Can we make living together better?

OK so now it’s time to turn to State politics.

I have a modest idea for making our major cities more liveable that I’d like to offer to the Premiers and Opposition Leaders of Victoria, NSW and Queensland in the run up to their forthcoming State elections.

The idea could be named something like the Better Neighbours Initiative or it could as easily be titled Considerate Cities or Liveable Cities or something of that ilk. The idea starts with the recognition that living in close proximity within cities imposes stresses on human relations and demands strong remedial action.

Some of the risks associated with cities, like disease, respond to investment in physical infrastructure. But some don’t – they require behavioural approaches.

The main objective is to limit the stress that inconsiderate behaviour, like noise from “hot” cars or audio amplifiers, imposes on residents and neighbours. I’ll focus on noise here, but the ambit of the liveable cities idea could extend to other problems such as taming the speed and behaviour of cars in local streets and activity centres.

The costs imposed on the community by issues such as noise go deeper than the direct impacts on residents.

As I’ve discussed here, fear of inconsiderate behaviour – and powerlessness when it happens – is one of the reasons residents are quick to oppose redevelopment in their neighbourhood. Giving them greater confidence that an increase in the size of the immediate population will not inevitably lower their quality of life could make them more receptive to higher densities. It might also encourage some households that otherwise locate on the fringe in a detached house to take the option of medium density housing.

Inconsiderate behaviour also encourages residents to take defensive action. Problems like noise are increasingly dealt with by installing double glazing and energy-intensive air conditioning systems that, in turn, impose more noise on the neighbourhood.

So what’s at issue here is more than barking dogs and moaning neighbours. In my view there are two key areas of action needed to address issues like noise.

The first is to define more clearly what behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t. There are considerable potential gains, I believe, in simply setting out clearly and publicly what we expect of each other in some sort of charter and supplementing it with a public information and education campaign. That’s best developed by a public process involving interested parties – a much better use perhaps for a Citizens’ Assembly than Julia Gillard had in mind.

However information and education is rarely enough. It won’t stop all of those hot cars, noisy trucks and loud parties. The second component is therefore increased regulation of inconsiderate behaviour and much stronger enforcement. There could be significant gains here. For example, some European countries have been so successful in controlling vehicle noise that a substantial proportion of freight deliveries are made at night without serious complaint, thereby liberating existing roadspace for daytime use.

Residents afflicted by inconsiderate neighbours must have confidence that they have access to quick and effective remedies. That will involve actions like higher penalties and more effective enforcement. It will necessarily involve higher costs for policing but these have to be weighed against the potential economic benefits from higher amenity and higher densities.

It seems to me that residents would welcome greater clarity about their obligations to their neighbours and greater protection from nuisances like noise that decrease their amenity. As I said here, while social norms regarding appropriate neighbourly behaviour might have been enough to mediate almost all differences between neighbours in the 60s and 70s, that is not enough today. Lifestyles, domestic technology (particularly amplified sound) and possibly even personal attitudes to strangers have all changed. In order to enjoy the benefits of cities we have to accept some limits on our behaviour.

I’ve focussed here on neighbour and vehicle noise because I think it’s the most neglected and pressing issue, but I think there are other areas that might also be considered under a Better Neighbours Initiative. The speed and overall “friendliness” of cars in local streets is a key issue, but consideration might also be given to local design and planning matters such as pedestrian access to local primary schools and shared neighbourhood space.

12 Comments on “Can we make living together better?”

  1. Andrew says:

    Where do I sign up? Who do I lobby? Our neighbors are constantly repairing, revving and hooning in various jotted up Commodores, as well as occupying half the street parking in our small court.

  2. Of course when these are combined with the additional noise contributions of neighbours and more significantly, all other motor generated background sounds perpetually occurring around our cities … the end result is quite devastating. Country areas too are suffering more than before.

    The problem is that, while we may attempt to filter and block some of this constant background din and hum out of our minds and lives, the only way to genuinely perceive its true severity is for it to be simultaneously turned off and made to momentarily disappear.

    Is it surprising that anecdotally people speak of the increasing rudeness encountered when walking down the still narrow streets of Sydney’s CBD area … when work stresses aside for the moment, there is the simple issue of some of the noisiest buses found on the face of the earth, constantly roaring by at very close quarters! (Like the shock of standing on an outback desert pan and suddenly experiencing an overwhelming sense of relief!)

    These are far more serious issues that we all currently credit them with being. And it’s not even just a matter of interpersonal inconsideration – it is a failure to truly measure and acknowledge on both a local and city wide basis just how chronic noise problems have now CUMULATIVELY become.

    Worse still, in planning and government action terms, there is the failure to see it all in such broader terms and take the vital and necessary actions to at least minimize and reduce its severity to a more acceptable range.

    It is no accident that creativity, clear thinking and even human productivity itself is closely tied to stress free, meditational states and in turn meditational states are closely connected to achieving states of peace and tranquility.

    It is time we attended more thoughtfully to the issue of noise in all its manifestations and too action to alleviate its ultimately quite serious mental effects on us all.

