I’ve often thought, as I’ve looked along wide suburban streets with no people in them, that if we took from the houses all the front lawns or grassy berms, which are virtually unused apart from being mown every week or two, and amalgamated them, we would have far more parks than we have now. Or maybe community food producing spaces like Te Rito Gardens and the food forest we’re developing in Pukerua Bay. That would give us more space to gather as communities, more places for our kids to play together safely, and provide oases of green to break up the monotony of many of our streets.
That’s a big thing for someone trained in landscaping and garden design to say. Getting rid of the inviting front yard, with the welcoming path that leads visitors to the house entrance, and the shrubs that provide a buffer between the house and the road, particularly in a suburban area, really goes against the grain. Waikato Times columnist Nicola Martin discussed different city living in a column a few weeks ago (Kiwis and Nimbyism when it comes to living in high-rise, high-density developments). The thing that struck me the most was her statement that 95 per cent of the people of the Norwegian capital, Olso, live no more than 300 metres from a green space. How many of us can say that?
But, it wouldn’t be easy to convince councils to create more of these green spaces. Grass needs to be mown, gardens need to be weeded, trees and shubs need pruning, and rubbish needs to be picked up. Currently, residents do that for free on their own land or the council’s road berm, and councils would not be keen to ask them to pay for that through their rates if the council became responsible for maintaining many more parks.
This is not just a planning change; it’s a big cultural change. Many of us are still wedded to the quarter acre paradise, our own detached home on a section with room for a vege garden, space to park the boat trailer and both cars, and room for the kids to run around or ride their bikes. However, with land such a large component of the price of a residential section (60 per cent on average across the country and 70 per cent in Auckland) for many of us, that is becoming a luxury we struggle to afford.
But there’s a cost to not having spaces to gather in. Communities like Pukerua Bay, where I have lived for 30 years, expose how what appear to be close communities can be fractured by their structure (in our case, State Highway 1 cutting the village in half) and lack of common spaces. Pukerua Bay has what seems to be a fairly tight community, but once you dig into it, you discover that it is almost entirely based around our local school and kindergarten. At any time, they have 150–200 families with children attending. However, we have more than 700 households in Pukerua Bay. If you don’t have young children, then you aren’t part of that kindy/school community. Once your children leave primary school, that community starts to drift away and all you are left with is some smaller, established friend groups. The only reason I know so many younger families here is because I have stayed involving in running the local junior soccer club for the past 14 years. Without that, I would know virtually none of them.
Loneliness is one of our fastest growing social problems, particularly as society ages, and the way communities are designed to keep people apart will continue to make this a growing problem. We can see how many elderly people, who may have been quite isolated when living in their own self-contained homes, suddenly find themselves part of a community of new friends and acquaintances when they sell up and move to a retirement village. There is a strong cultural urge for privacy in New Zealand pākehā society, and I don’t think the influence of other cultures, particularly Māori and Pacific, has reduced that by much.
We can start to break down this isolating privacy and make a change to closer communities. However, tackling this isn’t something that local councils can do on their own, and we shouldn’t expect them to. The problems don’t belong to them; they belong to all of us, so it’s something we all should be involved in. And the beauty of it is that it can include everyone and anyone — from the youngest children to the oldest people in our communities. Just like a real family.