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The High Life




A quarter of Australians now live in apartments. For some that means being part of a close-knit community, for others life has never been lonelier. Sue Williams reports.

When Anne McAlaney moved her family to a house in the inner suburbs while their city apartment was undergoing renovations, she was shocked to discover what life there was really like. While friends had waxed lyrical about a burning sense of community warming the neighbourhood, she found only the acute chill of social isolation.

"You know, I've never been as lonely in my life, living here," says Anne, 39, sitting in the house in Middle Park. "In our apartment block, you talked to the other people there, and walked out the door straight into the business of the city. It was great. Here, if you walk out and see a seagull, it makes your day. We can't wait to get back to our apartment and our own community."

Anne - who runs her own cafe while also looking after her 20-month-old twins, with partner Bradley Matthews, and his two teenagers, Keri, 14, and Bradley jnr, 10 - is one of a growing band of people championing the potential of apartment buildings to become real communities.

Conventional wisdom may have it that suburban neighbourhoods have the monopoly on community, with their potential for street parties, knocking on doors to borrow sugar, garage sales and neighbours chatting over fences. But as the population continues to decamp from houses and backyards on the city outskirts into city and inner-suburban apartments, increasingly these residents are seizing the initiative to establish their own tribal communities.

Future analysts at KPMG are in no doubt that this has now become a discernible trend. Sarah Breen, senior manager in the property division, says it's only likely to grow stronger with time. "In the five years to the last census, from 1996, there's been a huge population move to within five kilometres of the CBD," she says.

"The building (Republic Tower) has a great community spirit. I think they look after each other very well.""They're quite densely populated areas, so a lot of those people are moving into apartments. Many of them are younger professionals but there are also a large proportion of older empty-nesters. They have more of a sense of community from living in the suburbs, so they want to re-create that when they move into apartments."

Even developers now take this factor into account when designing new apartment blocks and complexes. They see good building facilities such as gyms, swimming pools, saunas and spas as all providing residents with forums for meeting each other and forging friendships, while there are more and more plans for cafes and restaurants within, below or next to apartment blocks.

Builder and developer The Brady Group is part of this movement. General manager of sales George Keith says its latest development, the Wills Street project, close to the Queen Vic Market and Flagstaff Gardens, includes plans for both a cafe and restaurant on site.

"It gives residents another place to meet each other informally," he says. "Also, a sense of community can grow from careful planning of the mix of types of apartments. "It's different from being in the suburbs, but not many people there know their neighbours any more anyway. Longer working hours have created a situation where many people are anonymous for most of the year, only coming together at Christmas."

With so many people now moving into apartments for the first time, it's only natural that many would want to build links with their neighbours. Today in Australia, there are about 3.5 million people living or working in body corporate schemes, with about 65,000 bodies corporate in Victoria alone.

Just in the City of Melbourne, there was a 69 per cent growth in the number of flats, units or apartments between 1996 and 2001, leaving 25 per cent of all households in high-density housing and one in four - or 1 million - Victorians now living, owning or working in a property affected by a body corporate.

In the two years from 2001, an extra 4042 bodies corporate were registered in the state.

"Approximately 2000 new bodies corporate are created each year," says Rob Beck, general manager of the Institute of Body Corporate Managers (Victoria) Inc.

With such a tremendous flow of people into apartments, it's little wonder that there's pressure on the committees running buildings to help create forums in which residents can socialise. At one of Melbourne's ritziest developments, The Melburnian on St Kilda Road, this has been honed to a fine art. Between the 230 apartments of the three towers, there is now a well-established network of theatre, book, bridge, pilates, music and yoga groups - among others - that residents have started with the help of committee members.

"These kind of groups can help people feel part of their own community," says chairman David Smart. "Some people may want to join, and others may not, but this network gives people the opportunity if they'd like to. We facilitate owners coming together, if they so choose."

The committee may also help fund some activities; for instance, buying the croquet set for games in the gardens, or organising family parties for kids in the development at Christmas. They've also set up an e-mail group for residents, and publish a regular newsletter. In addition, all residents receive all meeting minutes, which helps them feel even more involved.

"People can come into a building like this and it might feel a little cold and impersonal," says committee secretary Anne O'Mullane.

"But because of all these things that are happening, it can feel a very warm place. Someone might see people doing tai chi in the gardens, and wander down and join in. Someone else might see someone's child about to fall into the water and go and help them.

"This sense of community also helps our security. As so many of us now would recognise each other, it's very easy for anyone to go up to a stranger they don't know to ask if they can help."

Angela Davidson, a specialist in apartment real estate with her own company, Melbourne Central Real Estate, lives in The Melburnian and believes that sense of community is a big selling point today with apartments. People might not be initially aware of the community that has grown up within a development, but as soon as they find out, they're usually enthusiastic about the opportunities.

"A lot of people don't know what they can have," says Angela. "But as soon as they know about it, they really enjoy it." Previously, Angela lived at Regency Towers on Exhibition Street and saw it as a building that similarly fostered a great sense of community.

"That was probably one of the first buildings that really pushed the idea of a community within a community," she says.

"The type of people in that building were really passionate about creating a wonderful atmosphere together. There was even one ladies' group there that was started in case you became sick. If you were ill, there were a number of people you could call who'd go and get your medication for you. It was a really caring community."

Republic Tower on Queen Street is another where residents regularly get together. On Thursday nights, they have a table reserved in the Republic Cafe and Bar on the ground floor of the building, where anyone can go down and dine with fellow residents.

"They also organise special events here," says cafe owner Ash Bansal. "One night we did an Indian night for them and 105 turned up. We're now planning a Spanish night, and a Christmas in July dinner. The building has a great community spirit. I think they look after each other very well."

Yet not every apartment dweller is keen on the idea of getting to know their neighbours. Some are happy to have the option, but prefer not to take it up. Others view it with distaste; they moved into an apartment precisely for the security, anonymity and privacy it could offer.

Public relations executive Beverley Pinder, who lives in a block off St Kilda Road, says she doesn't know her neighbours, and she's perfectly happy not to. She has a holiday home at Portsea, where she loves all her neighbours, but in the city her friends are all outside her home and often connected to her working life.

"When I get home in the city, I do a couple of hours of work, then bed," Pinder, 49, says. "I wouldn't like neighbours to knock on the door. Our security system, where you can only visit the level you live on, prevents it anyway. I like the anonymity. My life is on show for 80 hours a week, so I value my privacy."

Agnes Setey feels much the same way. Even though her East Melbourne building organises regular wine-tastings for residents, and cocktail evenings, the only time she met her neighbours was when she banged on the wall to tell them to turn down their music. "I don't want to see people when I'm at home," says Setey, 38. "I have 20-odd staff at the moment. When I come back, I don't want to talk any more."

Apartment tenant and actor Paul Lum is another who's protective of his private life but, at times, as a single person, he sympathises with another single friend who believes there should be special blocks set up exclusively for older singles, which could operate a little like the US TV soap Melrose Place. Glamorous residents would continually drop in, often for sex, and the whole place would be one long party.

"Groups of single people living in the same block would probably be a good thing," says Lum, 37. "It makes a lot of sense."

Sex with the neighbours is often a far cry, however, from the reality of some folk who rarely even chat when they bump into each other in the lift. Yet for those shy souls who recoil from face-to-face contact, there is another solution. Resinet, Australia's largest residential community network, provides an intranet service combined with a local services directory and body corporate services.

With each of the 24 member Melbourne buildings provided with their own e-mail chatrooms for residents, via protected pseudonyms, it presents the bizarre image of a bunch of people all living, literally, on top of each other, but all locked away in the privacy of their own apartments e-mailing each other.

Resinet spokesman Brian King still believes it's a service that does foster a sense of community, even if it is an online community. "These are all small communities," he says. "People are today all looking for a sense of community and I want to help them by providing them with a means of getting in touch with each other."

He has some powerful backing in that belief. Psychologist Noelene Rose, who specialises in connectedness - or the lack of it - among people, singles out high-rise living as a real potential cause of loneliness and isolation.

"It's my belief that there are thousands of people living in apartments who bought a dream that has failed to come true for them, the pros have largely evaporated and they are now heavily noticing the cons," she says. "The convenience of the facilities and proximity remain but the overwhelming feeling is that of feeling lonely, isolated and detached from others."

The solution? Either actively working to help create a sense of community in a building - or therapy.

But for those like Anne McAlaney, longing to return to her Elizabeth Street unit, no one can persuade her that there's a stronger sense of community in a suburban housing neighbourhood than in an apartment. "In the suburbs, you can be anywhere, it feels like Beirut," she says. "In the city, it's vibrant and cool and always interesting. Even the vagrant down the road feels like part of our community."

Sue Williams is the co-author (with Jimmy Thomson) of Apartment Living: The complete guide to buying, renting, surviving and thriving in apartments (ABC Books, rrp $29.95)
The high life - July 11, 2004 - The Age

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