Is ‘neighbourliness’ another social nicety that’s about to die out?

Zoya Patel 3 February 2021 38
Front yard

As apartments and townhouses become more prevalent, fewer children are enjoying the freedom of yards. Photo: File.

As more and more Canberra suburbs are incorporating apartment and townhouse complexes into their surrounds, the traditional neighbourhood is being irrevocably changed.

For many, instead of a sprawling backyard and front lawn for kids to play on, they have a courtyard or balcony, and if they’re lucky, shared green spaces within the complex.

Instead of neighbours being a few metres from the walls of your house, on the other side of a fence, they now often share one or two walls with you, and the sounds of their daily lives are the regular interjections into your own activities, and vice versa.

Not only has this shift changed the practicalities of how we live and use our homes, but it has also changed the level and nature of interaction we have with our neighbours.

When I grew up, living in freestanding houses on nice big blocks, we had neighbours who became good friends. As kids we would roam the streets after school together, traipsing from one backyard to the next, taking our bikes for a spin through the quiet, safe streets.

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Now, I live in a townhouse complex, and each morning I watch the kids from the houses next to and behind ours mingle and play on the two small patches of grass that stretch between the rows of dwellings. They seem to enjoy riding their scooters up and down the wide concrete driveways, and rolling around on the few square metres of lawn just fine, though I imagine it’s easier when you have no concept of what you’re missing.

Perhaps ironically, despite being much closer to our neighbours physically, we have far less to do with the other people in our complex in general – we might wave or smile as we pass on the way to the rubbish skips, or while crawling our cars towards our garages, but we don’t know each other or make any attempt to actually interact.

I think part of this is just the general unfriendliness of the times, but I also feel like when you share space this closely, the primary way you’re likely to interact with neighbours is when their behaviour is negatively impacting your enjoyment of your home. The most I think of my neighbours is when I get yet another letter from the body corporate sharing a complaint.

So far, having lived in the complex for less than six months, we have had numerous letters about people parking incorrectly, not picking up after their dogs, having their dogs off lead, destroying shared amenities and then refusing to take responsibility, etc.

I even found myself writing a complaint email to our body corporate manager the other week when I noticed one neighbour was letting their cat roam at night, despite the complex being bordered by nature reserves. I agonised over whether I wanted to be ‘that’ neighbour, but in the end couldn’t restrain myself from recommending the body corporate strongly suggest that cats are contained to their premises, with the help of the RSPCA’s Guide To Keeping Your Cat Safe and Happy At Home.

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As I wrote the email dobbing in my neighbour, it did occur to me I could have just knocked on their door, and introduced myself before raising the issue myself. But that felt a lot like effort, and also awkward given most difficult conversations I have these days are conducted over email or text.

I didn’t want to disrupt their afternoon with my presence, any more than I would appreciate having a neighbour knock on my door for a chat. In fact, we all generally avoid making eye contact or saying anything to each other all the time when we see a neighbour in the complex.

Lately, I’ve been actively smiling at people if I see them when I’m walking the dog back home, or driving my car past them on the driveway, and there seems to always be a moment of confusion before they rearrange their own faces in a smile to mirror mine. We’re all so comfortable with our agoraphobic unfriendliness, it’s a bit surprising to acknowledge each other at all.

Is neighbourliness another nicety that may die out with a generation, a thing of the past when human interaction wasn’t mostly facilitated by technology and devices, but relied on good old-fashioned talking? Or is it a function of neighbourhood structure that defines whether a sense of community can be established with those living nearest to you?

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38 Responses to Is ‘neighbourliness’ another social nicety that’s about to die out?
Carolyn May Carolyn May 9:05 am 07 Feb 21

I have one nice lot of neighbours, used to have more, we would talk and help each other out but over time people have moved and others who have very little care or consideration for those around them have come in and it’s definitely not the same and I no longer enjoy living in my own home. It’s definitely up to the people - I am putting my house up for rent.

