Shared spaces for community – what we learned
Recently, we have completed work on a residential housing project for social housing tenants. (Read more about the project here)
A key focus of the work was to understand and help the architects design shared spaces, and more than that, community. While this was a unique project, with unique challenges, it brought up broader questions around what makes good shared spaces, and whether the built environment can create social harmony. Here are three things we learned.
First, do no harm
While social cohesion, or even community building, is a noble goal, it has to be put in relation to the social capacity of the residents. For example, typically, social housing tenants experience more challenges than others in terms of mental or physical health, financial disadvantage, domestic and family violence etc. Designing spaces that are reliant on active participation or require frequent social interaction can be challenging for some residents and may achieve the opposite of their intent. Rather than building community, they may discourage residents to use the spaces, and at worst put residents’ mental health, and others’ safety at risk. The first-no-harm principle must apply to everyone on the project and it is important to engage both with residents and the professionals who work with them on what the ‘right’ amount of community is. First-no-harm may look like not having shared spaces at all or using them very differently than initially intended (which was the case in our project).
Research demonstrates that the level of control a resident has over their environment is linked to wellbeing. Our interviews and observational research with tenants confirmed the human need for autonomy. It might be tempting to design exciting experiences for tenants but it is actually the ability for them to choose for themselves which level of interaction and engagement they would like, and how they would like to use a space that is crucial for community building. In our strategy we suggested different ways for individuals to influence their environments, from garden beds to flexible spaces, and it was welcomed with positive feedback.
Our research found that community emerges when there is a shared purpose, a reason for neighbours to engage with one another. A friendly chit chat acts as a social lubricant, but it was those interactions with real purpose that grew stronger social bonds, for example, one neighbour doing the shopping for the other, building a shared garden together or even simply getting the mail for sombody else. While it is the norm today to design for maximum privacy and as little dependency as possible there are also positive effects that come from reliance on neighbours.
Naturally, every community and place is unique, but these learnings are applicable to other contexts, too. Community emerges when individuals are respected, and safe, when they have autonomy and when they have a reason to reach out or interact with others. We hope more shared spaces will be built around these principles, social housing or otherwise.