Designing to Belong (Not Just to Be)

A Holistic Approach to Making My Neighborhood a Connected Community

by Randy Ripley, AIA on April 11, 2012

Tagged as: Gifts / Hospitality / Association / Generosity / Cooperation / Raising Children / Safety / Land/Environment

Isn’t it interesting how we sometimes pursue seemingly opposing values in the way we live?  You know, we find ourselves enjoying the biggest, the newest, the most clever and beautiful cutting edge designs, and then almost in the same breath, we long for things to be simpler, less complicated and at a slower pace—all with less burden in life.  We make statements by building our McMansions, but we would like one in a quaint and homey “Mayberry” setting.

I’m proud of all the personal amenities in my 5,000 square foot home, then I boast of its green features and “light carbon footprint.”  I need my gated entry with private fenced-in backyard pool and tennis court with deck and outdoor kitchen, but I want my neighbors to feel welcome and connected. 

While I’m not bashing any of these pursuits per se, they do seem to call into question the obvious dichotomy. 

What if, as a residential architect, I wanted to explore the idea that environmental design can help direct a more logical and fulfilling goal, one that meets my needs, while at the same time making my contributions valued and needed? What if I decided that community connection has more lasting value than self-serving materialistic accumulation?  What if I redirected my design pursuits toward the benefits of connection over impression?

What if we designed spaces to facilitate relationships with others in the neighborhood?

Having designed many homes for individuals in my career, my value system has shifted over the years.  Where the house and lot were once the sole scope and focus of my work, making the composition an end in itself, they have now become the means to a greater end.  Instead of the home being “the goal,” it has now become one of the tools to achieve the more valuable and sustainable result we refer to as community.

I have found that the way interior-to-exterior spaces are arranged and layered, and how certain features are strategically provided and placed, can create an environment that could help facilitate connecting relationships with others in our residential neighborhoods.

We hear a lot about form-based architecture, but this is focused on being human-use based architecture and the features that utilize an identifiable and familiar pattern language that establish a type of soul connection between the environment and ourselves—one where you know you like the feel of a space, but can’t put your finger on why.

I live in a typical middle class suburban neighborhood. One day my family and I were driving up to our house and one of my kids asked, “What are those people doing on our front porch?”

It turns out they were just neighborhood kids swinging on the porch swing.  But the feeling of invasion of personal space made me probe the question she had asked.  Would she have had that same reaction had the kids been, say, in the street in front of our house? On the sidewalk?  How about six feet from the porch? Three feet?

I noticed a similar reaction on another occasion when my wife and I were sitting on the front porch.  Some people we recognized from the next street over walked by on the sidewalk and I started a conversion with them from about 20 feet away.  As we continued to talk they walked toward the porch but stopped about 10 feet away.  We invited them to sit and after a few minutes I asked them why they had stopped where they did initially. 

“Well, I guess we didn’t feel comfortable coming any closer uninvited” was the answer.

Was he saying that certain activities and behaviors are naturally appropriate, and thus subconsciously feel “right,” in the invisible layers that start at the public street and go all the way to my “personal spaces”?  The question that stirs in me as a designer is this: Can I create an invitation to connect with others using spaces and features that will provide an opportunity to engage people at whatever level I so desire?

How could we create an invitation to connect with others and provide an opportunity for people to engage one another?

About seven years ago we built the aforementioned usable front porch on our house.  For the previous five years we had just had an entry door flush with the front façade of the house, and a four-foot square concrete stoop, all for the economy of the original builder.  With the original set-up there was no special layering, thus little opportunity for the casual connection that is fundamental in growing relationships.

With the porch came added opportunities to engage, and interaction among our neighbors changed dramatically.  Had we not created that feature, in that layer, I believe there would be a lot less community on our street. 

More interaction came about when one of our neighbors started pulling his grill out onto his driveway on Saturday evenings and informally inviting the kids who were out playing to have a hot dog. Parents were soon coming over and checking it out. There were no expectations and nothing formal -- just a non-threatening, almost non-verbal, invitation.   A simple element (a grill), strategically placed, has now become a welcome neighborhood tradition.

On another occasion, on a cool fall evening, a neighbor put a portable fireplace in his front yard, placed lawn chairs around it and invited whoever was around to roast marshmallows. It wasn’t long before kids and many adults were getting reacquainted on a deeper level than just the typical wave and smile as they drove by. 

We can provide the fundamental elements in our communities that will nurture a more healthy society.

What if we thought about and designed into our living environments all the possibilities for appropriated connecting activities in the layers between public and private spaces in our neighborhoods?  Could we not help create a healthier community? The connections that a Norman Rockwell painting so well demonstrates do not have to be lost to the good old days; we can provide the fundamental elements in our communities that will nurture a more healthy society.

This is not about trying to create forced engagements, or eliminating all private spaces, but implementing simple mechanisms that create opportunities for growing closer with no expectations or obligations attached, just being good neighbors.  For all the comfortable and uncomfortable feelings this would create, it’s about life on life. 

It’s ironic to see this type of innate and desirable connection happen in some of the lower economic areas of town, where residents can’t afford to build barriers between themselves with gated entries, backyard privacy fences and unusable manicured landscaped lawns. What they often have is a bald spot under a tree between houses, with an old wooden picnic table, chairs, a grill and a horseshoe pit -- and they build strong community as a result.  

While all of this may seem obvious or just common sense, take a walk around your neighborhood and look at built-in opportunities for neighborly engagement (or the lack thereof).  In most cases the streetscape is built for the economy of the original developer, not with community connection in mind.

If we feel that the sterile isolation in suburbia, often created by our blind pursuit of accommodating the automobile, comes at the expense of a connected community, then what can we intentionally design into our houses, yards and  neighborhoods to make them tools for an overall improved society?

I would suggest that we do some common sense observations and make a few priority adjustments by designing to belong, not just to be.

 

What structures exist in the front of your home or in your neighborhood that support neighbors connecting with each other?


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Home page photo: W Burris http://www.flickr.com/photos/billburris/