Neekie M Ford Neekie M Ford 10:44 am 05 Feb 21

I knew my neighbours more when I lived in an apartment because you live so close. I would bump into neighbours all the time in the carpark or on the stairs etc.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:07 am 05 Feb 21

This is just another example of how social media has destroyed neighbourhood social

Michele Gorman Michele Gorman 8:16 am 05 Feb 21

We live in a large town house complex and 90% of people here chat, say hello and are friendly. It's the effort you make. We have regular get together with our neighbours.

Jenny Purseglove Jenny Purseglove 10:43 pm 04 Feb 21

My neighbours are fabulous. We have neighbour drinks most weekends and share our garden produce,borrow ladders etc. Wouldn't move for quids.

Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 7:29 pm 04 Feb 21

I live in an apartment and it is a wonderfully kind and caring community

Kelly Almeida Kelly Almeida 7:09 pm 04 Feb 21

I live in a street where there is a great sense of community. Everyone says hi and we know most of the neighbours in close proximity. Some of the neighbours have arvo drinks in their driveways and there was a street Australia Day party. New arrivals are welcomed. We have a mix of retirees and full and part time workers. Our neighbours even text us if they haven’t seen us for a few days. It’s a lovely place to live.

Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 3:41 pm 04 Feb 21

I dont think it has anything to do with apartments or suburban freestanding homes... I think it is simply that people are so very very busy that they just havent time to stop to take a breath, let alone visit the neighbours every other day... Some suburbs with free standing homes with large yards are some of the loneliest places on Gods earth when everyone goes to work and you are the only one left in the street during the day... sort of like living out the back of never never really. At least with apartments there are more people around and if you go for a walk you can run inot a human, but not in the never never of empty suburbia.

Steph Garrard Steph Garrard 2:24 pm 04 Feb 21

Not in Hogg St. We have the best street in Canberra.... Actually probably even Australia

Jared McDonald Hayden Beard Alana Cindy Sarah Murray Warren Coulson Nicole Lustenberger Rhiannon Rodriguez Duncan Mitchell Fiona Mitchell

    Rhiannon Rodriguez Rhiannon Rodriguez 3:26 pm 04 Feb 21

    Steph Garrard definitely not a problem here. Best neighbours in the world!

    Sarah Murray Sarah Murray 4:04 pm 04 Feb 21

    Steph Garrard definitely in the whole world.

    Duncan Mitchell Duncan Mitchell 5:30 pm 04 Feb 21

    Steph Garrard as the inaugural Mayor of the street I 100% agree it doesn't get better than our street!🍻

    Fiona Mitchell Fiona Mitchell 6:18 pm 04 Feb 21

    Steph Garrard Definitely the best street we have here!!

Margaret Freemantle Margaret Freemantle 2:08 pm 04 Feb 21

I have lived in Canberra all my life. Apartment living is totally different and makes being neighbourly much more challenging. It is by design, far more isolating. I do miss my street growing up when we knew everyone and my time with children where we all mixed living in a cul de sac

Cressida Lehmann Cressida Lehmann 1:39 pm 04 Feb 21

It's up to individuals. If you, as an individual, don't make an effort, there's never going to be an effort back. We have a fantastic neighbourhood, and know nearly all our neighbours to a chatting level, with friendly people in the wider area. We lived in Perth for 10 years, and found that this was not the case.

Julia Ross Julia Ross 1:09 pm 04 Feb 21

We are all so busy nowadays. Leaving early and not getting home till the evening doesn't induce chatting over the back fence.

    Susan Catherine Bailey Susan Catherine Bailey 1:56 pm 04 Feb 21

    I was lucky to have you as a neighbour!

    Julia Ross Julia Ross 5:55 pm 04 Feb 21

    Susan Catherine Bailey I'm always up for a chat, 'specially when I'm hanging washing lol.

    Susan Catherine Bailey Susan Catherine Bailey 9:32 am 05 Feb 21

    It was the number of socks that always astounded me!

    Julia Ross Julia Ross 9:55 am 05 Feb 21

    Susan Catherine Bailey me too!!

