Proximity or Boundaries

As a sociologist and planner, Joëlle Zimmerli often deals with issues of community life. She’s convinced that the intelligent development of residential estates encourages good neighbourly relations.

What kind of neighbours do you have?

I have a mixture of neighbours: six residential ones, with offices on the floor below. People meet on the stairs, they know each other.

So you live in urban anonymity?

No, I know my neighbours. Anonymity is a difficult concept. My studies show that although there is less contact with neighbours in the city, there is still a great deal of interaction. Anonymity is not actually an issue in Switzerland. Of course, it's easier to withdraw from contact with the neighbours in a block of rented apartments than in an estate made up of detached houses. The question is how deeply people engage with one another. You may not arrange to meet up with neighbours for dinner. All the same, a neighbour may water the plants when you're on holiday.

How did you grow up?

In an area with semi-detached houses, where people knew each other fairly well. However, the boundaries are still pretty marked in places like that. There's your own garden and beside it there's your neighbour's, and as a child you're not allowed to go in there. As a child you like to be in the access zones between the houses – they're the interesting spaces in the neighbourhood.

With increased density, are neighbourly relations becoming a more important issue?

No, in an estate of detached houses neighbourly relations have always been and still are a dominant theme, although it's one of the most openly constructed forms of residential area. However, the topic of boundaries is becoming more important. Another increasingly prominent question is how people will manage to develop neighbourly networks and neighbourly living in the foreseeable future if you build a large housing estate and 200 to 300 people move in all at the same time. Neighbourly relations are not becoming more important generally, but you have to think differently about them.

How do you plan an estate so as to get community life right?

There's no single answer to that. It depends on where this development is: in a village, an agglomeration, a city – and in what part of the city. In a highly diverse location in the city centre you're strongly integrated into an environment automatically. One important thing generally is access routes which allow you to meet outdoors. Actually, children always drive neighbourly relations. They play together, and therefore the parents also have to interact with one another. So a proportion of families encourages neighbourly contact. A more difficult question is how neighbourly relations develop among adults and what spaces for communal use you can create for adults. Such spaces often have to be managed.

So it's worth asking whether it's worthwhile to invest within a housing estate?

Yes. That can make properties at not-so-good locations more competitive, or the owners can let homes at slightly higher rents. The fluctuation of tenants also tends to be reduced, people are more settled.

"You have to find the balance between proximity and distance. The closer people come to each other, the greater the potential for conflict."

A lot of new, dense estates are being built just now. How do you find the right balance between proximity and boundaries?

When people live quite close together, greater physical boundaries are needed. Private space with its opportunities for withdrawal is something of the utmost importance. The detached house concept with floor-to-ceiling windows often doesn't suit developments without generous spacing, particularly on the ground floor. It not pleasant to walk through the estate and find yourself looking onto the neighbour's table. Tenants' first reaction to open-plan homes is to put in boundaries. They hang curtains or mats. The crucial question is: how can architecture create environmental conditions that make fewer individual boundaries necessary?

What role does the composition of a development play?

The smaller a development is, the better the neighbourhood has to harmonise. People are less sensitive in an urban environment, because they can take evasive action more easily. The need to identify with the neighbours, particularly those in the same building, is greater in residential areas. In this case, you have to ask: what's the common denominator?

What difference does my relationship with my neighbour make to my well-being?

The most important thing is a conflict-free neighbourhood. The question then arises of how you accomplish that. Some people want as little as possible to do with the neighbours. A brief greeting is enough for them. For others, conflict-free means getting along well with each other, and others still find it easy when people have a lot to do with each other. You have to find the balance between proximity and distance. The closer people come to each other, the greater the potential for conflict.

There are more conflicts between neighbours in developments with detached houses, but people are more tolerant in towns. Would you agree with that hypothesis?

In an estate of detached houses the potential for conflict is definitely greater. On the other hand, it is easier to make friends because you live beside each other for many years. It's easier to avoid each other in the city. There are different sources of conflict there, for example the laundry room or noisy children. And elderly people in particular exploit areas of friction with neighbours partly to have an opportunity to talk to someone, for example the property managers.

What would your ideal development be like?

Tell me where this development is, and I can give you an answer. Tenants have different needs. In larger areas, the most important thing is for owners to ensure a certain mix. The initial renting process is crucial. In many cases, far too little priority is attached to the mix of tenants as a whole. Normally, the property managers are given the brief to fill the homes as quickly as possible, that way estates full of 24- to 35-year-olds may form. These people are highly mobile, work during the day and change jobs frequently. As a consequence, the estate isn't a busy place and there are frequent changes of tenants. If a development is mixed, it's more stable and there's more going on. That's also in the interest of the owner.

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