Much has been published about the decline of public life and how sprawl is ruining the social fabric of our cities. Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was one of the first to really speak out about designing for people and community. In many ways, the Green movement of today has grown in response to issues of sprawl and the expanding of supporting infrastructure. By conserving energy, resources, and materials we are in essence thinking beyond ourselves to other people. This in and of itself is at the core of our neighborhood social fabric.
We are constantly bombarded with issues of sustainability, with most of the focus on conservation of natural resources and finding ways to limit our impact on the planet. While this is very important, there is an almost greater need for another type of sustainability: a socially sustainable community.
Much of the time, we fail to realize just how “good” something is until we no longer have it. It is no different with our need for social interactions: “Social bonds are the most powerful predictor of satisfaction. Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other neighborhood measures of quality of life” (Putnam, 2000). Not only do social bonds affect life at the scale of an individual or family but also at the scale of a city. Our cities suffer due to the lack of people involved in public life. Lewis Mumford, some seventy years ago stated that “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life” (Mumford, 1938). This generational trend of preference toward a private life is breaking down the social capital that our cities possess.
The development of suburbia has also caused a physical separation of functions which is readily apparent in the typical zoning ordinances as seen in most every community. Isolating uses detracts from the social interaction within our neighborhoods because there are not as many opportunities to cross paths with people in your community. We are seeing technology step in to fill this need. The social networking sites on our mobile phones and the Internet fill a need and desire that we all have to be able to communicate with our family and friends. I question whether social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace would even have existed without the social breakdown of our communities due to suburban development. These applications do for us what our built environments can no longer do – create opportunities for social interaction. The typical suburban life consists of a private home life along with a lot of alone time in a car to commute between home and work. If this is our typical lifestyle, there are limited opportunities to stumble across old friends or acquaintances. However good these social networking sites may be, they cannot solve the problem of a declining social climate as well as our buildings and streets can. Our built environments have something more to offer.
That something is people; real, live, flesh and blood people. Some have suggested that we are living in the experience economy (Pine and Gilmore, 1999) and that we all crave active participation in social interactions. The best way to be immersed and an active participant in social interaction continues to be a face-to-face conversation. It is only through this face-to-face interaction that we can read body language, hear inflections in the tone of another’s voice, and in general communicate more effectively. There are so many verbal and nonverbal cues used when we socialize in this manner.
Why focus on social psychology? Because as community designers we can have more impact on the social capital within our built environment than we realize. We may not be planning new cities and neighborhoods on the scale of Songdo City, Korea. We may not be breaking down the barriers of a gated community. How we affect the design a building or group of buildings can have more impact than one would think, because we are affecting the everyday social interactions of people.
How can we make space more socially inclusive? Take for example a typical office building tenant space, because we all spend a considerable amount of time at work. We must begin by analyzing a common layout. Typically, managers and executives want to have the ‘the corner office with the window.’ This means that the office space is designed with offices around the perimeter. Private meetings take place within these offices, so they must have doors, and most likely no window facing into the building. This serves to separate the executives from other employees, and in many respects, both of the groups’ social interface will reflect this. This then leaves the center area of the office as one large open workspace with the most efficiency gained by arranging cubicles in rows to accommodate all of the other employees. How might this typical office space be designed to be more socially inclusive?
Let’s look at the design of another office space. The space in question covers the entire second or upper floor of an office building. There are eighty to one hundred employees. With that many employees, one would think that it would be easy to encourage social interaction, but if everyone were located in one large space, people would feel less social because they would be intimidated by the sheer size of the group. To begin designing for social inclusion, you must ask yourself a few questions such as: What size group is too large that people will no longer feel as though they are an active participant of that group? How might the breakdown of these groups into socially inclusive “neighborhoods” better contribute to the organization and objectives of the company? What is the best way to generate social capital within a company?
Because, “many studies have shown that social connections with coworkers are a strong predictor – some would say the strongest single predictor – of job satisfaction,” (Putnam, 2000) the solution that was arrived at in this instance was to create four distinct neighborhoods. Each neighborhood, consisting of 20 to 25 people, was to be located in each corner of the office, visually separated from the other neighborhoods. Walls between desks were removed or kept low in an effort to open the space up. The intention was to create small enough groups so that everyone within that neighborhood can become acquainted with one another and develop good working relationships. The result is that these groups tend to become a mix of executives and employees who socialize with one another, including activities outside of the workplace.
Another example of an opportunity for social inclusion is a nursing home, or any residential building for that matter. The typical nursing home is designed with efficiency and the caregiver in mind. By arranging rooms along double-loaded corridors branching out from a central core, you have created the most efficient scenario from the caregivers’ or nurses’ point of view. Again we should ask some critical questions. Is this really what is socially best for the residents? Is there another way individual staff members could interact with fewer patients more frequently and develop stronger social connections? What social capital can result from residents developing strong ties with each other?
The plan discussed here is for a design of a facility that considers these questions. If you want people to develop some attachment and sense of ownership, it is important that the design reflect this. The long double-loaded corridors do not create a sense of place and do not provide opportunities for residents to get to know the person next door. By creating separate, smaller neighborhoods or pods that allow the rooms to face inward, you start to provide opportunities for social interaction. In addition, all of the services--such as medical supplies, dining space, nourishment center, and living spaces--are localized. Residents don’t need to travel as far to access the things for their daily use. This also gives them an opportunity to look out the door of their room and recognize other residents sitting in a common living space. By creating localized neighborhoods and sharing facilities on a smaller scale, you are in essence providing a neighborhood community setting for residents. The residents are then able to develop bonds with those that live and work around them and are able to look out for one another.
In a sense, we as designers of the built environment around us are all social scientists. If you start to think of yourself in that context, you will begin to consider people as the basis of your design. After all, isn't a neighborhood about bringing people together?
Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1938.
B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage, 1999.
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster N.Y., 2000.
Aaron Arbuckle is an associate at Architectural Nexus, Inc. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.