Auckland consistently ranks highly in lists of the world's best cities but is never number one. So what would it take to turn Auckland into a first-class city? This week the Herald continues its 10-day series examining some of the biggest hurdles Auckland faces, from housing and transport to entertainment and education. We look at what we are doing, what we need to do, and why Auckland's success matters to the rest of the country. In part seven of the series we look at social connectedness .

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WORLD CLASS AUCKLAND - SERIES OVERVIEW

As Auckland's population continues to grow the quarter-acre dream, with its ample green space and a white picket fence is becoming an increasingly distant reality for many. The average cost of a house sits well above the $700,000 dollar mark. However, beyond the dream's financial cost, questions are now being raised about the impact it has on our sense of community.

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As part of our World Class Auckland series Corazon Miller takes a look at how well Aucklanders connect.

Our growing urban sprawl has created a need for people to travel further to get to work and to school. The associated increase in travel time is inevitably limiting our ability to interact with those in our neighbourhoods.

In this year's Sovereign Wellbeing Index, only 22.3 per cent of Aucklanders felt close to their neighbours. New Zealand ranked last compared to 29 other countries ranked in terms of social connectedness, with only 36 per cent of us feeling appreciated by those we are close to.

In comparison Denmark took out the top spot with 83 per cent of its citizens feeling appreciated by those they are close to.

Neighbourly, an online portal for people to connect with their neighbours, found 78.6 per cent had at least one neighbour they could borrow a cup of sugar from, however, 70 per cent were not aware of neighbourhood gatherings. The results from the Good Neighbour survey 2014, also showed 41 per cent of Kiwis felt they were a great neighbour, compared to 92 per cent of Americans.

Head of communications for Neighbourly, Sarah Moore said the research showed most people did want closer connections, but were limited by shyness, busyness, having recently moved to the neighbourhood, high fences, long working hours and our ever-growing urban sprawl and longer travelling times.

"They are just not seeing them around, some are shy, some have language barriers and for some it's the distance."

Waiheke Island resident Bill Carrig, said while people on the island were fairly well connected, he did notice the impact the car-centred life-style had on inner-city residents.

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"It's like ships passing in the night."

A change in social culture

Auckland's car-oriented design is a key factor in isolating residents. Photo / Dean Purcell
Auckland's car-oriented design is a key factor in isolating residents. Photo / Dean Purcell

AUT University's Human Potential Centre research leader, Professor Grant Schofield said within New Zealand Auckland was clearly the worst in terms of social connectedness and social wellbeing, with only a quarter of Aucklanders feeling "Awesome". Those who reported higher levels of social connectivity were more likely to feel "awesome".

In particular Mr Schofield said the city's ever-growing urban sprawl and its car-oriented design were key factors isolating residents and limited their ability to "live locally".

"It's almost like we don't have that neighbourly living as part of our social culture anymore," he said. "The idea of local living is something that's completely escaped us."

He suggested, despite the negative perception of high-density areas, there were still valuable lessons to be learnt from such areas that were the norm in many European countries.

Because most of those countries were established pre-cars, the spaces were better designed for local living and community engagement.

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"It's everyday activities on foot where people can get out in their neighbourhood."

Conversely Auckland was built for cars with a focus on dormitory-like suburbs that prioritised housing over an all-in-one community hub.

However, in recent years, there has been a growing recognition that future development needed to have community at its heart.

A model for the future

The new development at Hobsonville Point is one example of what a future Auckland neighbourhood could, and as some say, should look like. Photo / Dean Purcell
The new development at Hobsonville Point is one example of what a future Auckland neighbourhood could, and as some say, should look like. Photo / Dean Purcell

The development at Hobsonville Point, which has a mixture of apartments, townhouses and homes, alongside new schools and cafes, with plans for an entertainment precinct along the waterfront, was one example of what a future Auckland neighbourhood could, and as some say, should look like.

For already established suburbs, the newly-opened Otahuhu centre offers an example of how a community's heart can be rebuilt. Featuring a newly revamped recreational community centre that can be used by businesses, schools and the wider community, it was but one of the many new central hubs cropping up around the city's older suburbs.

Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board chair Lemauga Lydia Sosene said it was an all encompassing community solution for health and wellbeing.

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Head of the urban planning programme at Auckland University Lee Beattie said it was vital city planners continued to look beyond building houses, to facilities and community spaces.

"You have got to be building community," he said. "You need to ensure other services are in place, outdoor spaces, retail spaces and sources of employment.

"How can you put someone out there if there is no opportunity...how can they feel connected?"

Auckland Council general manager plans and places Penny Pirrit said it was important to consider what people need.

"We need houses in neighbourhoods that work, not just housing for housing sake.

"You need to do it in a way that people actually feel they are part of a neighbourhood."

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Members of the senior and the disabled communities acknowledged there were good intentions in the community, but at times accessibility to information and events was limited.

"For seniors the local community is increasingly more important," said Margaret Devlin, chair of the Seniors Advisory Panel "Something our panel is quite keen on is that communication reaches our sector, at every level, so at least people know what's going on - then you need to get them there and back safely."

Chair of the Disability Advisory Panel, Clive Lansink, said if he at least knew what was going he could choose whether or not to go.

"Billboards and flyers obviously don't reach blind people," he said. "At least give us the choice of deciding whether to go along or not - chances are we would if we knew what it was about."

Looking overseas

 Denmark frequently earns itself the title of the happiest country in the world. Photo / Getty Images
Denmark frequently earns itself the title of the happiest country in the world. Photo / Getty Images

Indeed in a Happiness Research Institute report titled "Happy Danes" social relations and social cohesiveness were said to be key factors that led to Denmark frequently earning itself the title of the happiest country in the world. Something the report said stemmed largely from its citizens tendency to live locally, enabling a greater work life balance.

