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Social and the city

auckland city

Futuristic images of the city seem to be obsessed with exotic sci-fi transport options.

In a nutshell

  1. New Zealand is one of the most urbanised nations by global standards, with one third of the population living in the Auckland urban region alone. 
  2. Choosing to live alone is becoming a global phenomenon, with one-person households the fastest growing household type in many regions of the world. Kiwi's dwellings are getting smaller, limiting opportunities for outside living and entertaining.
  3. With the downsizing of our homes, the city’s social spaces become the hub that meets our needs as social creatures. 

We are told there will be flying cars or pods and pinnacle-like, metallic-looking buildings with an occasional park thrown in to show that grass is not yet extinct.

The problem with this image is that it entirely ignores the tension facing growing urbanisation. And, yes, urbanisation is a global trend, but it is just as relevant to New Zealand.

In fact, we are one of the most urbanised nations by global standards, with 72 percent of the population living in our country’s main urban areas and around one third of the population living in the Auckland urban region alone. Auckland’s growth is attracting Kiwis from the regions as well as those new to New Zealand. New immigrants from Asia in particular are accustomed to city living on a huge scale, so when they come to New Zealand they naturally gravitate to our largest city.

So imagine the Auckland of 2028 – a multi-cultural city of ageing millennials and Baby Boomer adults. Currently, childless singles and couples currently account for 3 out of 10 households. Over the next 10 years or so, that group will grow by around 30 precent. At the same time, the number of “golden oldies” will grow by a whopping 57 per cent – you can almost hear the retailers rubbing their hands. Time and dollar rich, the golden years for city dwellers focuses on coffee stops, the arts and retail leisure.

Choosing to live alone is becoming a global phenomenon. Research published last year shows that one-person households are the fastest growing households in many regions of the world – and it appears that it is an active choice, not an unintentional default. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, says that if we can afford to live alone, then we do, as it is seen as a mark of distinction rather than a social failure.  

Living alone feeds our sense of independence – you don’t have to negotiate which TV channel to watch, or check if it’s ok to have a friend round. And let’s not even get into what you can wear when there is no one to see.

Kiwis are giving up the quarter acre and opting for 114 square meters, the average size of Auckland homes currently for sale – and that’s down from 158 square meters a couple of years ago. Whether these homes are rented or bought doesn’t change the fact they they are compact, limiting opportunities for outside living and entertaining.

Yet, the human species is inherently social. We like to have our nest to ourselves, but birds of a feather flock together. So the city’s social spaces become the hub that meets our needs as social creatures. It’s less about going to a store or a restaurant and more about going to a destination where we experience a variety of activities, meet up with others, and enjoy the outdoor spaces that mini homes don’t have. These city destinations are proxies for the big family homes that people reminisce about, the student common rooms and the local pub.

takutai square
Britomart's Takutai Square

Social interactions are a key component to our wellbeing. There is a significant change in our brain patterns when we are with other people, even if that is sitting alone in a café or having a romantic dinner surrounded by other diners. Our brain rewards us for this type of behaviour by making us feel good. We learned millennia ago that being with other people gives us the safety of the herd and ensures we acquire information that will enhance our existence – it’s good to know where the predators are lurking, but also good to know where the best food source is to be found. And it also helps us know how to behave. What type of coffee are other people ordering? Which shoes are they trying on? At the very least it takes away a whole lot of decision making while ensuring we don’t stand out like a zebra in a herd of horses.

TRA has found significant value in looking at the importance of social endorsement in changing people’s behaviour, for example. Getting people out of the habitual routine of driving to work and onto bikes for their commute instead won’t be achieved by spelling out the rational advantages. Whereas suggesting that others are doing it – people like you in fact – normalises the behaviour and weaves it into our self-perception as fellow city dwellers, making us feel good.

For Auckland’s city dwellers living in apartments, social spaces make them feel good which plays a much bigger role in their lives than simply parting them from their money. They are an absolutely necessary adjunct to apartment living and emotional wellbeing. Sex in the apartment maybe, but it’s social in the city.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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