Can we make living together better?Posted: September 7, 2010
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.