(It’s) somewhat surprising when you consider Australians are known for their relaxed and friendly nature. But it seems that doesn’t always extend to our neighbours.
Actually it isn’t all that surprising. We know from Dr Andrew Leigh’s book, Disconnected, that neighbours aren’t as close as they once were:
Compared with respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has 1.5 fewer neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour, and three fewer neighbours on whom they could drop in uninvited.
There’s always angst about loss of community and neighbourly social disconnection when these sorts of surveys are published in the media.
But the problem is greatly overrated.
We’re not as dependent on our immediate neighbours for friendship as previous generations were. Thanks to improvements in mobility (principally cars) and increased participation in the workforce (especially for women) we have a much wider range of social contacts. Importantly, we can find friends at work or on the other side of town who more closely match our preferences than random neighbours.
We don’t need neighbours as much for help with household management either. Many emergency and support services that people in the street used to help each other with are now provided by institutions. Greater access to cars and phones means it’s easier to contact a friend or family member rather than prevail on a nearby resident. Low cost imports mean neighbours don’t borrow tools as much as they once did.
You don’t even need to knock on your neighbour’s door for the proverbial cup of milk anymore; shops open late and of course you’re highly likely to have a car. Fresh milk lasts much longer than it used to and failing that you’ll probably have a carton of UHT in the pantry.
Many households now have young adult children living at home who can feed the cat and collect the mail when their parents are away. The mail and the newspaper – if it’s still delivered physically – can be easily suspended temporarily with a few clicks. You can hire someone to walk the dog or look after the kids.
There are a couple of other factors that also contribute to the change. Children are the key force for neighbourhood engagement, but there are more households without children than in past generations. There are also many fewer women staying at home; they’re in the workforce! These are structural reasons; they don’t imply we’re becoming intrinsically more selfish.
Anyway, how many neighbours does anyone “need”? Andrew Leigh says we used to have 7.1 neighbours on average of whom we could ask a small favour back in 1984; it had fallen to 5.7 in 2004. That still sounds like more than enough to bring in each others bins, to run to in an emergency, or to provide help to an elderly neighbour.
I think there might even be a countervailing force. The housing market has always sorted households by income; now we see it sorting households by shared values, e.g. in the inner city (see Do political values help explain high cycling levels?). That’s relevant because neighbours who’re more alike are more disposed to engage with each other (see Diversity in cities: does it have to be uniform?). New housing development innovations like Nightingale take that a step further; they select people with strong common values at the building level. Of course, while sorting might help build neighbourly connections, it comes at the cost of less diversity on key dimensions like values and income.
With an ageing population, we can expect there’ll be more residents who’ll need help living at home. Some things, like putting out the bins for someone who’s frail, can be done – and mostly are – by helpful neighbours rather than by formal service providers. We can do that without lamenting we don’t have the average 9.9 neighbouring households that Andrew Leigh says we felt we could drop in on uninvited in 1984 (it had fallen to 6.4 by 2004).
All in all I think the decline in neighbourhood contact is more a reflection of the fact that we’re better off than a cause for regret. I’ve written more on this topic – see Do we still need good neighbours?