Everybody needs good neighbours

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 26/03/2011
THERE FOR EACH OTHER: The Vasanta Ave, neighbourhood in Ngaio, Wellington.
CHRIS SKELTON/ The Dominion Post

THERE FOR EACH OTHER: The Vasanta Ave, neighbourhood in Ngaio, Wellington.

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After faking ultrasounds to perpetuate the lie that she is pregnant, blonde-haired vixen Tash is sure no-one will uncover her dirty little secret.

She's already started hanging out with the pregnant bogans to make her ruse more believable, and has convinced hunky boyfriend Andrew – who is really in love with Summer – that she's expecting.

Down the road, Paul is fighting for his life after being mysteriously pushed off the mezzanine floor of a hotel. Meanwhile, Donna is compulsively working on her university papers, desperate to avoid thinking about her husband Ringo's untimely death in a drink-driving accident.

From the study of her home in a leafy street in Mt Victoria, Wellington, consultant Maree Maddock shakes her head. The life she shares with her neighbours is not quite as intertwined – or half as melodramatic – as the one between the Neighbours in Melbourne's fictional Ramsay St.

"I wouldn't want to get to know anyone too intimately, you know," she says. "But I do know quite a few of them. I quite like it here really – it's a mix of age groups, families, young people. The neighbours one up have been here for years, 30 years, and they are great gardeners.

"Neighbours will let us know if they are going away, so if we notice anything we can contact them ... or someone will knock on the door and say, `We're having a party on Saturday night, you're welcome to come, but we might make a bit of noise', which is nice."

Although most of us don't have to deal with so much daily drama, there is one thing we do have in common with the glossy, on-screen personas in Australian soap operas. It's encapsulated right there in the annoyingly upbeat theme song: "Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours."

Ms Maddock has been living in her Elizabeth St character villa for a decade, with partner Anne Pattillo. Like so many houses in the street, it's cosied up beside its neighbour, sharing a picket fence. A fig tree hangs over the front yard; when the fruit is ripe, neighbours come to fill up their buckets. Ms Maddock has made a batch of fig jelly, which she distributed to the families next door.

As Kiwis, the idea of being able to borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbours is entrenched in our cultural identity. We chat to our neighbours over the fence, mow their lawns occasionally, share a beer on a Friday night.

Or do we?

The most recent research on neighbourhood friendliness was put together by Colmar Brunton, in its 2008 State of our Neighbourhoods study. More than than 600 New Zealanders were asked about their attitudes towards their communities.

Contact with neighbours varied depending on area, age and house tenure – but on average, less than a third of people had regular communication with their neighbours. Just under half said they had an occasional chat, and 8 per cent admitted to having no idea who their neighbours were.

In the under-30 age group, these figures change dramatically, with only 17 per cent reporting regular talks with neighbours, and 16 per cent of respondents having no contact at all. Half said they talked to neighbours occasionally.

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A couple of months ago, it would have been possible to glance at those numbers quickly, consider them vaguely interesting and move on. Then came February 22. In the days and weeks after the Christchurch earthquake, it became obvious that knowing your neighbours was very important indeed.

Stories emerged of neighbours who had drawn together immediately after the crisis. And as the dust settled, there were still more stories of neighbours who didn't know each other very well, but who had bonded in the aftermath of the quake.

Wellington Civil Defence controller Mike Mendonca says he can't stress how important it is to be on friendly terms with your neighbours. At its most basic, it is strength in numbers.

Research shows that, in an emergency, 90 per cent of people are rescued in the first hour by their neighbours, he says.

"It's clear that in times of emergency, we rely on each other. We can't guarantee emergency services will be there to help us, so we have to fend for ourselves. If you look after each other on a day-to-day basis and know your neighbours when things are good, when things turn rotten you can rely on each other."

Then there's the elderly and disabled, who may struggle to cope on their own.

"We do have vulnerable members of the community, and if you know who they are, then people can get looked after and cared for when it's [Wellington's] turn to have our disaster.

"You always hear stories of an old guy whose been living on a bag of crisps and an apple for five days because nobody's come to find him – we don't want to let that happen."

But Mr Mendonca believes that, in the event of the big one, we will pull together. "You just have to look at Christchurch to see that. I know Wellingtonians will behave in the same way, and it makes our job easier if you already have a relationship with the people you are going to rely on, and who are going to rely on you."

As the devastation of Christchurch played out on television screens, Ms Maddock and her Mt Victoria neighbours quietly went about exchanging phone numbers, car registration numbers and contact details of next of kin. Already a friendly bunch, they now have a tight emergency network.

"It could easily happen here, so why shouldn't we be a bit more active about it," she says.

In places where community spirit seems to be lacking, people say it is because they are too busy to talk to their neighbours, and don't have many opportunities for social interaction. Respondents to The State of our Neighbourhoods survey also felt as if friendliness and trust had declined in general over the years, and that there was increased crime and a feeling of danger.

But the same survey showed 72 per cent of people were interested in getting to know their neighbours, with this desire rising to 81 per cent in Auckland.

