Who needs neighbours?
Views from the outer and inner suburbs
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It is widely held that outer suburban life is one of isolation, cut off from family, friends and neighbours. In contrast, according to this view, neighbourliness is pervasive in the older middle suburbs and an inherent part of inner suburban and city living. This article challenges these views. The author draws on data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies survey of living standards. A survey of families living in different areas of Melbourne asked questions about expressions of neighbourliness. The areas covered were Berwick (an outer municipality), Box Hill (an older, middle municipality) and the City of Melbourne municipality (comprising some inner suburbs and the city proper). The findings run counter to the myth, states the author. Neighbourliness was very high in Berwick and Box Hill, but significantly lower in inner Melbourne.
It is widely held that it is important to have good relations with neighbours, particularly in combating isolation and enjoying informal social supports, but that it is advisable not to be 'too close to your neighbours'.
It is also widely held that outer suburban life is one of isolation, with families living in their homes on quarter acre blocks, cut off not only from their family and friends, but also from their neighbours around them. In contrast, according to this view, neighbourliness is pervasive in the older, middle suburbs and an inherent part of inner suburban and city living.
Dimity Reed, the architect and writer, was recently quoted as saying that one of the 'disastrous aspects of fringe development [is that] Mum is left to her own exhaustion and loneliness in a house we should never have allowed to be built' (Hampson 1993). Typifying the viewpoint of outer suburban life as one of isolation and impoverishment, Cox (1991) says: 'The suburban life style of the original model . . . the cherished character of the older suburbs . . . has been corrupted. The average householder has a television set, where the flickering screen is the only mentor and counsel to many people isolated physically and socially in the suburbs.'
Richards' (1990) study of a Melbourne outer suburban housing estate between 1979 and 1981 presents mixed images of the outer suburbs. 'The stereotype of the uniformly isolated nuclear family in the uniformly lonely suburban setting fits badly in Green Views. But loneliness certainly dominated some people's experience, and everyone had a feeling of isolation.' However, she found that a high proportion (75 per cent) of the families with children interviewed expected 'very much' help from neighbours in short-term (one-hour) emergencies, while 32 per cent expected help if the emergency lasted a week.
Expressions of neighbourliness
In the Institute's Australian Living Standards study, questions were asked about 'neighbourliness'. Families were asked whether they knew their neighbours well enough to do a number of different tasks, ranging from fairly impersonal things such as 'keeping an eye on your home while you are away' to more involved activities like 'having a talk with you if you're feeling down' (Table 1). Responses refer to a sense of neighbourliness rather than to actual behaviour.
If there is some basis to the view of 'isolated families in outer suburbia', we might expect significant differences in neighbourliness between Berwick (an outer municipality), Box Hill (an older, middle municipality), and the Melbourne municipality (comprising some inner suburbs and city proper). Around 420 families were interviewed in both Berwick and inner Melbourne, and 520 in Box Hill.
There are significant differences between the areas, but the findings run counter to the popular myth. Neighbourliness was very high in Berwick and in Box Hill, but significantly lower in inner Melbourne.
As Table 1 shows, almost all families in Berwick and Box Hill (88 and 90 per cent), but significantly fewer families in inner Melbourne (74 per cent), reported that they knew a neighbour well enough to have them do the least demanding task of keeping an eye on their home for them while they were away, while three-quarters of Berwick and Box Hill families, but less than two-thirds of inner Melbourne families, felt that they knew a neighbour who would water the garden or feed the pets while they were away.
Eighty per cent of Box Hill and Berwick families, compared with 69 per cent of inner Melbourne families, reported that they knew a neighbour well enough to ask for help in a crisis, that is, 'have a child minded in an emergency', but less than half in Box Hill and Berwick, and only a quarter in inner Melbourne, said that they knew a neighbour well enough to ask them to help on a longer- term basis, that is, 'have a child minded regularly'.
Around three-quarters of Box Hill and Berwick families, and 69 per cent of inner Melbourne families, knew a neighbour well enough to 'borrow something', although this proportion dropped when the 'something' involved money. This is the only item on which Berwick families were similar to inner Melbourne families, but significantly different from Box Hill families. This may be because there is a larger proportion of low income families in Berwick and inner Melbourne than in Box Hill.
It is interesting to note that around two-thirds of families in both Berwick and Box Hill, but only half the inner Melbourne families, felt that they knew a neighbour well enough to have a talk with if they were 'feeling down', which strongly counters the myth of uniform suburban isolation in comparison with inner city neighbourliness and companionship.
However, there was a small group of families in Berwick and Box Hill (around 10 per cent), and a somewhat larger group in inner Melbourne (around 25 per cent) who appeared to be isolated from their neighbours. This group did not know any neighbour well enough to ask them to do any of the tasks, including the most impersonal task of keeping an eye on their home while they were away.
Conversely, there was another group, which in Berwick and Box Hill was much larger than the isolated group (around 40 per cent of families), and in inner Melbourne was roughly the same size as the isolated group, who had a high level of involvement with their neighbours. This group reported that they knew a neighbour well enough to ask for help with all the tasks, including the most intensively demanding task of minding a child regularly.
It should be noted that the three areas are not homogeneous within themselves with regard to neighbourliness. For instance, the differences occurring between suburbs within each of the broad municipalities of Berwick and Box Hill are greater than the differences between the two areas as a whole. Within the entire Box Hill municipality, there was significantly more neighbourliness in Mont Albert/Surrey Hills than in the suburb of Box Hill, and in the entire municipality of Berwick, there was more neighbourliness in the suburb of Berwick than in Doveton. Interestingly, families in the Mont Albert/Surrey Hills tended to have higher incomes than those in the suburb of Box Hill; similarly, families in the suburb of Berwick tended to haves higher incomes than families in Doveton.
Sense of community
The Institute study also asked parents to rate the following statements relating to their feelings about being part of the neighbourhood. The statements were rated on a scale of one to five, where one was 'strongly disagree' and five was 'strongly agree'.
I would be really sorry if I had to move away from the people in the neighbourhood.
I have a lot in common with the people in this neighbourhood.
People in this neighbourhood make it a difficult place to live in.
I am good friends with many people in this neighbourhood.
I have little to do with people in this neighbourhood.
I seem to get involved with most local issues.
People in this neighbourhood are very willing to help each other out.
If I no longer lived here, hardly anyone around here would even notice.
Weston (1993) has used principal components analysis to develop a 'sense of community' index from parents' responses to these statements in order to examine the sense of community/belonging experienced by men and women in relation to their neighbourhood.
For all three areas, the means for the index were close to the mid-point of the scale, suggesting that most people did not feel either a very strong or a very weak sense of community in relation to their neighbourhood (Table 2).
Overall, the average score for women was significantly higher than that for men, but it should be noted that there was a group of men who felt a relatively strong sense of community and a group of women who felt a relatively weak sense of community. Women in Box Hill had a significantly higher sense of community than women in Berwick and inner Melbourne, while there was a significantly stronger sense of community among Box Hill men compared with Berwick men.
Returning the favour
On the first set of measures of neighbourliness, defined in terms of practical help, Berwick families were very similar to Box Hill families, while both groups had a greater sense of neighbourliness than inner Melbourne families. However, inner Melbourne parents were similar to Berwick and Box Hill parents in their sense of community, feelings about being part of the neighbourhood, most having neither a very strong nor a very weak sense of community/belonging in relation to their neighbourhood. Thus, in the inner Melbourne area, the 'sense of community' is not associated with the same kinds of feelings about practical help as it is in the other two areas.
It is possible a reason for this may be demographic. Around half of the households in the entire Berwick municipality contain dependent children, while in the whole of the Box Hill area, although only about 30 per cent of households contain dependent children, these households tended to be concentrated in particular areas. In the inner Melbourne area, however, only 10 per cent of households contain dependent children, and these households may be more dispersed around the municipality.
We might speculate that families may be more comfortable in asking for help from people in the same life cycle stage, possibly because they may feel more able to reciprocate such help. The 'norm of reciprocity' is considered by d'Abbs (1992) to be pervasive in the provision of help in informal networks. Families, particularly those with pre-school children in Berwick and Box Hill, talked about the advantages of living in the area in terms of having families in the same life cycle stage - 'near couples of our own age with children also the same age', 'a lot of mothers with similar aged children', 'there are many families in the same situation in our neighbourhood', 'plenty of young families', 'very family oriented area'.
In conclusion, the findings from the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study do not support the idea that isolation and loneliness are specific to people living in a particular location in the city. It is likely that other factors, such as family income, the stage of a family's life cycle compared with those living around them have a greater impact than location on families' relationships with their neighbours.
- Allan, G. (1983), 'Informal networks of care: issues raised by Barclay',British Journal of Social Work, Vol.13, pp.417-433.
- Bulmer, M. (1986), Neighbours: The Work of Philip Abrams, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Cox, P. (1991), Vision of the Australian City in the 21st Century, Urban Futures. Issues for Australian Cities, No.3, November.
- D'Abbs, P. (1991), Who Helps: Support Network and Social Policy in Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
- Hampson, D. (1993) 'Anti-suburban tripe', Sunday Herald- Sun, July 23.
- McCaughey, J. (1987), A Bit of a Struggle: Coping with Family Life inAustralia, McPhee Gribble/Penguin Books, Fitzroy.
- Richards, L. (1990), Nobody's Home: Dreams and Realities in a New Suburb, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
- Weston, R. (1993), 'Sense of Community' in McDonald, P. (ed.), The Australian Living Standards Study, Berwick Report. Part 1: The Household Survey, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
In his book, Who Helps? Support Networds and Social Policy in Australia, d'Abbs (1991) cites other researchers' definitions of 'neighbourliness'. Neighbouring, or patterns of interaction between neighbours, was found by Abrams to be defined by people in terms of 'friendliness, helpfulness, and respect for privacy' (Bulmer 1986), while Allan (1983) states that 'the essence of good neighbouring lies in maintaining the tension between cooperation and privacy, helpfulness and non- interference, between friendliness and distance'.
d'Abbs (1991) has proposed a continuum of types of help, classified in terms of 'demanding', 'difficult to reciprocate' and 'intrusive'. In an AIFS study of informal support networks in Geelong (Victoria) and Ashfield (Sydney), on which Who Helps? is based, d'Abbs found that neighbours tended to be most involved in the 'least demanding' tasks, such as house-minding, and were much less involved in more intimate 'intrusive' tasks, such as caring for the sick, although in an earlier book based on the same study, McCaughey (1987) notes that in Geelong 'neighbours frequently step in to help in a moment of crisis'.
d'Abbs (1991) stresses the importance of 'the norm of reciprocity' in governing people's relations with their neighbours, 'according to which a person, in seeking help, implicitly acknowledges an obligation to return a comparable favour at some other time'.