Thursday, 28 May 2009

Neighbouring in inner-city apartments Take a relatively young, diverse and wealthy population of 'small-sized, non-familial households' in a new apartment development in a booming European capital: what level of neighbouring would you expect? I don't think you'd be surprised if it was well below the kind of average I've been referring to lately. Peter Howley has just published a study of neighbouring in apartment units in inner-city Dublin, with a very welcome article in Irish geography (subscription required). He found that only 13 per cent felt that neighbours 'look out for' each other. Well, 77 per cent feel that it is likely or very likely they will move residence in the next five years, so maybe they won't invest much and it's not surprising that 22 per cent 'never' speak to their neighbours. Howley rightly asks questions about the social impact of promoting high-density housing. But there are a few other things to take into consideration. First, previous research (Churchman and Ginsberg in Israel for instance) has shown that some people regard it as an advantage of certain kinds of high-density housing that they can avoid contact with others. Churchman and Ginsberg looked at moderately 'high-rise' blocks and found that those who wished to were able to develop active social ties with fellow-residents. Secondly, there is an established reputation (although I'm not aware of any research) for the balance of sociability and privacy in city centre apartments in central European cities. A long-standing cultural tradition with less sense of transience can make a lot of difference. Thirdly, neighbouring does not always take off in new developments - presumably it depends mostly on household structure, levels of employment, and housing type. Howley reports that in his sample, 29, 31 and 29% respectively of households surveyed consist of either a single person living alone, a couple without children or non-family households - not exactly propitious. There's one curiosity among Howley's findings, which might justify further attention: residents who are from an ethnic or cultural background other than Irish are much more likely to interact with their neighbours than their Irish counterparts. The usual explanations for higher levels of prosocial behaviour and participation among minority groups are about compensating for having more complex social and economic problems, and being less likely to have informal connections to power and influence. But it doesn't sound like that's the explanation here, and in light of the national stereotype of Irish garrulousness the finding stands out. My last point is that the housing developments described by Howley are probably crying out for an experiment in neighbourhood online networks. If a network had been in place at the outset, when people were getting the teething problems with their properties sorted, it might have created the platform for some consistent and supportive neighbouring. Sounds like a job for folk like Neighbo.

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