  3. Wow, what a mess my above posted comments have become. When submitted, for some reason a couple of introductory paragraphs disappeared and other sentences were jumbled and even repositioned! Oh well, it now is what it is, for what it’s worth.

    Haven’t the time to redraft it.

  4. The main reference being made was to scientific findings directly linking the multitudes of modern day household electrical motor noises (and low and high sound frequencies) to increased personal stress levels. ‘Noise’ may have been selected as your focus Alan, but it is a MUCH bigger issue again than we may all think!

  5. Matthew says:

    Noise isn’t limited to the city. I live on a small rural block, euphemistically in NZ called a lifestyle block. Frankly my neighbour is a bastard. Motorcycle noise doing laps around his block, and now he has a new toy, a dog training gun, which shoots some projectile, and he stands outside my window and fires it off. It is as loud as a pistol, yet the police say it isn’t a firearm so there is nothing that they are willing to do, and the local council says it’s only intermittent. Yet I randomly have gun shots metres from my house. My neighbour is completely unapproachable and hugely aggressive and a complete twat so the chances of getting him to not use it is nil. On balance for me I am going to move again. But I keep running away from rubbish neighbours. It mainly hasn’t been noise, but woodsmoke. Woodsmoke is worse than noise by a long way.

    Loud cars and motorcycles, guns and woodburners would all be on my banning list. Oh and the other reason I live rural instead of city is tobacco smoke. I briefly lived in Melbourne with a job in the CBD and I threw the (well paid) job away because of the walk from Southern Cross to the WTC because I couldn’t get to work without a morning dose of fifty cigarettes and I couldn’t tolerate it. I took a 38% pay cut and moved to NZ.

  6. Q.Maisie says:

    I really feel for Matthew and people in that situation. When I arrive home at night, my house is my oasis. We once lived in a house in New Farm Qld (inner city) and when we asked the neighbour next door to turn his thumping music down so we could sit inside our own house and relax on a Saturday afternoon, we were told “New Farm’s for young people” ie like or lump it and we were only in our 30s at the time!

    I think you’re really onto something here Alan, and so long as any moves into regulation don’t become heavy handed, I think its a vote winner. Would be interesting to see how the Civil Liberties lobby would approach it.

  7. Matt says:

    I’m not aware of any study where people are asked why they move house. There are of course many reasons why one person or a family sell up and move, but it would be interesting to see a breakdown of reasons. I’ve moved 3 times because of woodsmoke for instance. On 1 of those occasions it was for no other reason than woodsmoke, and on the other two it was a large part of my decision. I am also aware anecdotely of a few others who have done exactly the same. I think noise, lack of privacy, idiot neighbours, and smoke would come into it a lot more than anyone would hazard to guess. And then there’d be data to back up calls like Alan’s of more control on noise etc.

    By the way I’ve been treated so badly by neighbours before that now I think I am so fussy about places to live that I have nowhere I can actually live.

  8. […] a Liveable Suburbs policy that addresses issues like noise and traffic at the street and neighbourhood level through better […]

  9. Riccardo says:

    Nuh. They had amplifiers and noisy cars in the 60s and 70s too. I was there.

    There were no good old days.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Yes, but (a) the % of people who have amplifiers and cars is higher now (b) the population is much higher now (c) there are more electronic gizmoes e.g. home theatres and (d) there are more people living in medium density housing and houses on smaller lots now. 1,000 m2 lots were relatively common in the 60s in new estates, now the average is around 500-600 m2.

  10. Buster says:

    Shadows are silent, but can be central to better neighbourly relationships since they are born at the planning stage.

    Given the medium density residential push, in activity centres, along transport corridors, on residential interfaces, is the established definition for access to sunlight adequate?

    Solar amenity covers both overshadowing and daylight access. It is a tricky area for a lay person to fathom. Solar amenity seems to be a pretty fundamental issue, particularly if as a community we are seeking alternative energy generation prospects right down to residential level.

    Yet it is easy to get the impression that 5 hours of solar access, or, put more plainly, 5 hours of zero overshadowing on the Spring solstice is the only practical test that is applied by developers, planners and regulators.

    ResCodes meagre daylight objectives don’t get much air-time. Off-site daylight impacts remain the ugly sibling – best kept out back, away from prying eyes.

    Having spent time in some Georgian canyons in my youth, I am aware that in the UK, the right to light is a serious issue. Regan v Paul Properties DPF No 1 Ltd [2006] EWCA Civ 1319 seems to have had a major impact across the board on the attitudes of residents, developers, insurers and financiers.

    Is it that, in Victoria, we don’t have sufficiently robust metrics on daylight requirements for human activity to establish a viable set of rules or guidelines for all to use?

    One old bod I spoke to, a “Not-in-my-backyarder” who was clearly a VCAT victim, said: “They were more interested in the borrowed daylight within the multi-storey residential development than in the stolen daylight of all the neighbours on the interface”.

    Is daylight robbery an issue whose time is yet to come in Melbourne? Is there a difficulty in measuring and monitoring daylight that renders an objectively-established data standard impossible? Are we in Melbourne simply behind more sophisticated planning and modeling approaches?

    Are we really so in the dark on this matter, or is it just me who can’t see the light?

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