‘Bumping spaces’ build community – when they are within reach

When was the last time you visited your local library, community centre or neighbourhood house?

Perhaps it’s not near enough even to think about going there, or life feels just too exhausting after your commute, taking the kids to school and working long hours to make ends meet. Maybe it seems like something other people, not you, can do.

(View or download a larger version and see the data source)

But these kinds of community hubs are excellent places for fostering ‘social connection‘. Social connection is a complex experience fundamental to people’s health and wellbeing, and a way to form ‘connected communities’ with the capacity to mobilise in an emergency or to support locals in need.

We all need interaction with other people, and people who are socially connected report being happy with their social support, feel connection and belonging, and are satisfied with the quality and amount of connection they get with others.

Social connection is so important to mental, physical and cognitive health that the US Surgeon General has launched a policy ‘call to action’ and the UK and Japan have government ministers responsible for countering loneliness.

Australian policy responses like social prescribing, recently introduced by the Victorian Government, are designed to combat social anxiety and lack of knowledge about how to connect; however, less attention is given to evidence that there are places that can help people connect by making it easier to simply ‘bump’ into others.

Bumping spaces

‘Bumping spaces’ help people meet – by accident! You don’t have to go through the work and anxiety of strategising how to meet new friends. These are places where people literally bump into each other – like when you’re waiting in the corridor for your yoga class, queuing to ask a question at the library, or attending a craft group at your local neighbourhood house.

Bumping spaces can also be private businesses, like cafes or corner shops.

Importantly, these places build community by being local and close to home, so you often see the same faces, and eventually come to say hello, and then strike up a conversation.

By helping to build community, these places build social capital and social cohesion, vital neighbourhood assets for economic prosperity and community resilience.

By offering places that are welcoming and ‘neutral’, community-building infrastructure like libraries and neighbourhood houses are accessible and attractive to a diversity of people.

As political scientist Daniel Aldrich puts it, these places nurture “the ties that are hardest to find in our relationships precisely because they connect us to people different from us”.

Libraries aren’t just for books, with many providing novel and eclectic programs, activities and services designed to meet users’ needs. For example, Merri Bek Council has a social worker in the library program and many libraries run community health programs.

Neighbourhood houses and other community centres are lifelines for many people, promoting social cohesion and combating loneliness.

How local is your local community hub?

Our Map of the Month looks at the accessibility of vital ‘community-building’ social infrastructure to Melbourne’s residents – those special neutral places where diverse people can meet by chance – libraries, neighbourhood houses and community centres.

What immediately springs out from the map is the high concentration of community-building spaces in established suburbs, mostly close to the city centre, with apparently fewer in the outer, newer suburbs.

This raises alarm bells.

Melbourne’s outer metropolitan suburbs are some of the fastest growing in Australia and include highly diverse populations that are also affected by financial stress and where residents often have long commute times, with less access to local employment.

These people need to be able to readily access infrastructure to help them literally build new communities.

Looking at the map, the sparse and dotted picture outside the more established inner suburbs suggests that libraries, community centres and neighbourhood houses at the periphery are all serving large areas.

How can people ‘bump’ into their neighbours if they are travelling long distances to attend a class or use the library?

In contrast, the map shows that those living in the inner suburbs can more easily access a range of community-building infrastructure and these places are likely made even more accessible through the increased availability of inner-city public transport.

Growth areas need bumping spaces

The mapped data highlights disparities between established areas and growth areas that are likely occurring internationally. However, these disparities may be particularly significant for Melbourne which is growing rapidly, becoming home to people from areas across the globe.

This means Melbourne suburbs must work hard to grow community belonging, cohesion and multicultural understanding.

Our recent study found that diverse residents of Melbourne’s outer metro reported three main barriers to social connection: having few opportunities to work locally; difficulties and anxiety from being misunderstood due to language or culture; and challenges in finding like-minded people.

Some new residents said they had met other locals at the library or skatepark, through local employment or volunteering, or being invited to join a group by a neighbour or community development worker.

However, people who worked found it hard to access activities near home as places might be closed or feel unsafe during the evenings.

We’ve heard of food deserts without access to shops that sell healthy food, but maybe we should also be talking about ‘social connection deserts’, where people are isolated through lack of access to vital social provisions.

One of the problems we have as social connection researchers is a lack of good data. Knowing where the community-building spaces are is difficult enough, but we also want to know what social connection happens there.

This is an international problem, and we have an opportunity in Melbourne to be pioneers at generating good quality social connection data through a collaboration of researchers, government and community organisations.

Meanwhile, there is something we can all do – get out and use our local community-building spaces.

This is important. By joining a class, going to a talk or event, or even just borrowing a book, you will be supporting these vital places – they will increase their services, open longer hours and maybe new centres will be built closer to where you live.

You’ll get lots of personal benefits, too – who knows, you might even make a new friend or two.

Map of the Month is a science communication project of the University of Melbourne (Melbourne Centre for Cities, AURIN, Melbourne Data Analytics Platform and Pursuit) using maps to spark important policy conversations across metropolitan Melbourne. This pilot is supported by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and in partnership with the Victorian Office for Suburban Development and the Municipal Association of Victoria. Academics, community leaders and government representatives from across Melbourne contribute to the maps and accompanying stories.

This month’s map was produced by Amanda Belton, Dr Emily Fitzgerald and Flavia Barar.

/Public Release. View in full here.