Why are our suburbs increasingly sterile and lifeless?

The “loss of community” has been identified as one of the most common concerns among Australians, according to the prominent social researcher Hugh McKay. He laments that not knowing our neighbours has become an unfortunate cliché of urban life. “When we lose sight of our role as neighbours, the health of the neighbourhood suffers. And when the health of the neighbourhood suffers, we all suffer”.

In relation to this, current approaches to urban design and town planning have created neighbourhoods which are now transit stops rather than places where people really live.

If you stand on a residential street corner at any time of the day in most western industrialised cities, the chances are you'll have only the birds for company. While there may be human beings inside the houses, some living virtual lives, others dreaming of being somewhere else, the streets are devoid of human life and activity. Increasingly, the only purpose of front yards, back yards and the street scape, is impression-making for outsiders or as a beautified entry way for cars to drive through to dock with home garages, for the residents to disappear into the void of isolation inside.

It is so unusual now to have people outdoors mingling in neighbourhoods that when it happens, it's a source of curiosity through slivers of opened curtains. If it's young people, we get nervous and suspicious and call it loitering.

Urban design and town planning reveal the truth about what our society believes life is about and what people are for.

Urban design and town planning approaches have reduced or separated human life into functional activities such as: working, being entertained, gathering, eating, shopping, sleeping etc. They have then segregated these activities from each other, as though there is no connecting thread, and designed specialised places for them away from the individuals who participate in them. In so doing, it has dramatically impacted the way people live in neighbourhoods and relate to each other. 

While it may seem reasonable to want these activities to take place efficiently and effectively, the question to ask is, for whom is the intended benefit?

Modern urban design and town planning approaches are a derivative of our modern industrialised society and are in fact its servants. The defining feature of industrialised societies compared to pre-industrialised societies is the separation of people from working under their own roof on their own time, as well as losing the capacity to decide or manage how much they worked and how much they produced. Pre-industrialisation, the family, was more involved in their work together as a unit. Children were with their parents while they worked, saw what they were doing and learned in a more natural and practical setting. Life occurred and was lived in and about the home and neighbourhood environment.

With industrialisation and the rapid control of the markets of raw materials, tools, distribution and sales by entrepreneurs or capitalists, individuals were slowly shifted from working under their own roofs to working in factories and specialised work zones overseen by their bosses. With industrialisation came the heavy commercialisation of the life as a whole. People and their lives were something to be scrutinised for commercial opportunities. This increasingly lead to people's lives being dissected and scrutinised, as entrepreneurs looked for opportunities to find something they could sell people to make a buck. As surprising as this may seem, residential zoning laws were part of this. Developers realised that there was a lot of commercial interest locked up in people running their businesses from home. Creative strategies and wonderfully practical issues were used to limit what could happen in and around residences. Noise was one of them. Remember, prior to industrialisation, people had been working around each other for thousands of years. Urban design and town planning were supporters in structuring urban life to support the growth of industry and commerce. 

As industries and markets developed (for example, the building industry) regulations and legislation were enacted that limited freedoms around building your own home or how you went about getting it built. The regulations and controls created demand for the building industry and thus helped it grow. Since big money and governments owned most of the land, it became easy to manipulate and control land releases, home building and then regulate residential areas. Restriction in urban sprawl as a feature of town planning originally driven by commercial considerations (captive markets for products and services, funnelling of buyers, distribution and infrastructure costs etc) rather than preserving natural environments, or creating livable conditions for people. I realise I've not provided sources for these statements. This is simply for convenience in writing this article quickly from thoughts and memory.

The effect of all this structuring of life to suit industrialisation, meant that people's lives were increasingly lived "over there" and not at home. We went "over there" to work, to hang out with friends, to play with our kids, to eat, to be entertained, to buy things etc. The only thing left for doing at home was the mundane things of life. Increasingly, there was less reason for neighbours to interact. There was nothing tangible or practical to interact about. Our real lives were lived less at home and more elsewhere. 

To build any significant relationships and connections with those around us, we need to engage in simple and frequent, daily interactions. How else can you get to know someone enough to be comfortable with them and share things about yourself and your life? With fewer things to drive interaction and connection with our neighbours, disconnection and isolation has crept in markedly. With parents too busy trying to make ends meet or maintain carriers by going "over there" to work, there's been one available to encourage children to mingle in neighbourhoods. Even the fashionable suburban parks with play equipment mostly only have birds perching on them. Whilst you can find throngs of people at large, public playgrounds (which are often outside of suburban areas, and are designated play spaces in town centres), you hardly hear the sounds of children playing in neighbourhoods. One can almost feel apologetic about the noise if their child screams while coming down the slippery slide. 

What does all this say about what our society believes life is about and what people are for?

The answer lies in who and what our way of life ultimately serves. It is more meaningful when we answer it for ourselves. Rather than directly answering it, I'll ask you a personal question: "What or who prevents you bringing your life back into your home or neighbourhood and making it the centre of your activity and the life of your family, if that is what you want"? 

A man once said, "there is only you in the world. You kill and you heal, you build and you knock down, you say yes and you say no, you restrain and you set free. You are doing all these things. You can decide to do any or all of these things. What will you decide"?

I love village life. For me it is the only truly sustainable way of living that balances self sufficiency, and mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Village life is characterised by simple, and frequent daily interactions with those around us. Daily interactions around food have been a central feature of connected communities for thousands of years. The frequency with which we eat makes food a perfect vehicle for driving social connection. The over regulation of urban life, has killed off many opportunities for people to meet regularly and get to know each other. I think it’s very important to bring back the features of daily life that can resolve this isolation and disconnection. The process of eating on a daily basis is a definite part of the solution. How can we bring this back into our neighbourhoods?

We all eat, at least three times a day, and perhaps at least twice at home on average. That's at least two potential reasons to interact with our neighbours. Table360 is using home cooked food to connect people in suburbs. We're about making it natural to ask, "who's cooking extra?" when you don't feel like cooking, don't have time, or want something different without traveling far. We're about making it natural for neighbours to sell the extra portions of their home cooked meals to each other and to earn additional income in doing so. As previously stated, the ability for people in community to cater to each others food needs is and has been a natural part of community living for thousands of years. By overly structuring and limiting the freedoms around communities forming natural patterns of interaction, the communal life of people in neighbourhoods has been unnaturally stifled. Imagine the throng of daily interaction as we cross our streets to pick up meals from our neighbours. This transaction not only benefits our bellies through variety of enjoyable food and interaction, it will also provide additional income for our neighbours to subsidise increasing living costs. Through this level of interaction, I believe that social barriers will be broken down, neighbours will get to know each other better, and neighbourhood bonds will be built. Potentially, social isolation and disconnection will decrease and fewer people will eat alone. 

While there’s been a trend in the growth of community groups and community activities over the years, this has not stopped the bleed-out of life from neighbourhoods. The tendency is still to live life away from our neighbourhoods. When we come back home don’t we still just drive up to our driveways, dock our vehicles and disappear into the void of secret activity inside?

Do we need something along the lines of Table360 to get us crossing the street to each other’s houses more often?

The concern often raised around opening up a domestic food market is food safety. Whether the fears are warranted or exaggerated, I'll leave to you to decide. However consider the following, which is substantiated in various studies around the world. They can be easily googled:

  • Home cooked food is on average healthier than food from commercial environments.
  • The intention of eating the food prepared at home, moderates the cooks food preparation practice.
  • Shorter storage times and quicker turnover of fresh ingredients reduced food safety risks.
  • The use of fewer bulk or long-life ingredients reduces food safety risks.
  • Waste of ingredients is less of a financial concern given the smaller scale of cooking, so reduces the incentive to put dollars ahead of food safety.

If the above does not provide any comfort, I'd encourage you to widen out your circle of interaction and eating in your neighbourhood. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Here's a short survey as food for thought:

In the last 12 to 24 months, have you experienced any of the following: vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea, fever and or headaches, which you suspect was food related?

If yes, what do you think was the source?

  • Domestic food (at your home, neighbours or friends)
  • Commercial food (restaurants, cafes, cafeterias at football matches etc)
  • Events (including festivals and fairs, fetes, etc)

Food safety and food regulations are important, especially when we're talking about commercial food production and processing at scale. I like to ask whether food regulation is for people, or are people for the food regulations? Let there be food regulations, but let people make use of their noses, tongues, guts and brains to decide whether food they've eaten is bad and whether to eat at the same place again.

Getting back to eating from each others homes, if you serve bad food to your neighbour, they won't try your food again. It will be very uncomfortable seeing them in the street the next time. The proximity of your relationship with them, is a form of insurance against them being wilfully careless about food safety. Australians only have to travel to South East Asian countries (which are close) to see how how small scale food trade intermingles with daily neighbourhood life and brings frequent connection and liveliness to neighbourhoods.

What would the interactions in your neighbourhood be like if you could ask "who's cooking extra"?

Selase Dugbaza - Founder and Director, Table360.