No-one understands this better than quietly spoken Rebecca Harrington, a community support worker for Takapuna Methodist Church and not-for-profit social services agency Lifewise. She began taking to the streets of North Shore in 2008 in a bid to uncover what people didn't like about the community.

Going door to door, she found a trend among all the people she met. Many did not know their neighbours, but many wanted to.

"They would say, `Oh, life is so busy and we just don't have time, or we don't see them', but then they would go on to say that they really would like to."

She was even more concerned with what she was hearing from immigrants and refugees, some of whom had the impression that Kiwis were just unfriendly.

So began the idea for Neighbours Day, an Auckland-wide event encouraging people to link up, hold street parties and attend local events.

Since then it's spread to a national level, with the first official Neighbours Day celebrated last year. This time around, it's got a following, with people listing plans on the website, on Facebook and tweeting about their plans with neighbours today.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown already holds "fish and chip" evenings with neighbours in her Island Bay street every few weeks. "It actually makes life much more pleasant when you know your neighbours."

As in all human relationships, you'll feel more comfortable with some people than others, but you've already got something in common in that you all live in the same area."

Inner-City Living Chews Lane

Young Wellingtonians might be the least neighbourly in the country, according to a recent Colmar Brunton poll.

In a survey of 500 New Zealand 20-somethings, 48 per cent of respondents said that not only did they not know their neighbours but they had no inclination to change that. Nationally, the figure was 11 per cent.

Natalia Karacaoglu, 25, lives in a central-city apartment block in Chews Lane with boyfriend Joel Pearce, 25, sister Melissa, 27, and friend Harriet Clarke, 25.

All are professionals, working in accountancy, public relations and the electricity sector. None really knows their neighbours.

"We would have met them in the lifts, but that's about it," Ms Karacaoglu says.

"We know the guy next door is an accountant and we know a few of their names, but not really. There are a few quite old people on our floor, and the rest would just be corporate workers."

The four friends have been living in the eighth-floor apartment, in a 19-storey building of about 90 apartments, for about a year and a half.

Her flatmates are not concerned about not having contact with their neighbours.

"No-one really wants to, everyone keeps to themselves sort of. I think everyone just likes their own space, really. I wouldn't say many people in our apartment would have made friends or anything."

But her parents live in an apartment in Oriental Bay, and they regularly hold get-togethers with their neighbours.

"As you get older maybe you don't have as many friends, so maybe you do reach out."

She says if there is a disaster, she will definitely check on her neighbours.

Ngaio Neighbourliness

When Carleen Woolley was in hospital suffering complications with the birth of her second child, Larissa, she wanted some quiet time with husband Stephen at her side.

But with two-year-old daughter Jenelle at home, it didn't look as if there would be a chance.

One of the neighbours came to visit an exhausted Mrs Woolley, and asked if there was anything she needed. "I'd love to spend some time with Steve," she said.

That night, the neighbour emailed other residents of Vasanta Ave, Mrs Woolley's home of 15 years. The next day, there were half a dozen replies from people offering to look after Jenelle.

"We're not in each other's pockets, but we're all there for each other," Mrs Woolley says of her neighbours. "If you need a spade, or you need a bit of muscle, or you just want a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, everyone's there.

"You know everybody ... but you've still got your privacy."

There are about 13 households in the street, who meet up at least three times a year for a Christmas street barbecue, Easter afternoon tea and midwinter celebrations.

Neighbours often babysit each other's children and help each other out at the weekends.

Mrs Woolley has previously lived in a neighbourhood where she didn't know anyone, and hated it.

"I just felt isolated, and it's like, `What happens if I've got a problem, what do I do?"

From The Front Line

Moments after the September earthquake struck, frightened Christchurch resident Sue Spindler heard banging at the door.

She opened it to find some of her neighbours outside in the early-morning dark, checking to see if she was all right.

"They went around and knocked on every door in the street, and I just thought that was amazing. That just reassured people. Some of the neighbours were really freaked."

Mrs Spindler and her husband moved into Rooney Place, a quiet cul-de-sac in the suburb of Halswell, five years ago. They had to make an effort to get to know their neighbours, because the new subdivision was not really a place where people congregated during the day, she said.

They began to have neighbourhood gatherings, organising street barbecues, afternoon teas and gatherings for special occasions such as Earth Hour. Over time, they built up a list of neighbours' names and phone numbers.

Their suburb was lucky to escape major damage in last month's quake. "But just knowing we had neighbours who cared and were ready to do something was great," Mrs Spindler said.

Since the earthquake, every day has been like Neighbours Day in Christchurch, she said. Complete strangers will walk up to each other in the street and ask if they are all right, or need some help around the house.

"I think Christchurch has rediscovered the value of neighbours. People are suddenly talking to people they have never talked to before in their street. It's just a shame it takes disaster to bring it out, really."

THE NUMBERS

90 per cent of people rescued in the first hour of an emergency are rescued by their neighbours.

72 per cent of people are interested in getting to know their neighbours better.

20 metres between neighbours on average.

A third of people share a regular cup of tea with their neighbours.

16 per cent of under-30s have no neighbourly contact.

6 years – the average length of time we live in a house.

Two-thirds of people think that it is important to feel a sense of community with other residents in the neighbourhood.

- The Dominion Post

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