Bek Clark Bek Clark 10:39 am 04 Feb 21

Meh. I live in a detached house and have for years; recently the next door neighbours moved and the people who moved in after them, good luck even getting a reluctant wave. Shan’t be locking myself out again and using the neighbours phone to call for help. The housing isn’t the problem it’s the people living in them. And I thought Sydney was bad.

Peta Mercieca Peta Mercieca 10:35 am 04 Feb 21

I live in an apartment block of 6 and know everyone in the building. It’s nice.

Judith White Judith White 10:14 am 04 Feb 21

"Good fences build good neighbours" a very old saying..... I don't speak with mine much because we are all busy, but I am there for them if they need me, and I think they'd be the same. If you live in the same neighbourhood for a long time, care just grows. If you are moving a around the country (as I did for many years) it takes more effort to have good neighbours, but I am still in touch with them from all moves. Most people are good, and will be good neighbours I believe...

Charmayne Hannah Watson Charmayne Hannah Watson 9:55 am 04 Feb 21

I only speak to 3 houses in my street regularly. But say hi or what ever to the rest! When I was a kid all the kids in the street played together being a cul-de-sac we all looked out for each other and felt very safe.

Margreet Philp Margreet Philp 8:53 am 04 Feb 21

Ruth Sadlo this house looks familiar!

Jackie White Jackie White 8:35 am 04 Feb 21

From my experience, 'community' and 'neighbourliness' died a slow death in the 90s.

Jenny Gordon Avery Jenny Gordon Avery 8:14 am 04 Feb 21

There is one new subdivision in Belconnen that is actively trying to encourage a sense of community and connectedness. #Ginninderry may yet be successful.

I was sceptical at first but they really do seem to be providing a built environment (community parks, events, engagement) that facilitates community within its suburbs.

Time will tell if it is successful in opening doors and neighbours building connections that are more than a nod of acknowledgment as they jump in thier cars and head off to work. I hope so.

    Jackie White Jackie White 8:40 am 04 Feb 21

    Jenny Gordon Avery your last sentence sums it up - it's a time factor. You can't build relationships or community if no one is home.

    Fortress Epiphany Fortress Epiphany 10:20 am 04 Feb 21

    Jenny Gordon Avery working from home needs to become entrenched and then some of that may come back.

Jenni Zimoch Jenni Zimoch 8:01 am 04 Feb 21

It's got nothing to do with apartments.

I only talk to one neighbour and that's rare.

    Sarah Roarty Sarah Roarty 8:28 am 04 Feb 21

    Jenni Zimoch agreed, I’m in a suburb with only houses and no one talks to each other

    Jackie White Jackie White 8:38 am 04 Feb 21


    When I was a young mum in the 80s, our street was full of stay-at-home mums. Most of us had only part-time work (back in the day when you could afford a house with one income *sigh*) .

    The result was a community in the street, with - this sounds funny now - mums chatting over the fence as they hung out the washing.

    By the late 90s when I had another child, that entire community feel had gone, and has not returned.

    Mind you, bugger-all mums are stay-at-home now, thanks to obscene house prices.

    There's no doubt lots more to it than that, but that's my personal experience.

    Rauny Worm Rauny Worm 9:01 am 04 Feb 21

    If people make an effort it still my street many of us are connected and help each other..that is why I don't want to move..

    Sarah Roarty Sarah Roarty 9:03 am 04 Feb 21

    Jenni Zimoch I miss the days when kids could just ride their bikes around the neighbourhood, knocking on their friends doors for a play. Maybe it’s time for a country change 😂

    Charmayne Hannah Watson Charmayne Hannah Watson 9:57 am 04 Feb 21

    Sarah Roarty I wish that for my son so bad! But there's no kids in my cul-de-sac.

    This does happen in the apartment complexes where the kids play in the car parks. Wish my son had that!

    Fortress Epiphany Fortress Epiphany 10:19 am 04 Feb 21

    Jackie White yep, that was my experience too.

    Tracy Robinson Tracy Robinson 10:26 am 04 Feb 21

    Rauny Worm

    Same in my street.

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