Creating Community: Review of Sustainable Cities Collective’s Webinar on Urban Architecture

David Thorpe, webinar moderator and Sustainable Cities Collective consultant

David Thorpe

This post recaps a webinar in which evolveEA Principal Christine Mondor was one of three panelists discussing the role of architecture in creating healthy and livable communities. The webinar, hosted by Sustainable Cities Collective and moderated by David Thorpe, took place on February 25th, 2015.

The Sustainable Cities Collective #SustainableChat Webinar: Urban Architecture and Building Better Communities held last Wednesday was very successful. Our panel of experts covered the design, economics, sustainability and community related issues of the topic.
If you missed it, you can listen to a recording of the panel discussion here:


 These questions included:
  • “Can we re-program development around village greens, where people are using shared green space for better urbanism?”
  • “What is the distinction between soliciting community feedback and actively engaging the community in designing a project?”
  • “Is planning done TO a community, FOR a community or BY a community? Proactive vs Reactive Planning”
  • “How can we build smaller spaces that are healthier and greener?”

(Thanks to participant Marcus Busby for this list and some of the questions.)
There was also a desire to look at virtual versus social spaces, and the threat posed by the privatization of public spaces. There was agreement that when there are no market forces dominating the planning process there was a possibility of being more proactive.
We agreed that architects had a moral obligation to engage people in the production of healthy and liveable spaces. All panellists agreed that the provision of green space was crucial, with a great many benefits.

Different cities pose different challenges: in New York City as in many others there is the problem of affordability, which is being addressed by the current administration.
Fractal Cities tweeted that it was possible to build densely at around 4,100 people per square kilometre but still have half of the space available for green infrastructure.
It was particularly thought that architecture is increasingly becoming an interdisciplinary practice. It was questioned whether the training of architects is embracing this change, and whether students are trained in genuine community engagement techniques.


The conversation continues

The panelists are continuing to explore the idea of what a community is – that feeling of belonging – We are asking questions such as:

  • What do you think are the essential ingredients of a successful community?
  • Have you ever felt you were part of one, or do you feel part of one now?

For myself I value local amenities like community centres where people can organise their own events (I think they are called clubhouses in North America), religious and special-interest centres, schools, post offices, medical centres, local shops, bars and cafes (with spaces available for meetings), all of which are places where people can meet their friends and create social events.

Panelist Christine Mondor wrote afterwards:
“I think that we can unpack “a sense of belonging” by looking at how we construct identity. Do we feel part of a community because we live next to each other or because our kids attend the same magnet school? Because we’re both designers or because we’re both the same race? We each have multiple identities and multiple communities and not all of them are rooted in place.”

Tyler Caine noted that routine plays a part in the creation of this sense of belonging brought about by interaction
“–which is why I have come to feel like walkability is so important. I think community is a contact sport. One needs to be engaged rather than just supporting the idea. I am a big fan of Ray Oldenburg’s “Third Places,” referring to the main group outside of home and work. I think his list of things like the post office, dry cleaners,barber shops, coffee shops, pharmacies and bars comprise a series of regular uses where community interaction is promoted by default rather than on purpose. In his mind, these kinds of daily routine that promote local population mixing are critical.”
Christine also wrote:
“I think about dominant identities in our city… Pittsburgh experienced a diaspora in the 1970’s and 80’s as the mills failed. Common identity through proximity was no longer a possibility, yet some ties still bind. The Steelers football team has the second most valuable brand in the NFL (measured in revenue from licensed items) due to the exiled population forming the “Steelers Nation.” There are over 700 Steelers bars across the country, from Anchorage, AK to Key West, FL. Here is where fan identity trumps the need for proximity — ironically creating a network of decentralized places.”
“I think identity and belonging are wrapped up with values. Are we open and inviting to considering values other than our own? Do we only seek out those that share our values? Spaces that allow for people to exhibit different values without feeling threatened by the other make successful urban places (think of the medley of activity in urban parks). Conversely, I think that you can experience an extreme sense of belonging when you are in a place where others’ values are not visible (try being a Browns fan in a Steelers’ bar!).”
“I think of outdoor spaces as the former, and indoor spaces like community centres and special interest halls as the latter. I am going to think about this more.”
“I think healthy communities need both types of places. Places to be adventurous and places where we belong.”

Tyler concluded that:
“its’s definitely an interesting topic that can be examined from many different directions. I think that “belonging” and “community” can be mutually beneficial, but it doesn’t mean they are codependent.
“Though not the only way to enforce these occurrences and exchanges, I think walkability can be a powerful tool that makes these kinds of program types more readily used and used in a way that doesn’t have the disengagement of being in a car at both ends–because the walk to and from each Third Place only compounds the opportunities for further interaction.”
Underscoring the value of walkability, panellist Fleur Timmer quoted the example of Berlin where she said that the is a level of ambiguity over the access to private space, so that people feel that they can walk from one public space to another via private space, and this makes them feel more a sense of participation and ownership in the city.

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