Community Place

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Author: Ben Roth

In designing contemporary cities, developers, policy makers, and concerned citizens tend to become wrapped up in the minute details of development. They have legitimate concerns with finances, time-frames, and personal interests. These areas of focus, however, tends to result in a less conscious form of decision making which favors profitability and short-term ideals over the functions that produce and sustain productive and vibrant places. Instead of putting effort into short-sighted development projects, municipalities must begin to focus intently on producing long-term solutions to typical urban problems through cultivating environments which convince people to make long-term investments. Creating intelligently designed shared spaces, hereafter Community Places, can reframe people’s ideas of their communities and encourage them to actively participate in both public and civic life.

The concept of identity is central to the idea of a community. Communities do not come about due to proximity, but rather through continued interaction, reliance, trust, and a convergence of goals. The design of a city must incorporate and encourage a sense of shared identity through its use of space. All cities exhibit a diverse set of inhabitants and intentions, so community places should be developed at the intersection of the functions fundamental to their respective cities. For example, university towns should encourage public exchange in areas where university life, local professional life, residences, and commerce converge. These people are going to converge regardless of the developmental circumstances, but it is those circumstances that decide the utility of the convergence; that is, whether or not the exchanges will become productive, encourage active participation, encourage development, or create a sense of purpose and belonging.

Community places can exist in a myriad of different forms, because the place’s utility always precedes the place’s use. If the place doesn’t provide purpose for all types of people, the place will not be utilized productively and the opportunity will be wasted. Productive spaces should aim to be conducive to public events, adaptive to personal desires, and encourage non-commercial personal interaction. They should encourage people of all backgrounds, intentions, and social stratifications, locals and outsiders, to ‘buy in,’ or to see oneself as an important, vindicated member of the community. From this idea of buying into the community stems the willingness and enthusiasm to play an active role in the betterment of the community through active involvement, ideas, and responsibilities.

People increasingly define themselves as ‘taxpayers.’ This concept limits their ideas about their role in society to that of an unwilling investor in a system that doesn’t provide many tangible benefits to themselves individually. Encouraging the idea of active participation and belonging through purpose-driven community places is a meaningful step towards changing this narrative. In order to achieve this city planners cannot passively design open spaces but must encourage intelligent use through smart placement, smart intentions, and smart adaptation. Regarding placement, these spaces must exist in logical locations; it is important that they are used organically and do not have to be encouraged. Regarding intent, it is necessary that they do not limit the use of the space to any group, but instead utilize socially aware (and respectful) design from top to bottom. Regarding adaptation, these projects are never completed, but should be consistently up-kept, monitored for changing uses, and adjusted accordingly throughout their entire lifespan.

Communities will continue to exist outside of legislative plans or developmental concepts. It is the job of public service members and their contracted developers to encourage productive community identity and involvement through intelligent use of public space. One of the more fundamental applications of this idea is that of the organic public gathering space, where, when designed intelligently and consciously maintained, strong communities are born. This should be the goal of any city official or developer.

An example of this principle at work: The Social Dimension of Nature in Cities