Professor of Tourism at AUT University, Simon Milne, said Auckland could also become more liveable if it was made more welcoming and accessible.

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He said Montreal was a good example to aspire to. The Canadian city, which frequently ranked highly as one of the most liveable cities, has extensive walking and bike paths that wind through many of the city's natural, historic and entertainment hot-spots.

"Montreal is a comparable city that's climatically different, but one that has embraced this idea of how to make a city liveable by [making it more attractive] and thus making it more liveable for the local residents." But while Auckland is still a small way off from achieving what Montreal has, there is still much to be celebrated around the city, its natural wild beaches, expansive regional parks, rolling volcanic mounds and natural harbours.

Globally our green spaces stacked up well, with 326sqm per person of green space compared to the United Nations' recommendation of 8sqm per person. Auckland Council's Park, Sports and Recreation general manager, Mark Bowater said 88 per cent of Aucklanders were living within a ten minute walk, of a local neighbourhood park.

Mr Bowater said the issue with these green spaces was not about how many we had, but rather how well they were used.

"It's better to invest in what we have, rather than continuing to buy more green spaces."
One local research institute has taken on this challenge of increasing the profile of some of Auckland's lesser known and lesser frequented spots.

The New Zealand Tourism Research Institute at AUT University has been working together with local boards to develop maps guiding people to a range of historical, natural and recreational facilities in their local areas.

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Associate director Dr Carolyn Deuchar said key to a city's liveablity was how well we are connected to the place and the sense of belonging we have.

"Liveability is how connected we are to our place and how much we actually appeal to others as a place to come to live."

Local Initiatives project

The New Zealand Tourism Research Institute has been working together with local boards to develop maps guiding visitors to a range of historical, natural and recreational facilities in urban around the city.

Researchers at the centre believe key to making a city "World Class" is its ability to connect its residents to each other and to the place within which they live.

The NZTRI has yet to finalise any of its urban routes but here are some samples of the kinds of routes lesser known spots it's planning to promote in areas outside the central city, as part of its Local Initiatives project.

Following consultation with local boards the plan will eventually be to print brochures and maps guiding people to areas of local interest.

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Click on the symbols to get a small description of the area.

Local Initiatives: (app users click here)

International comparisons

Denmark

The Scandinavian country of just over 5.6m people, with its old-fashioned charm and chic modern developments, frequently ranks highly in global quality-of-life surveys. On average over the last 40 years happiness levels in Denmark have remained at a stable and high level, of 8/10. In a Happiness Research Institute report, titled "Happy Danes" good social relations and social cohesiveness were said to be key factors earning the nation the title of the happiest country in the world. High levels of trust, relative security within the welfare state, relatively high levels of prosperity, flexible working conditions, good work-life balance, living locally, high levels of involvement in voluntary work and greater democratic rights were other contributing factors towards making the country a happy place to live.

Vienna
The Austrian city of Vienna has ranked second in Monocle's Quality of Life Survey 2015. This historic and artistic gem has, since its historic centre was labelled a UNESCO heritage site in 2001, put a greater focus on enhancing its urban space around the wider city. Works of art are seen not just in the city's museums and galleries, but around many corners of the city. Works from both international and Austrian artists are presented as sculptures and installations around the city, creating a more stimulating and attractive array of public urban spaces.

Montreal
The predominantly French-speaking Canadian city, which frequently ranks highly as one of the most liveable cities, has extensive walking and bike paths that wind through many of the city's natural, historic and entertainment hot-spots. Beneath the city an underground pedestrian network links boutiques, major hotels, restaurants, universities, office buildings and city attractions with 32 kilometres of passageways used by over 500,000 people daily. Its suburbs offers the residents neighbourhoods where they can work, live and play, from its central city, that boasts a mix of soaring skyscrapers and heritage buildings to the bohemian neighbourhood of the Plateau Mont-Royal, where artists, young families and people from diverse cultures live and mingle in and amongst the shops, cafes, theatres and art galleries. It's creative approach to the city's infrastructure has also earned it the accolade of a UNESCO City of Design.

The rankings:

• In the Sovereign Wellbeing Index 2015 New Zealand ranked last of 29 other countries in terms of social connectedness - Denmark was first.

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The World Happiness Report 2015 put New Zealand in the top ten - at ninth place - Switzerland was first.

• Good Neighbour survey 2014 showed only 41 per cent of Kiwis felt they were a great neighbour, compared to 92 per cent of Americans.

Where are we at

• New Zealand's levels of social connectedness puts us last compared to 29 other countries according to the Sovereign Wellbeing Index 2015

• Despite this we are relatively happy as a country, ranking ninth of 156 other countries in terms of happiness in the United Nations World Happiness report 2015

• However, Auckland still fares poorly in comparison to the rest of the country, with lower levels of social connectedness and wellbeing. In the Sovereign Wellbeing Index report 2015 only a quarter of the city's residents report feeling "awesome" and according to Neighbourly some 70 per cent did not know what neighbourhood gatherings were happening.

What we are doing

• Auckland Council is investing billions of dollars into improving our green spaces and regional parks to make them more user-friendly.

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• -It also plans to invest and develop a number of its Business Improvement Districts as a way to encourage greater community cohesiveness.

• Locals around the city are also involved in innovative projects, such as creative art installations, online neighbourly portals and community projects to build and rejuvenate their neighbourhoods.

Where we need to be

• Aucklanders need to continue to engage in their local areas and communities, minimise time spent on the roads and attempt to live, work and play locally.

• Town planners need to put community at the heart of every development.

• Continual support and public and private investment to keep community projects going is also needed alongside greater recognition of the economic and social value of cultural and artistic projects.

• More involvement in volunteer work could also help promote greater happiness among residents.

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