Building social cohesion: spaces that bring us together

As Aotearoa’s Muslim community reels from the Christchurch mosque terrorism, and the rest of us ask uncomfortably “what led to this?”, it’s worth reflecting on how our physical environments can help inoculate our communities.

Good towns with strong, flexible communities need lots of spaces that give us everyday reasons to connect in our common humanity. Places where we gather to do things we all, universally, want to enjoy, like community gardens, kids’ play areas, sports and cultural venues, natural water, “places”.

NZ suburban layouts have been quietly suppressing our ability to know our neighbours, as we lose the excuses for the essential micro-interactions with others in our wider circle of local faces. It’s these low-stakes, frequent, micro-interactions that are proven to subconsciously humanise others for us, and help us see what we have in common. Nikki Macdonald discovered the real effects of a deficiency in this – “othering”, social isolation, and more conflicted interactions with neighbours.

Markets: regular, low-stakes ways to bump into others sharing common passions (like the hunt for the superlative avocado)

Placemaking is a way to retrofit inhospitable streets and public spaces so they can support and nourish better lives and better social connections between people. It’s being used worldwide – e.g. Johannesburg

Physical stuff works together with events and regular happenings like markets, to give people pretexts to come together regularly and “rub shoulders” with others – including those different from us – in a low-stakes environment. Online communities are great, but they need physical theatres for people to manifest good feeling (including sad pretexts).

Things we can do right now

Find out about the great initiative in the UK seeking to overcome social polarisation revealed by the Brexit referendum, which often follows geographical lines. Listen in here.

Tell your local councillors and electorate MP you’d like to see social cohesion given more emphasis in how your town does what it does. If they go “wha?”, point them to integrated social housing and community gardens as a starter.

Learn to communicate better on tough topics Common Cause Communication is a fantastic set of concepts and tools for us to speak and listen well with people, on tricky and important topics – from climate change, racism, sexism, and environmental behaviour through to whether the in-laws are undermining the family, or your neighbour’s inconsiderate attitude to trees. There are workshops in Wellington soon – check them out here

Image credits:

  • Banner: Wellington vigil for Christchurch, Talk Wellington
  • Newtown Market – by Newtown Fruit & Vege Market (Facebook)

Know some great spaces or happenings where we in Te Upoko o te Ika can strengthen our communities’ cohesion, and inoculate ourselves against toxic influences? Please share!
Pop them in the comments below, or ping us on social media…

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