Collective Connects – August 2014

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Making Place, Designing for Community

Image Right: Copyright © Associated Students, Inc. BRIC Project

Design is integral to shaping the sustainable development of our communities and our habitable built environment. Using the comprehensive capability of design, spaces are transformed into places. Our communities vary by typology and comprise of occupational, social, or demographic groupings, however, while each inherently shares a collective purpose that differs by classification, in their core interactions and needs, communities reveal great similarities. This makes it possible to draw lessons and inspiration from wide ranging examples. By comparison, it is evident that their purpose and use, inform the physical amenities created to support the needs and sense of place and belonging for their respective users.

A well-functioning community is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon but needs a variety of distinct environments to achieve its intended purpose. A range and diversity of facilities, amenities and services are necessary to give easy access for life’s basic requirements such as home, work, recreation, hospitals, schools, retail and social services. All of these activities are integral to providing life balance and well-being for their user, which, in turn is essential for a community’s good health, high spirits and prosperity. All these components combine to give shape to flourishing and well-functioning neighborhoods and society. When these functional and physical criteria are fully incorporated in support of the community’s intrinsic nature, along with conscious awareness of the environmentally emotive and psychological impact, they provide a healthy combination of the qualitative benefits promoting a sense of safety, security, trust and respect. Ultimately, the most successful designed environments foster user ownership and pride, which in turn, help to maintain that very resource to grow deeper roots within the respective community. This is the innate challenge and required success of good design. To accomplish this is to materialize the sentiment of Elizabeth Farrelly as quoted at the beginning of this text.

To understand this balance of the quantitative and the qualitative, any types of communities can be studied. Various element of each typology can be swapped or transferred to another for insight. The contemporary workplace provides a clear example of a case in point.
With massive global change impacted by the environmental, financial and technological developments in the last two decades, the workplace has been the subject of a great deal of empirical investigation. The workforce, now almost entirely untethered from fixed technology, has ever greater freedom for the anytime, anyplace work syndrome. Efforts to satisfy generational shifts, employee flexibility, and ever increased productivity in the office have experimented with the transplanted incorporation of previously distinct activities and settings, such as the park or games rooms (slides/billiards /table tennis) and street (bar/café) environments within the office. Expanding beyond the workplace typology, historically defined settings from the domestic, recreational, social and clinical environments are commonly borrowed or interchanged, thereby, shifting expectations of behaviors of the formal/informal, the social/asocial and the private/public.
Copyright © The Shashi Caan Collective

Not surprisingly, studies have also shown that in order to build community and harness its power within the workplace, employees must be physically together and have opportunities of time and place, to exchange, and to be intuitively stimulated for spontaneous and regular sharing of knowledge and ideas. Clearly, regardless of all other considerations, human beings are and will remain our most valuable resource. In this equation, irrespective of the community typology, supporting and optimizing the human potential remains the biggest priority.

Across all industries, employers must find a balance with open and shared resources that support an individual’s need for identity and freedom. This is important both inside and outside the office. Employee engagement statistics poignantly highlight this challenge. According to a 2013 worldwide Gallop Poll, more than two-thirds of employees feel disengaged at work, which on a small-scale affects every business and on a large-scale results in hemorrhaging billions from the GDP of national economies worldwide. Providing choice and flexibility in the way people work is often cited as the biggest non-remunerated benefit possible. This is likely to only increase with such generations as the Millennials and beyond, who have innate technological knowhow, a need for self expression and determination, and to not be bound to any place for specific functions. For them, life’s activities seem to have different connotations.

While the office work environment primarily aims to deliver efficiency and productivity and to support and enrich those that produce it, the broader community, must provide in principle similar opportunities.

Our sense of place within a community begins and ends with the place we call home, a space that more than anywhere else is fundamentally important to an individual’s physical welfare as well as one’s sense of self dignity and role in the larger community. Whereas in earlier times the space between homes (yards and gardens/corridors and public space) was either planned for functional necessity or residual plot area, today we seek to more consciously plan and design those in-between spaces since they enhance the community and encourage its activities and interactions.

However, these ideas, just as at the end of the 19th century, are being challenged. Population growth, migration to urban areas, conflicting needs for existing land, and insufficient financial and natural resources are, once again, causing critical shortages in adequate and affordable housing. In addition to decent and safe housing, the Oxfam Humankind Index refers to safety, community support and health & wellbeing as aspects and qualities of environments that people need and seek and which are often missing.
Residential neighborhoods must provide for all ages, safe and well-connected housing, with areas for quiet and play, entertainment, recreation, retail, health and places for learning.
Housing providers are well positioned to include the kinds of services and amenities which could help give a new understanding of how places for living affect and improve the lives of residents. With reference again to the 19th century and the Settlement House Movement, there is a parallel with the then need to afford a range of social services and activities to under-served people. This would help to foster community and present opportunities for advancement. Today some organizations around the world have developed such a range of broader activities and have undertaken to give services that are not considered core social housing landlord activities. They have developed themselves frequently into commercially driven enterprises, typically in the form of public-private partnerships. Through these types of partnerships it has been possible to make available much needed community services that, in a world of shrinking government funding, were in danger of disappearing altogether. This alternative method of funding has helped to build strong, sustainable communities.

Amongst the need for incorporation of the qualitative essentials, one universal challenge is education. This is one of the most important investments and a rudiment to building opportunity, pride and well-being for the community.
The goals and ideals expressed by those espousing the merits of education are straightforward: to increase the quality, availability, and effectiveness of learning. The challenge is to take learning beyond formulaic constructs and to expand further into student-centered education. It is important to create an intentional structure for collective action and collaboration and to take proper advantage of new technologies and tools.

Copyright © 2014 University of Notre Dame Campus Crossroads Project

Various forms for the implementation of these ideas include both the old and new. Placing an educational hub in the middle of a community and actively engaging participation is one of the strategies to improve not only educational access and quality but also retention. As with the collaborative workplace, here too, the impact is broader, offering opportunities for trans-disciplinary, inter-societal and skills training / improvement, along with an experiential professional development. Additionally, at all times the school continues to be the center of community focused initiatives and a gathering place for the community at large. Many new purpose built facilities include spaces and features that support and enable such community activates.

These explorations of functional transference, which blur conventional typological boundaries, offer new experiences and a means to fostering culture change and fresh ways of seeing. A successful place is not only accessible to all but also safe and reflects a socially stable and resilient community. It provides people with ways to ‘bump’ into each other and make new acquaintances. It facilitates possibilities to come together as friends, neighbors and citizens, and creates a firm foundation that enables a neighborhood to resolve its challenges and problems, and to seize opportunities both social and commercial. One important factor for that community interaction is transportation. Without adequate transportation or proximity of the facilities, many of these opportunities are lost.

Copyright © SHoP Architects Barclays Center

The quote at the beginning stressed the importance of design in what today is often referred to as place making. Identifying and creating those places requires not just designers, but also communities of users or groups that help to create and appraise existing conditions and assets. This requires incorporating the expression and understanding of their hopes and desires. Ultimately it is these desires that a careful and purposeful design process must help to manifest. This can best happen with the collective interaction and collaboration required to create the desired and wanted wholesome communities, neighborhoods and environments. Jane Jacobs in her analysis and descriptions of her own neighborhood recognized and summed it up as follows: Cities (and towns) have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities)