By Megan Whitfield | @M_eganWhitfield
I grew up next door to my best friend.
It feels like a cliché when I say it, a stereotypical suburban upbringing if ever you’ve heard it.
Sophie and I met at kinder, and were thrilled to find out that not only did we live close by, but we were literally across the street from each other. Think of the sleepovers we could have! The tunnels we could build to connect our bedrooms!
We would spend all day together, anxiously waiting for either parent to come and collect us, begging to turn it into a sleepover. Countless summer afternoons were spent in my cubby house, or going for bike rides that in reality lasted about 10 minutes before turning into hours-long gossip sessions on the local primary school play equipment. Every week Carlton had a home game, you could count on a knock on the door, and a desperate Soph seeking refuge.
All the wholesome goodness you’d expect from what sounds like the beginnings of a heart-warming coming-of-age movie.
Admittedly, we don’t completely fit the cliché. We weren’t absolutely inseparable only to drift apart in high school, one of us the popular jock, the other the loner, the nerd. And we haven’t discovered that all this time we’ve been madly in love.
But you know what? It was still pretty great.
I grew up with two back yards, two bedrooms, and two pantries. Countless baking sessions have been saved by the generosity of the Antidormis. I once went over to borrow an egg and came home with a 10kg bag of onions- I’m still not quite sure how it happened.
Sadly, it seems that these neighbourly relations are no longer so commonplace. The more friends I spoke to about this article, the more I realised that my upbringing was unique.
Most of my friends don’t know their neighbours at all, the exception being a recognisable face here and there.
According to a survey of 1,010 Australians conducted by Finder.com.au, a mere 17% of us would be able to name the people living right next door.
Brunswick dweller Jas Mee Lee can relate.
“I wouldn’t even recognise [my neighbours],” she tells me-and that’s after living in her house for two years.
What’s more, she’s okay with that. A few years ago, Jas moved from Brisbane to Brunswick, and had very few connections here in Melbourne. However, forging relationships with her neighbours didn’t cross her mind.
“In an abstract sense, I knew I wanted to go to university and would be working full time-I’d find my friends that way.”
What is causing this shift in attitudes?
Changes in the way we live appear to be a major contributing factor, with the rise of highrise and apartment complex living alongside housing affordability and renting culture all influencing our priorities.
Results from a study conducted of 1000 Australians by Jigsaw Research in 2015 suggest that for 80% of participants, this was their biggest priority. As such, the desire to set up roots is impacted.
Apartment-complex resident Emma Pruys has experienced this first-hand.
“The biggest thing is the changeover… a lot of people are here short-term. I’ve been here for about 12 months… and I think almost half the residents on my floor have changed.” That’s six new sets of neighbours for her floor alone, in only a year.
Making the effort to get to know her neighbours just doesn’t seem as worth it.
“It might be different if I were raising a family,” she thinks, but for now “on the list of things, it’s not as important.”
And sometimes, the privacy can just be nice.
“Particularly in apartment-living, it can be nice to keep a degree of separation. You can chat to people out on the balcony, but still have that space of your own.”
I pose the same question to both Jas and Emma-would you think of knocking on the door of your neighbours’ place for an ingredient you needed while cooking?
They’re not alone in this choice- according to the aforementioned study, only 52% of Australians would invite a neighbour into their home.
It seems the stereotypical act of ‘borrowing a cup of sugar’ may be dying out.
Professor Charlotte Williams, dean of Social Work at RMIT, contends that the urbanisation of our society plays a big role in this.
She recently conducted a study on wellbeing based around Footscray, and found that residents were very unlikely to turn to neighbours and rely on them for social support, preferring to speak to someone from their own background instead.
“The rental sector can disrupt the potential for more than just a wave,” explains Williams.
Further, “houses used to be developed for more connectedness, whereas now in the suburbs some tend to build their own ‘palace’ of sorts.”
People come and go through their garages, unseen by their neighbours.
“More and more people are living in the suburbs due to affordability, but these suburbs often lack the infrastructure for convivial exchange,” she notes.
The same goes for high-rise and apartment complex living.
“People are very isolated.” While technically they may have more neighbours than ever, “there’s no sense of interaction.”
However, Professor Williams points out, perhaps we’re not as disconnected as it seems. We shouldn’t forget the power of nostalgia-perhaps we’re simply attached to the notion that people were more connected back then. Now, our relationships are “just more varied… we have a new ‘localism’.”
Nonetheless, it can’t be denied that these relationships remain important.
Williams phrases it particularly eloquently.
“In the face of a big, curious, wide world, the social glue is of great importance.”
So, maybe times are changing. Maybe now we have to work a bit harder to build these relationships.
But they are absolutely worth the effort.
And to Sophie, if you’re reading this… you’re never allowed to move. Sorry.