Image: Brisbane residents pitch in to assist with flood recovery efforts, January 2011 (Credit: MDA Ltd.)
By Damian West (Originally published March 2015)
Ramsay Street, Australia and the United Kingdom’s pinup street of good neighbourly relations, scratches a certain itch amongst viewing audiences that has seen the show span four decades.
Secrets are hard to keep in Ramsay Street, where everyone knows your name and are there to help when the chips are down. People in Ramsay Street don’t get along all the time, but when adversity strikes or a bad egg lands amongst them, it’s the community itself that helps set things straight.
But the fiction of Ramsay Street is documented in a real life suburban street where locals go about their day to day lives – Pine Oak Court, South Vermont in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
Filming usually takes place one day a week and involves access to front yards, backyards and sometimes more. The show itself is written into the contracts of those buying into the street. For a closely guarded sum, program producers hold residents to strict conditions around the upkeep of their property in order to maintain a consistent backdrop to the show’s narrative.
Most days of the year, busloads of tourists file into the cul-de-sac for their chance to meet one of the cast members and to marvel at the set.
Pine Oak Court is not your everyday Australian suburban street – nor is Ramsay Street.
Together though, Ramsay Street and Pine Oak Court contain all the potentials and challenges of building strong, connected, local neighbourhoods in Australia.
Social cohesion and local communities
As a whole, Australia ranks amongst the most socially cohesive nations on earth.
Multiculturalism as a unifying principle continues to hold majority public support despite the emergence of vocal but minority social movements set about to ‘reclaim’ an imagined, halcyon Australia that neglects the reality of our rich multicultural and First Nations histories.
The broad strokes paint a positive picture, with a high degree of mutual trust setting the tone for economic prosperity and a cohesive multicultural Australian community.
Events like the ‘Reclaim Australia’ rallies over the Easter long weekend, however, are reminders that multiculturalism is always a work in progress.
Of particular concern is this: Although mutual trust in Australia is unrivalled on a national level, the picture for local communities is far more piecemeal.
At the local level, lower levels of trust correlate strongly with adverse economic conditions; in many cases involving neighbourhoods hardest hit by the demise of Australia’s manufacturing sector brought about by successive waves of economic deregulation since the 80s.
The social and psychological impacts of Australia’s integration into global markets over the past 30 years cannot be understated.
A television documentary aired on the ABC last week reported that for those who lost their jobs during the 1991 ‘recession we had to have’, most aged 45 or above at the time would never find work again.
Located primarily on the outskirts of Australia’s larger metropolitan cities, many of the same communities have become popular settlement locations for new arrivals in recent decades, attracted largely by low rent housing and existing cultural communities.
It’s this combination of job insecurity, long-term unemployment and rapid demographic change that poses a serious challenge to trusting relationships.
In scenarios like these, new and emerging cultural communities offer a soft target for scapegoating and political opportunism.
At worst, there’s the risk that extreme fringe movements – including ‘Reclaim Australia’ – may find increasing sympathy amongst people who have lost nearly everything for reasons beyond their control.
Actions to promote social cohesion at the local level appear more important now than ever before.
Building strong inclusive neighbourhoods
March 2003: The body of a deceased woman was recovered by police from a home in Melbourne’s south-east, not far from Pine Oak Court. Investigations revealed the woman had died nearly two years beforehand.
It came as a confronting metaphor for community life in Australia’s major cities. It was no doubt an extreme case, but the idea that a single, older woman could be so profoundly socially isolated that nobody thought to check on her welfare or whereabouts for two whole years was a shock to people around the nation.
Well known community advocate and social entrepreneur, Andrew Heslop was particularly moved.
Mr Heslop wrote a letter to the editor at The Age calling for an annual Neighbour Day to bring people out of their homes and to come together to promote stronger local communities.
Now more than twelve years on, the rest is history. Around 40,000 people participated in Neighbour Day events in cities and towns across Australia this year, encompassing everything from small gatherings around a pot of tea right up to major community events.
An important goal of the day is to help reclaim the streets and public spaces as a hub for community life.
“The challenge in the last 40 years (is that) we’ve built suburbs on the fringes of our towns which are entirely car dependent; where you have to drive in, drive out, and you don’t walk around your suburb as you once did,” Mr Heslop said.
The combination of inner-city high density living, outer suburban sprawl and increasing constraints on people’s time are all placing pressure on the tendency for people to get out and about and touch base with their neighbours on a regular basis.
Where people don’t enjoy regular neighbourly interactions, mutual trust is often the first casualty. But Mr Heslop believes this trend can be reversed.
“Activity in ours streets is really integral for a whole range of reasons, and building community and strengthening community is just one of them,”
“People are also becoming more aware that our sedentary lifestyle is killing us, and that getting out and walking around our suburbs is terrific for our health. But also from a safety perspective, when parents and their kids on bikes walk with their dog, they’re going to be a terrific deterrent for someone who’s going to break in to a car or break in to a house or tag a wall, whereas a car load of people, they’re there and gone in fifteen seconds,” he said.
Mr Heslop also says that events like Neighbour Day are encouraging cross-cultural interactions that help build mutual understanding and trust.
