Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Social Capital, Health and Electronic Community in Public High-Rise Estates: An Australian Case-Study

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Social Capital, Health and Electronic Community in Public High-Rise Estates: An Australian Case-Study

Article excerpt


Atherton Gardens in Melbourne's inner northern suburbs is a typical high rise public housing development built in the 1970s at the tail end of the post war slum clearances. It consists of four towers, each twenty floors high, with ten flats to each floor, making a total of 800 dwellings and a population of between two and three thousand individuals. The estate is managed by the state government's Office of Housing, and provides housing for public tenants who meet strict eligibility criteria and who have usually been on a waiting list for accommodation for some time. Whereas the original plan for these types of public housing estates was to provide high density housing for low income workers and families, over time, as pressure has grown both in demand for public housing and for governments to reduce welfare costs, public housing estates have shifted towards accommodating the poorest, most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in the community.

Broadly speaking, tenants in the high rise towers are not only amongst the lowest earners in society, with the overwhelming majority reliant on government payments as their only source of income, but also face multiple other factors of disadvantage. Many of the residents were born overseas and have come to Australia as refugees and asylum seekers from Europe, Southeast Asia and most recently Africa, with all the trauma of dislocation, displacement and uncertainty that that entails. They face barriers of language, literacy, lack of formal education, social isolation, cultural adjustment and racism in establishing a new life for themselves and their families. Other residents who were born in Australia find themselves living in public housing due to any number of factors which can include substance abuse, domestic violence, mental or physical ill health, unemployment, lack of education, crime and intergenerational poverty. Most of the families living at Atherton Gardens are headed by a sole parent. Tenants speak more than thirty languages and come from more than 70 different countries.

In the face of a rising tide of gentrification of the inner city suburbs which surround the highrise estate, an innovative social enterprise decided back in 1999 to initiate a project to increase access to technology for public tenants. InfoXchange, a not for profit internet service provider, began working at Atherton Gardens, setting up a unique computer network initially known as Reach for the Clouds and now known simply as e-ACE (the electronic Atherton Community Enterprise)1. This project has grown and developed over the years, involving partnerships and contributions from all tiers of government as well as private businesses and not for profit organisations.

The project has involved the refurbishment of donated second-hand internet ready computers and provision of these to residents for free providing a certain minimum number of hours of computer training is undertaken. In addition, the entire estate has been wired with high speed data cabling, and free access to an estate intranet and world wide email has been provided. A helpdesk and computer workshop have been established in a vacant flat on the estate to provide ongoing hardware and software support. Training in the use of the internet is also available, and on completion, residents can establish a low cost internet connection from home. More recently, with an upgrade in the connection between the estate and the wider world, the low cost unlimited high speed broadband access which some online games and movies require has been made available. There is an ongoing attempt to establish a small enterprise using the infrastructure which has already been set up to provide a revenue stream to ensure the sustainability of the network.

The research

In 2001 Swinburne University began a three year study into the effects of the computer network on residents' lives. Our research, called Wired High Rise2, investigated not only the immediate impacts of computer access and network availability in the home, but also more diffuse and long lasting changes in aspects of residents' lives which can be grouped under the rubric of social capital. …

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