‘Healthy Spaces and Places’. It states that increased connectivity leads to increased walkability, which in turn leads to better health outcomes for community residents. These ideas, although abstract, have largely been adopted by city council and shire planning bodies, and on the surface, seem like common sense.

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But what are the ‘lived experiences’ of people residing in our city suburbs, and how could they be affected by this imperative for connectivity?

In January 2017, 45 residents of a small cul-de-sac in Melbourne’s inner west, (including the author of this article) strongly objected to the actions of their local council. The City of Hobsons Bay planning department had approved an adjoining housing estate of 108 medium density units, subject to, amongst other conditions, taking down a fence that would connect this tiny community of 19 houses, with hundreds of new people in the housing estate, as well as those living in an adjoining aged care facility.  There were numerous assumptions made about how the increased permeability of the residents’ cul-de-sac would positively affect the safety and wellbeing of the existing community.

These assumptions about the benefits of connectivity are undoubtedly duplicated in the planning of urban communities all over Australia, yet neither they nor the implied social connection are borne out by research. Indeed, linking connectivity with connection does a great disservice to communities. The drive for increased connectivity, or permeability, has been linked to decreasing social connection, an erosion of social capital and declining health and wellbeing.

In 2012, researchers from the Perth Centre for Built Environment & Health, and The Victorian Centre for Community Wellbeing, compared the street layout of three different suburbs in Perth. The results, published in the Journal of Urban Studies Research, showed that residents who had the highest social capital lived in suburbs with the greatest number of cul-de-sacs and the lowest connectivity and access. This echoes results from a study carried out in Chicago which explored the links between social cohesion and street layout and found that crime risk was lower in neighbourhoods where social ties were the strongest. Social ties, also known as ‘social capital’, is the primary indicator of the health and wellbeing of a community, and describes the tangible and intangible resources that people or communities have. It includes such things as trust, helping each other out, information sharing and emotional and financial support.

A UK study, Burglary of domestic dwellings: findings from the British crime survey, showed that neighbourhoods that were stable and established and socially connected have informal social control which deters criminal activity;  ownership is clear, homes are perceived as private spaces and neighbours routinely look out for each other. Connecting streets and pathways afford good visibility of homes, and increase people’s awareness of them; more to the point, strangers stand out. Offenders can only target opportunities of which they are aware – simply put, connectivity elevates the risk of burglary.

Results from a project published in the Journal of the American Planning Association compared police-recorded burglary rates across differing housing layouts in Minneapolis and found a positive correlation between permeability and burglary risk.  A UK study carried out in West Yorkshire examined the risk of burglary and total crime for 1,058 homes in 50 housing estates and found that the type of road (whether it was a thru-road or cul-de-sac), the amount of pedestrian and car usage and the proximity of houses to access ways determined the level of crime and burglary they experienced. Their findings clearly showed that for those houses that were more connected and accessible, the risk of crime was much increased.

Researchers for a 2012 study, published in the Journal of Applied Behavioural Research, interviewed approximately 1,200 adults in five Australian communities in New South Wales: two rural communities, two outer metropolitan areas, and one inner-city area of Sydney. Their results showed that when streets are connected to other streets either via walkways or interconnected cul-de-sacs, they can become extremely vulnerable. Similarly, a paper published in 2010 in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology concluded that:

For this study area at least, the policy implications would seem to be quite clear; permeability should be limited to that necessary to facilitate local journeys and sustainable transportation. Additional connectivity may lead to elevated burglary risk and so should be avoided. Cul-de-sacs, in particular, would appear to be a beneficial design feature of urban areas and so should be encouraged.

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Connectivity, or permeability appears to be detrimental to people’s feelings of connectedness, and perceptions of safety and wellbeing, and has a direct negative impact on community connection. It is apparent from these examples from all over the world, that connectivity can erode social connection; it is not a guarantee of ‘liveability’, nor does it ensure the social capital, health and wellbeing of communities and their residents. Urban planners need to reassess their assumptions that connectivity is the same as connection (or that connectivity leads to connection), and design suburbs to encourage connection rather than connectivity.

Indeed, the Hobsons Bay councillors adjudicating at the Special Planning Meeting in January commented on the demonstrable community cohesion and strong social capital of the residents of the 20yr old cul-de-sac, and decided to overturn the recommendations of their own planning division. They unanimously agreed with the residents that the fence needed to stay right where it was!

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One thought on “Connectivity isn’t the same as social connection

  1. James

    I can’t agree with the author’s opinion on this issue for three reasons:

    1. It seems to go against what most planners would agree are well founded ideas of new urbanism built up from the theories and research of Jane Jacobs and others since. You get better coverage of ‘eyes on the street’ when the ratio of eyes to street is higher!

    2. The ‘evidence’ may be just showing correlation and not causation. Wealthier cul de sac style neighbourhoods will almost always have lower petty crime, but that has got to be for other reasons (social economic) not likely to be because of their neighbourhood form.

    3. I don’t want to use the NIMBY word as it might be too strong, but the author has skin in the game on this particular example in Hobsons Bay and displays some of the common traits of an incumbent resident resistant to newcomers (especially if they should happen to want to live in medium density).

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