“It’s been really pleasing since 2003 to see so many people celebrating Neighbour Day from different cultural backgrounds. I’ve been privileged to be invited to particular multicultural group celebrations, and it really is fantastic to see that everyone appreciates each other as an individual and as a member of that community and makes that effort to have a chat.”
“One of the terrific things I’ve seen in Sydney for example is just over the Harbor Bridge, there’s a public housing community and most of the people who live there, their first language is not English. So they have a nodding acquaintance with each other as they collect the mail and go about their day. But there’s a little church called ‘Church by the Bridge’, and every Neighbour Day, they put on a barbecue with sausages, hamburgers and trays of chocolate brownies, and people who don’t necessarily share the same language are sitting together side by side enjoying a meal, enjoying each other’s company, and celebrating what it is that makes their community strong, which is each other,” he said.
Mr Heaslop says that Neighbour Day events in high density urban settings have also been used by local councils to showcase to residents the diversity of free activities, services and programs offered to the public.
When disaster strikes
BRISBANE, JANUARY 2011: Asides from the devastating impacts of the flood itself, community spirit stole the headlines when Brisbane was hit by its worst natural disaster since 1974.
Whether immediately affected or not, tens of thousands of people from across greater Brisbane spontaneously banded together into the celebrated ‘Mud Army’; a generous, concerned and tireless group of community volunteers that transgressed culture, age, gender and ethnicity. Many inspiring multicultural stories would emerge.
“In 2011, people rediscovered their neighbours and being neighbourly, and I think they adapted to it naturally,” says John Maume, community development worker and coordinator at Benarrawa Community Development Association in Brisbane’s south-west corridor.
“The flood actually stopped everyone’s lives for a period of time and demanded other things of them. The number of stories I heard of people who just pulled out a BBQ and started cooking food for the others, people who offered showers, people who offered free internet – these things occurred organically because this part of the world hadn’t planned in any way, shape, or form for disaster,” Mr Maume said.
Which raises its own question: Natural disasters seem to awaken a natural inclination towards neighbourliness, as our personal safety, belongings and future prospects become immediately intertwined. But can this momentary spirit somehow be harnessed and taken forward so that neighbourhoods remain tight-knit in the absence of precipitating crises, and therefore better prepared to respond to future hardships?
Mr Maume says that one of Benarrawa’s current projects is about leveraging the spontaneous relationships and networks that emerged during the flood crisis in hope they can be applied to caring for vulnerable community members in normal day-to-day life.
It’s not an easy task, with many eager to put the trauma of the floods behind them and move on with their lives. But others have been receptive to the idea.
“It’s about holding onto that memory in a way that’s not damaging, but healthy in that it reminds us to always be prepared. So we followed up to resurrect or continue those network connections. We have looked at developing a very simple workshop that individuals and households can go through and come out the other end with practical things people can do, but we also looked at a communication plan.”
The upshot has been the development of a practical communication template so that no one in the community is left without a life line.
Enveloped by a sharp bend in the Brisbane River and adjacent to the Oxley Creek catchment, Benarrawa’s local community has an added risk of isolation during major rain events and was amongst the worst affected areas in the 2011 floods.
Benarrawa is now working with existing community infrastructure and networks including faith-based communities, local schools, scout groups and Meals on Wheels to establish a ‘Buddy System’ so that more vulnerable members of the community are not left alone in times of hardship.
“Our view is to identify people in the community who are vulnerable or at risk. One of the main groups we talk about are people who are newly arrived for any number of reasons, including refugees.”
“We’re encouraging people to think about who is newly arrived in their community and asking them to make contact,” he said.
These latest developments follow a long history of working within the local community to identify needs and collaborative responses that make the most of existing community resources and good will.
The origins of Benarrawa are found in the actions of a Graceville parish priest who opened opportunities for First Nations children from further afield to study within the local Catholic school.
A ‘Learning Circle’ soon followed, with members of the local community coming together to gather information and resources to better understand the languages, cultures, and world views of these new students.
As time progressed, the group started to look at things beyond the original purpose for which they had gathered, including sharing welcome with new arrivals within the Milpera SHS community.
This sparked an evolving journey of authentic trust-centred relationships which currently finds itself in gatherings at St Brendan’s Catholic Primary School in Moorooka.
Long-term settlement goals and aspirations have since surpassed English language acquisition as the hot topic of discussion.
“People have been there for a number of years. These people have now made themselves at home literally in Brisbane. They’ve started to purchase homes, they’ve started to study, their children are now in mainstream schools, there’s a real development. The conversations are now around what people want to study, and where they want to go from here. It’s taken a lot of effort from women on both sides of the partnership to reach a point where they can have conversations around those kind of things,” Mr Maume said.
(Originally published at http://www.mdaltd.org.au)
Scanlon Foundation: Mapping Social Cohesion Report (2014)
Australian Multicultural Council report on social cohesion in Australia neighbourhoods (December, 2013) http://www.crc.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/22965/The_Australian_Community.pdf
Making Australia Great: Inside our Longest Boom
Andrew Heslop’s Letter to the Editor at The Age (17 March, 2003)
Benarrawa Community Development Association