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Building community: how creating the ‘third place’ can alleviate loneliness

Think of a residential estate and what does your mind turn to? Manicured lawns and new builds? Landscaped open space? Kids kicking a ball on gently curving roads?

What about an opportunity to tackle one of society’s greatest social and health challenges?

That’s the unlikely challenge that arises out of a growing body of research that finds badly-designed urban environments — anonymous high-rise living, for example, or so-called food deserts where all shops are a driving distance from homes — markedly increase loneliness.

And loneliness is now considered an epidemic in Australia, as well as being as risky to our health as obesity.

The issue is so important that the UK appointed its first Minister for Loneliness last year, and there are calls for some Australian governments to do the same. That’s where residential estates come in, and where the role of careful community engagement and cultivation begins to matter.

Success in the residential real estate sector used to mean chopping up blocks for maximum coverage, narrow front verges but larger back yards, and family zones that focused all activity away from the street.

When people returned at the end of the day to their lift-up double garage, entering straight from driveway to house, they barely needed to wave to a neighbour. That approach is now changing.

A growing number of residential estates, and even apartment complexes, are embracing what is sometimes called ‘third place’ living. The first place is your home; the second where you work; but where is the third?

Well, that’s a more casual place for interaction. It lacks boundaries and is informal, but it gives people ample opportunity to mix socially on neutral ground.

The Cities Research Institute has been working closely on how third places can impact loneliness and foster community growth, and the early findings are that they are hugely beneficial.

In Europe, these might be the town plaza or a public boules court. In American cities like New York, it could be rows of chessboard-topped tables and mah-jong boards where old men congregate to play. In China, it could be gardens for a session of Tai Chi or neighbourhood exercise.

The scourge of loneliness is a new battle for Australia’s residential developers.

Australia has tended not to need such third places, given our predilection for big blocks and individual living, but as houses and families get smaller, and more and more of us live alone, finding and creating vibrant third places matters.

A quick look at some of Western Australia’s leading land developers reveals how this trend is being adopted more widely.

Some estates now run Build Your Community days, with pop-up cafes or food trucks, or low-cost community exercise clubs.

Others have redesigned parks with paths that wind through rather than skirt green space, prompting opportunities to pause, linger and chat. Playgrounds are organic, engaging and accessible, with scope for imagination and shared games, rather than sterile metal outposts surrounded by sand.

Some have shared community gardens and men’s sheds; they might host weekly public barbecues, hold outdoor movies or sponsor seasonal concerts. And many are using social networks to foster a sense of ownership and shared purpose rather than just to sell blocks of land.

Making the switch from selling to a buyer to supporting a community isn’t always easy for property developers, but there’s enormous value to be had.

The key is to shift from speaking only to new customers to engaging more fully with existing families and individuals, those with a short tenure in the community, and those with longer experience to share.

It is about fostering ways to connect, rather than forcing them. Listening to resident perspectives and telling their stories.

And it has to be a marathon, not a sprint: few people purchase a home fully understanding the kind of community-building experiment they will undertake. They need regular, appropriate, tailored touchpoints to help them join in their own way.

Capturing these voices and co-opting the community’s support in selling a new kind of Australian dream is no small task – but if property developers can help turn the tide in the fight against urban loneliness, that’s a worthy challenge indeed.

Fran Lawrence leads Cannings Purple’s Corporate Affairs team and has more than 20 years’ experience in media and communications. She is an expert in communication in the property sector. Contact Fran.