Neighbours are a source of growing aggravation in Australia and we are lodging more official complaints about each other than ever before. Excessive noise or odour, inadequate levels of property maintenance, roaming animals and general forms of anti-social behaviour are all potentially cause for complaint.
Yet the overwhelming message that flowed from events like the floods in Queensland and Victoria last year was one of neighbours, friends and even strangers rallying to assist flooded residents in their hour of need.
As the waters rose, neighbours banded together to sandbag each others’ homes and move possessions to higher ground. Once they receded, information, food, homes and equipment were freely shared. Observers lauded the spirit of community that prevailed.
So, why are neighbours still there when needed even if their noise, smells and habits are cause for complaint the rest of the time?
The rise in neighbourly tensions has been attributed to poor council planning laws which create increasingly dense living areas. Otherwise blame has been put on the breakdown of society, which has reduced familiar neighbours to intolerant and inconsiderate strangers.
It is true that neighbourhoods are changing and that good urban planning can help reduce potential conflict. Yet there is no evidence so far that suggests complaints are more likely to arise in high density or transition suburbs than any other.
Nor can we say that the close-knit ties we once enjoyed have been uniformly lost. Many people still have frequent and positive contact with neighbours.
There are therefore two ways we can explain this contradiction. The first relates to the tension between neighbourliness and privacy, the second to conflict and civility.
Finding a balance
Research shows that neighbourly support and interaction were particularly high in older working class suburbs. But so too were conflict and gossip. Everyone knew everyone else’s business.
Today, we are more protective of our privacy and expectations of neighbourly conduct have changed. “Good” neighbours are friendly but not too friendly, they keep a respectful distance but are there when needed.
This is a precarious balance based on an unspoken moral code. This makes breaches nearly impossible to avoid.
It also means we are less likely than ever to know our neighbours.
Social distance does not solve the issue of physical proximity. Neighbours may not know each others’ names but they learn a lot about each other nevertheless, some of it quite intimate.
This proximity requires careful management to prevent private lives encroaching upon others’ domestic spaces and causing offence.
It may be that neighbourly conflicts have not increased, simply that problem neighbours are now dealt with through formal channels rather than over-the-fence conversations. Low levels of social contact, coupled with the desire to maintain friendly distance and avoid conflict, renders people reluctant to confront offenders.
As a start, they may try to ignore the problem. But complaints to a third party offer a final resort, allowing complainants to remain anonymous and uninvolved.
A costly habit
The problem for councils, however, is that significant resources are expended in investigating petty disputes. Anonymous complaints also create an environment of suspicion among neighbours.
There is a possibility that the wave of goodwill exhibited during the floods will minimise neighbourly conflicts, or at least reduce registered complaints. But it may also create new sets of expectations about neighbours and new forms of conflict if these normative codes are breached. Time will tell.