Can communities really be designed?

Tyler Caine
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There’s a school of thought that believes the deft hands of designers and planners can toggle the many spatial levers they have at their disposal to create a sense of community in a public or private space. But how much power do they really have?

This was one of the underlying questions within the discourse on a recent webinar that targeted how designers can engage in progressive community development.

I had the pleasure of being joined by fellow panelists, Christine Modor and Fleur Timmer with moderation by author David Thorpe. Titled: Urban Architecture and Building Better Communities, the discussion fielded questions on the role of architects and landscape architects in helping to craft useful and coveted community spaces. A recording of the webinar, organized by the Sustainable Cities Collective, can be listened to by clicking here.

While I enjoyed the exchange, it seemed like we kept poking around a deeper question of where are the limits of the effects of even the most talented designer when it comes truly fostering community and how much of it is the result of a collective and organic process of the community itself?

On its most basic level, most designers would agree that the definition of space through how we design our buildings ultimately affects the actions performed therein; that the space helps to influence the society that uses it (and vice versa). However, after that broad statement the particulars can get a bit blurry as to how much of the community result is designed for communities or by communities.

As mentioned in the webinar, taking a look at some public spaces that are arguably very successful at creating and representing the “community” can come up with some relatively simple designs.

Whether it is the curved stone steps of New York’s Union Square that create the multi-functioning stage of nearly constant activity for 14th Street or the traditional Italian piazza, the biggest moves can be the simplest moves–maybe even as simple as dedicating the space for unprogrammed, public consumption in the first place? These examples of relatively light-handed influence can produce great results.

The other side of the coin would be highly articulated spaces like Olmstead & Vaux’s Central Park or even the recently completedHighline, both in New York City. While neither of these very different parkscapes foster a singular type of activity and use, they both go to great ends to reveal if not prescribe the uses of portions of their environs. Yet both of these parks are also integral in the definition of their respective neighborhoods and communities.

But maybe some of the most integral components are not the things that define the space within a community space, but the programmed spaces around it that help determine its future use.

The balance of the program from residential to commercial creates a composition for fueling the currents of people who lend purpose to available space.

Would the cobblestones of an Italian piazza attract a market’s purveyors and customers without the church that opens its doors along one of its edges?

Would Union Square gather its crowds and performers if not for the 24-hour commerce and transit that circulate around its perimeter?

Would the Highline be one of the most unique linear parks in the would if it was not snaking through the buildings of western Manhattan a story and a half off the ground?

For cities that want to more carefully craft their community spaces, designers may have to be coordinated into a role that extends beyond their commonly assumed scope to include a broader plan of not only what lies within a space, but what borders help to define it.

Our panel discussion also prompted reflection on the role of public/private partnerships in helping to shape community spaces.

Maybe that union spans across the lines farther than merely the municipality managing the space and the private interests who manage their own around the edges, both the spaces on both sides of the edge as well.

In any case, some part of the solution needs to be all parties taking their hands off the wheel enough to allow the community to work its magic and help create its own fate. When it comes to “nature vs. nurture,” maybe it’s a bit of both.

This article is published in collaboration with The Sustainable Cities Collective. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Tyler Caine is an architect exploring the possibilities for how sustainability can be woven into our lives. 

Image: New homes sit next to undeveloped lots. REUTERS/ Mike Blake. 

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