Everybody needs good neighbours – can design foster neighbourly relations?

For a period of time I was lucky enough to find myself as the owner of a house surrounded by like-minded individuals. Coincidentally the neighbours on all 3 sides of me, and those across the street were of similar age to me and half of them had children of a similar age to mine. I believe a large part of what instigated the relationship was the arrangement of access to the houses. Walking or driving into your home meant often also bumping into a neighbour which led to the formation of some great relationships.

According to a recent article by the ABC’s Freya Petersen, residents in housing complex in Bulimba (inner city Brisbane) have experienced a similar sense of community building. For whatever reason relationships with neighbours have been formed that are more than the norm. An astute observation by a resident interviewed was that he was “sure there are other microcosms like this, but it’s something you stumble upon, after you move in you discover it, rather than a place being famous for it”[1]. I believe he is correct, that these relationships are being fostered in many places but by chance.

I have always been a believer in belonging to a sense of community and the benefits associated with this and my experiences have strengthened my beliefs.

As designers is there a way to reduce the randomness of relationship building? Can we design to increase interaction between neighbours and therefore increase the sense of community in our suburbs?

The Baugruppe models could be an answer to this. Baugruppen is a form of occupant driven design for high density dwellings that originated in Berlin. The first Baugruppen development in WA is currently in the planning stages in White Gum Valley (WGV).

The structure of Baugruppen not only draws together some-what like-minded people in its planning stages but then offers a building that fosters increased interaction between residents.

Take the R50 building by Heide and Von Beckerath in Berlin. Rather than separate balconies for each apartment balconies were extended and connected leaving a continuous balcony that wraps the building. Want to borrow a cup of sugar? No problems just wander round and knock on your neighbour’s door. Or want to sit in the sunny corner to drink your morning coffee? You can do that too.

Extended balconies at R50 housing, Heide and Von Beckerath

The proposal for the WGV Baugruppen development is by Spaceagency architects. Containing 16 x 1-3 bed dwellings and shared spaces where the future occupants have the ability to choose what amenities are important to them in their home.  It features flexible floor plans and different sized residences based on an idea of “Stacked Housing”. The stacks are forms surrounding a central, communal garden core. Balconies overlook the gardens and add to the notion of increased interaction[2].

Baugruppen proposal for WGV, Spaceagency Architects

The development also includes a communal room, guest room, communal courtyard and play area and shared BBQ’s. Each stack contains 2-4 single dwellings, so in theory you will have contact with your neighbours, as you can know the five or ten people you share a hallway or building with but if it was 50 or 100 you may still feel like a stranger. The book “Self-made City”, an analysis of existing Baugruppen developments in Berlin suggests that common spaces in this context are beneficial for social togetherness and that developments with greater shared spaces than the norm can add to neighbourhood interaction[3]. While cultural differences may not yield the same results in Australia, it is compelling to think that Architects can design to increase societal bonds.

An example of existing developments along the Baugruppe ideology in Australia are the “Nightingale” projects. The success of “The Commons” by Breathe Architecture (completed in 2013) led to five more Architect-driven design developments under the title “Nightingale”, the first of which is due for completion this year. The Nightingale housing organisation have seven core values, two of these relate to fostering relationships and community. They aim to “build social connection, connection to services and community management [and] contribute positively to neighbourhoods and urban culture through quality urban design”[4].

Rooftop at The Commons, Breathe Architecture

Having experienced the “random suburban community” that I have, I feel that something would be missing if that wasn’t part of my home life. I want to believe that architects can engineer social connection. The projects discussed here are a demonstration that it can be done, but ultimately, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. If people want to live a life independent of their neighbour, they will. If they want to interact, the best we can do is give them the opportunity to.

Proposal for Nightingale 5 in Fremantle, EHDO Architecture

[1] “Future cities: How one Australian ‘village’ raises a child,” ABC News, accessed August 29, 2107. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-17/australian-property-brisbane-it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child/8530294

[2]”Baugruppen at WGV,” Baugruppen, accessed August 29, 2017. http://www.baugruppen.com.au/

[3] Kristien Ring, Self made City (Auflage, Berlin: Jovis, 2013), 219-220

[4] “Nightingale Housing,” Nightingale Housing, Accessed August 28, 2017. http://nightingalehousing.org/