Creating a Sense of Community by New Urbanist Design

What is the key factor that makes some neighbourhoods friendly and social, and others alienated and detached? Is it the wealth of its inhabitants, or the size of the community? Is it impossible to create a strong sense of  community in a big city or in wealthier neighbourhoods? I don’t think so, because there are some design features that can foster community attachment, facilitate social interaction, and create a sense of community identity.

Very similar houses in traditional suburbia (click to enlarge); photo by San Diego Shooter

When speaking of residential areas, people usually think of conventional suburban developments with very similar single family houses on large lots, isolated from commercial parts of town. From a bird’s perspective this tame environment looks like it would make a foundation for a very close-knit community. However, as it’s became evident throughout 20th century, high car dependence, one of the most prominent characteristics of suburbia, causes a number of problems – economical, environmental, health, and – social. People never get the chance to see their neighbours and develop a sense of community.

Infinite repetitive pattern; photo by Janek B

New Urbanism is one of the closely related movements (like Regionalism, Environmentalism, New Pedestrianism and Smart Growth) that emerged since the 1970s and 80s, offering solutions to problems of suburban sprawl. It promotes mixing residential, commercial and public spaces; mixing different housing types; narrow lots; pedestrian friendly streets; and celebrating local history, climate, ecology, and building practice. One of the promises of New Urbanism is that such design features should create a sense of community.

Kentlands, often considered a prototypical new urbanist community; photo by EPA Smart Growth

Kim and Kaplan (2004) examined that hypothesis by comparing two differently planned communities in Gaithersburg, Maryland, U.S.

Orchard Village is a traditional suburban development with wide meandering streets, large lots, open grassy spaces and wetlands, and primarily with condos and houses. The houses are similar in style and type, set back further from the street, with garages in the front.  Although Orchard Village has clubhouse–recreation facilities and picturesque wetlands, it does not have local retail facilities, such as shops and restaurants, a church, an elementary school or a children’s center.

Traditional suburbia – lots of houses and grassland; photo by Scorpions and Centaurs

Kentlands is prototypical new urbanist community characterized by: a mix of homes, retail, office and civic uses within the community; higher densities and a wider mix of housing types; narrow streets; houses on small lots and with narrow setbacks from the street; architectural elements like picket fences and front porches; garages in the back of the lot; and plenty of sidewalks and footpaths.

It also has an elementary school, church, children’s center, a clubhouse–recreation center, two major  shopping centers and 100 acres devoted to public open spaces like tot lots, tree saves, common greens, lakes, and parks.

Kentlands (new urbanism) – high housing density, mixed housing styles; photo by EPA Smart Growth

Authors found that physical features prototypical of new urbanism were associated with a greater sense of community than features of a traditionally planned suburban subdivision. In Kentlands, written comments such as “This community is my home” were frequent.

Kentlands – pedestrian friendly street, mixing of residential and commercial buildings; photo by EPA Smart Growth

Kentlands residents often mentioned that walkability or easy access to community services (such as the shopping centers, elementary school, clubhouse and lakes) is a major strength of Kentlands. A popular sentiment shared by many residents is an appreciation for visual qualities that remind them of their favorite childhood environments (colonial houses, picket fences, porches). Subjects identified those elements combined with shared common spaces and connection to nature as contributing to a sense of community.

Kentlands (new urbanism) – porches, picket fences, pedestrian passage, houses close together; photo by EPA Smart Growth

On the other hand, the social impact of new urbanist design may be so strong that many subjects indicated that they almost felt forced to interact with other residents as a consequence of the closeness of homes, ample porches and proximity of sidewalks to houses. Beside lacking privacy, Kentlands residents surprisingly often complained about the lack of civility during occasions like board meetings. As it usually happens in tight communities, conflicts tend to get emotionally charged and personal. Just remember town meetings in Gilmore Girls.

Traditional (fancy) suburb – large lots provide privacy, but you need a car wherever you go; photo by Feuillu

In choosing where to live, residents of the new urbanist neighborhood (Kentlands) placed a higher value on sense of community than residents from the traditional suburban subdivision (Orchard Village). This indicates that new urbanist solutions are not equally applicable to all people – some don’t want to live in sociable neighbourhoods and might seek more privacy. And as we’ve seen before, even those people who initially choose neighbourliness, might lack privacy at some occasions. It’s evident that new urbanist design offers efficient solution of social isolation. But the next challenge is to offer flexible degrees of sociability and privacy in order to meet the residents (varying) needs.

References

Kim, J. (2000). “Creating Community: Does The Kentlands Live Up to Its Goals?” Places (Special Issue in New Urbanism:  The Promise of New Urbanism), 13(2), 48-55. (link)

Kim, J. and Kaplan, R. (2004). “Physical and Psychological Factors in Sense of Community: New Urbanist Kentlands and Nearby Orchard Village.” Environment and Behavior, 36,3, 313-340. (link)

http://www.newurbanism.org/

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