Local Government Magazine

Where do we dance? Planning social spaces in the suburbs

Where do we dance?

The UK has its pubs. In China, people go out at dusk to exercise in the streets. So, where do Kiwis go to socialise in the suburbs?

Rebecca Kiddle says research shows a significant gap in planning for neutral ‘bumping spaces’. She presented her findings to date at the2019 NZPI Conference in Napier.

Aotearoa New Zealand suburbs are seemingly the spatial underdog of our towns and cities. As part of the research programme Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities I am leading a project called Where Do We Dance? with dance being the metaphor for socialising, making friends and building community. The project asks where, physically, community happens in this country and how might we improve the way we design and plan our built environments to better serve the making of communities.
The research, which concludes at the end of June this year, has implications for planning. This is particularly with respect to ensuring those spaces within the suburb that the residents use to build community are protected in order to ensure ongoing community involvement in decision-making processes that pertain to those spaces.
I first became interested in the role of the public realm in supporting us to make friends and networks through the work of Ray Oldenberg. Ray is a US-based urban sociologist, who advocated for informal public gathering spaces, vital for a well-functioning, diverse-thinking and democratic society.
His work centres on the role of the third place in urban planning. The first places are our homes, the second places are where we work, but the third place is the really interesting one. Third places are those public spaces where a community has the chance to fully develop.
They are the “bumping” spaces – the places where we create friendships and we literally “bump into” other members of the community. Famous TV examples include the Rovers Return in Coronation Street or Central Perks in the
sitcom Friends.

“Local government needs to invest in thinking about mechanisms put in place at the point of resource consent that ensure ongoing community participation”

Prior to returning to Wellington, I had lived overseas in China and the UK for 10 years and was aware that this type of third place was a complete reality. In Britain, it was the local pub. This was, for the most part, neutral space where members of the community could come together and relax in one another’s company.
Meanwhile, in China, at dusk, people come out of their houses to join together and dance. You see this all over China. People come to get exercise, talk and gossip and build community.
That was the inspiration behind the National Science Challenge-funded research programme Where Do We Dance? When I came back to live in New Zealand I got to wondering where people make friends. Where do we dance? My hypothesis is that I think we have given ourselves too much private outdoor space and so are never compelled to use the public realm.
In reality, our third places are also our first places – a BBQ in the evening, drinks on the deck or in the garage. This is where we seem to create community. However, there are three obvious problems with this. First, a greater level of pre-selection occurs. That is, we tend to only invite people around to our homes if they are a bit like us.
Second, and relatedly, this has the potential to slow down community integration if there are no other avenues such as school or work for engaging with people who aren’t like you.
Finally, if there are no signals that there are third places even available to find, people may not even look for them. Take for example the UK. Most people would understand that they could look for the local pub when they move somewhere new to engage with other locals.
This project examines where in New Zealand we have created these third places and how successful we’ve been at implementing the design and planning of informal public spaces through local government.
Along with environmental psychologist Wokje Abrahamse, five masters students from Victoria University are involved in the programme. They are all looking at different aspects of this idea.
We are discovering through our research that in this country, the urban form is predominantly designed to foster privacy, as opposed to strengthening local community. Resources are put into that which can be sold – the private plot – and a relatively small amount is put into the public realm through development contributions in ad hoc ways.
Interestingly, our research shows that the more suburban an area, the less available informal public space there is for community to gather. This finding reveals the importance of ensuring informal public space is a part of the local
planning process.
So, what do we need to do to create vital, flourishing communities? Is it possible to design and plan for more third places in New Zealand?

Elinor Thomas has been working with the children to develop their own third places around their community, such as swings and fidget boards, in a bid to get people using the urban realm.

One of the research projects undertaken by Chantal Mawer has looked at the role of shopping malls in communities, using Wainuiomata and Johnsonville as case studies. The key finding is that malls are really important community spaces. They are not just retail spaces: they are places where people meet people and places for communities to play.
These are not just transactional spaces. When shopping malls are vital and thriving, enjoyed and experienced fully by the community, they are great. But when shopping malls in suburbs, particularly, are left to languish during times of downturn or lack of will on the part of the private owners to maintain them, these private spaces become dilapidated and the community suffers as a result. The research shows this is particularly true in lower-socio economic areas.
Take our case studies at Wainuiomata and Johnsonville. These malls are now not doing very well but were previously much-loved by the community. Because these are privately owned spaces, the community and local council have no say over what should happen in these spaces.
Local government needs to invest in thinking about mechanisms put in place at the point of resource consent that ensure ongoing community participation in design-making to do with key central spaces if these are going to be privatised.
Another project undertaken by Elaine Gyde considers the role of green spaces as third places and another by Emma McNeill seeks to understand the types of third places meaningful intercultural interactions might take place in.
A further project by Elinor Thomas considers the role of third places in encouraging the independent mobility of children in Miramar. Elinor has been working with the children at Worser Bay School and they have developed their own third places around their community in a bid to get people using the urban realm. These have become places to play and be curious. The children designed swings, fidget boards, dream postboxes, and book libraries and lots to capture our imagination.
Community engagement in the design of these third places also creates more opportunities for community development. Further findings will be available mid-year.

• Rebecca Kiddle is a lecturer in environmental studies at Victoria University of Wellington and co-chair of Nga Aho, Network of Maori Design Professionals.

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.


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