On September 24, the IIDA and KI sponsored an event called, “Community as Strategy: Designing for Place, Purpose, and Profitability” as part of a six-city tour. The event brought together a panel of experts to explore community as a strategy, and the ever-evolving imperative of connecting people with place. Each of the four panelists shared their unique experiences as clients, placemaking experts, designers and developers. Although their work and clientele varied, they shared common goals in their work: to establish community and instill a sense of purpose.
Why is Community Important?
Loneliness is currently a public health epidemic linked to deteriorated health and premature mortality. Research studies have shown that lacking social connection carries a risk that is comparable to smoking up to fifteen cigarettes per day. There is also evidence that social connection influences a variety of mental and physical health outcomes. For example, people who are isolated often suffer from an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia. As humans, we crave social connection, and as designers, we have the power to facilitate those relationships through our design work. Often, “community” and “place” are terms used interchangeably, but some communities are built in the absence of place, and other places can even discourage us from connecting altogether.
Out of the Goodness of Our Wallets
The discussion covered a vital factor: profitability. While altruistic, it is crucial to understand and accept that finances play a significant role in design and life. As designers, most of us want to make a positive impact on users through the design of smart, sustainable and beautifully built environments. However, we all must accommodate budgetary constraints that drive many of our design decisions. They can potentially limit our vision and choices, push us to problem-solve ways to achieve the goal despite the restrictions, or force us to eliminate the design. There is a significant correlation between profit and a sense of community. When considering space, designers are tasked with space planning and creating ways to activating the space itself.
To truly activate a space, designers must successfully engage with users in the early stages of design to assess needs and desires to help provide a sense of comfort. In doing so, this means that users will be more likely to revisit and bring others, leading to financial profit for the client. For example, students who feel excited about communal spaces will attract more students, which means increased enrollment applications, donations and sponsorships. For a developer, activating a lobby with a café that draws both building tenants and outside visitors can increase the likelihood of tenants to renew leases, encourage leasing interest by outsiders, and boost overall profit margins. While the design result for both examples is community-building, the driving factor is profit. As designers, we can encourage our clients to focus on building community, if not for public health and altruistic reasons, we can help them see the potential boost in profit.
Loss of Place, Loss of Community
When it comes to design, it is crucial to include the client, understand their needs, brand and culture, and ultimately provide a solution that truly serves them. However, this can become challenging when trying to build a community within the community. In a university setting, leadership often takes the lead in deciding how a space should function and appear for a diverse set of users, including faculty, students, visitors, and staff.
During the event, Cheryl Durst, IIDA Executive Vice President, made an important point regarding the role of designers, emphasizing how we must learn from the past, design ethically and sustainably in the present, and innovate for the future. Projects will require that designers create subsets of communities within a larger community, but we must be careful to design without causing barriers or assuming that each community will function in the same way.
What Will “Community” Mean in the Future?
Our cities are rapidly changing, and it is expected that by 2050, most people will be living in urban areas. Unfortunately, people are being priced out of their neighborhoods, and with gentrification, we see the loss of character and culture. People are fighting these changes and finding ways to reclaim their homes and neighborhoods. Doing so helps to empower them and give them a sense of purpose, and ultimately helps them preserve the history and culture of their communities.
The future community will be more engaged and diverse. They will want to have a seat at the table, where they can play more active roles in policy and design decisions. I firmly believe that community-driven design processes will lead the way because people change cultures, people bring diverse and valuable perspectives, and people activate place. The character of a place is shaped by the interactions of its users to the place itself and each other. We all interact with the environment and each other at different scales, and often simultaneously, which makes us important stakeholders in the type of environments that we will inhabit and how those environments can support our ability to connect with others.