06 May 2019   

3 mins read
Exercising in a group generally makes people try harder. Some thrive on the competition, others simply on the encouragement of a group. That shared, physical challenge can also go further, helping people build bonds and forge friendships.

Mel Grech knows it well. She's a personal trainer who, for the past seven months, has been running community exercise classes at residential communities, Cloverton and Highlands, in Melbourne's north.

"We see a lot of clients forming friendships, pushing each other to do better," Grech says. "Striving together helps bond people and give each other the energy to push through the class and use each other for accountability, to keep coming back."

Grech says the friendships formed have extended beyond the fitness classes and into the community, with a Facebook page set up and many of the group meeting for coffee or exercising together, independent of the classes.

The sessions – fitness classes from Monday to Thursday and yoga on Fridays – are free, and facilitated by the communities’ developer, Stockland. They’re part of Stockland’s ‘Live Life Get Active’ program, which also includes the community-focused Parkrun initiative, a weekly timed run at its Highlands community.

These are just a few of the tools Stockland is using to meet one of the key challenges faced by many modern developers of greenfield estates – creating community and cohesion, and enhancing liveability.

Penny Austin, Stockland’s sustainability manager, agrees that creating the same neighbourhood connections and sense of liveability that routinely occur within established suburbs in a brand-new residential community requires a lot of thought and structured implementation – particularly where early residents are concerned.

“If you’re a pioneer in a residential community, you are buying into a promise of sorts, but delivery of that promise can take a little time,” Austin says. “It can sometimes be five to 10 years before you have the full amenity committed to in the masterplan.”

To lay the foundation, Stockland uses five pillars to build community connection: belonging, connection, health and fitness, safety and environment.

Nevertheless, it can be difficult to integrate new residents into the existing community, she says. ‘Buddying’ those new residents with longer-established neighbours is one way to create those connections.

Another tool is holding regular development updates. Here residents can be connected with their Neighbourhood Watch group, for example, a classic community project that binds people through a shared goal. The developer also hosts movie nights and information sessions, featuring guest speakers, which Austin says are a great opportunity for residents to meet and socialise.

Nabin Sodari and his wife Tabitra moved with their two children, aged seven and one, from a 2-bedroom apartment in Sydney to a 6-bedroom home in Highlands in Craigieburn in 2016. Naibin says the family has enjoyed the convenience that Craigieburn and the Highlands community offers.

“The shopping centre is close to you, school is close to you for the kids, and they have a few parks,” he says.

The Sodari’s are part of a growing Nepalese community in Craigieburn, and have encouraged other families to move into the community.

“Once I moved in to Craigieburn, everyone was coming and visiting, they liked it and bought their own house and land and moved in … now we have a very big community.

“We catch up in the parks, sometimes outside of the house we have a chat,” says Nabin. “They’re loving it because everything is close to them and the community is growing bigger and bigger.”

To make sure the developer is hitting its targets, Stockland conducts an annual ‘liveability survey’ to seek feedback from residents which helps the development team focus its efforts and optimise the community masterplan.

The 2018 survey conducted at its Highlands community in Melbourne’s outer north, for example, questioned residents on their overall satisfaction (an impressive 97 percent), sport and recreation facilities, wellbeing and – crucially – how many new friends people had made, among other measures.

One of the most important strategies at Stockland communities is engaging in partnerships to create community programs that build connections. Austin says the company has partnered with about 12 providers, including Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Ministry of Food to showcase healthy cooking programs within local schools and the wider community.

It is also in partnership with the O Initiative, a body which installs water fountains in public spaces to reduce plastic water bottle use, as well as the National Theatre for Children to conduct targeted education programs based around STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) teaching and live theatre presentations on conservation and sustainable living.