Is the Vertical Village just another urban myth?

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A couple of years ago a friend bought an apartment in a small block near Sydney airport.  She based her choice on location, the look of the place and, of course, the price.

Soon after she moved in, she realised many of her neighbours were from the same South-East Asian country and a lot of them worked late shifts in restaurants and shops.

Unless you are a fully paid-up member of One Nation, you wouldn’t have a problem with any of that.  But then she discovered that when they got home in the evening, a bunch of them would make themselves a cup of tea and gather in the lift lobby for a catch-up.

Maybe it was the noise of their chatter every night or the fact that she felt excluded, by language if nothing else, but she couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Now, there were probably half a dozen by-laws she could have turned to in order to shut-down these evening chat-fests, but if she didn’t want to join in, she probably did the right thing in just moving on.

We talk a lot about building communities in strata – although very few people do anything about it – and this was a good example of a community building itself by carrying on a tradition, you’d assume, brought from their country of origin.

And there’s really nothing wrong with that.  You can’t expect recent immigrants to immediately adopt Australian social customs (like coming home from work, pigging out on a takeaway and slumping in front of the TV with a beer in hand).

Dr Hazel Easthope of UNSW, whose book The Politics and Practices of Apartment Living has just been published by Edgar Elgar in the UK, cites the efforts made by Vancouver, Canada, to build a sense of community, especially among renters, in apartment blocks.

There they helped residents of high-rises to organise block parties – or vertical street parties – just so they could get to know each other in a more sociable context.

They also instituted a voluntary concierge service where local students would sit at a desk at the front entrance and offer advice to residents about everything from where the nearest bus stop was to where to get the best pizza.

Dr Easthope (who is a guest on this week’s Flat Chat podcast) thinks that where we got things wrong in Australia is that in setting up strata, we focussed too much on the individual ownership of the lot and not enough on the collective ownership of the building.

She has a point. It’s that “my home is my castle” attitude that makes us shut the door at night and try to block out the life that’s going on all around us. And with 50 percent of strata residents renting, there’s another divide that’s rarely addressed, let alone bridged.

Community building took a serious hit when state governments decided to make it easier for residential apartments to be turned into holiday rentals through online platforms like Airbnb.

The phrase “vertical village” gets bandied around a lot but you wonder if such a thing really exists outside of property marketers’ glossy leaflets.

Why do we need stronger communities, anyway?  Because social interaction is good for your health as well as for the wellbeing of the building you share.

What can you do? Write to your committee and ask them to put community building as an item on their next agenda. You may be surprised at the response … one way or another.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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