Design Creating Community

Earlier this week an interesting question was posed on the CreateHere blog concerning “how design creates community”. Paul Rustand went on to further define the question as “how does making things right create a group of people living in close association with common interests and goals?”
To be fair, Paul was probably talking graphic design (hence his inclusion of a number of marks and logos). But since I deal in cities and buildings my mind immediately leapt to the design of the built environment. If we accept the broad interpretation of the question, then any of the New Urbanist developments can be offered as proof that design does indeed create community. The whole New Urban schtick is design driven: dense, diverse, walkable communities. Through regulating plans and form-based codes everything in the urban public realm is considered and designed.  What those tools help create are places that attract groups of like-minded people. In fact, a common interest of those residents happens to be design as practiced by the New Urbs.  Tangent Alert: Though the New Urbanism is for the most part a good thing, it is far from the panacea some of the true believers purport it to be. I'm sorry, but I have to hate on the New Urbs a bit: 1) I seriously think it's a cult 2) the architecture drips with nostalgia 3) their prime examples were all built in greenfields in the hinterlands, and 4) their land use may be diverse, but I’m not sure their populations are.) 

I could leave it at that, but it seems a bit of a cop-out to offer greenfield subdivisions as proof of the link between design and community. Besides, this blog is about Chattanooga. So, I offer an example that is near and dear.

Jefferson Heights, like so many other urban neighborhoods, languished during the post WWII sub-urbanization of our country. Issues of vacant and ill-maintained properties and the homogenization of socio-economic class are all too familiar. The potential jewel of the neighborhood, Jefferson Heights Park was underused, largely unprogrammed and contained only a modest pavilion and a couple of swings. But, in the grand tradition of Chattanoogans working together to fix things, the neighborhood became the focus of reinvestment by non-profits, the philanthropic community, private interests and most important, existing residents. Vacant and derelict properties were cleaned up and developed, salvageable buildings were restored, and existing residents offered assistance for repairs and maintenance. Over the past ten years the neighborhood has attracted hundreds of new residents and millions of dollars of new investment. One of the most remarkable things about the neighborhood is that it has seen a high level or investment and redevelopment but it has not been gentrified. In our 12 block area are African-Americans, Latinos, and Caucasians all of varying socio-economic conditions. Proof of that can be found in the faces of the dozens of folks found in the park at any given time. But did design create the community?
This was the conceptual plan for the
area around Jefferson Heights Park

3d Model of the conceptual plan.
The plan wasn't perfect, but it's heart
was in the right place.

Several years back, while at the Planning & Design Studio, CNE (our nonprofit housing organization) asked me to put together some design concepts for the park and surrounding parcels. The general program was to maximize residential density and project some improvements for the public space. My plan ended up projecting around 70 housing units focused on creating four edges of development around the park. Over the course of the next few years, vacant land around the park was acquired by Jefferson Heights Tomorrow (a partnership between the Lyndhurst Foundation, CNE and RiverCity). The park was redesigned, reprogrammed, and a design competition held for the creation of a new pavilion. Affected properties were rezoned to allow for the type of residential density that existed in the neighborhood, but was no longer legal under our current zoning. The land was then put up for bid in phases to the private sector via an RFP process.

Panoramic view of the new pavilion and the
western and northern edges of the park.

All of the lots that went through the RFP process had to be built to third party green standards and were subject to design review. The design standards included requirements for generous front porches, mass and scale that fit the context of the neighborhood, and substantial, active edges facing the park. The public realm improvements focused on pedestrian safety and comfort: narrow streets, on-street parking, and generous sidewalks. As with the New Urbs, Jefferson Heights is dense, diverse (in many sense of the word) and walkable- but I wouldn’t call it New Urbanism, simply urbanism. The design of the lots and homes is not a new condition. The scale of the new lots and buildings, and elements of new architecture are driven by the existing design of the neighborhood. So in a sense Jefferson Heights is a new community, not independent of, but evolved from a community that was designed a hundred years ago.

Before/after of Jefferson Street

Before/after of 18th Street
Before/after Madison Street
 As one can make the case that the design of streets, architecture and open space creates community one can also illustrate the point by showing how the poor design of those elements breaks community down. Had the lots, streets, and buildings been developed to suburban design standards the community would not have been created. The reasons are simple- lot standards would have meant far fewer people living there, standard street design would have provided far fewer opportunities for people to walk and interact, and the insular design of most sub-urban architecture precludes the opportunity for chance encounters with neighbors. Any community (as we have defined) that exists in a typical sub-urb does so in spite of, rather than as a result of the design of the place.
In Jefferson Heights, design has created a condition where there is population density, a comfortable pedestrian environment, an architecture that allows people to interact with each other, and a shared place for people to gather for pause, recreation or celebration. These conditions exist not by happenstance but because people understood the power of design to create community and planned for them in advance.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have done some work in the neighborhood including a plan, the pavilion and the housing phase that eventually became known as Madison Street (the first LEED Platinum homes in Tennessee). Though I have been involved in a number of projects, let me be quick to point out that there are literally dozens of other professionals and neighbors who have worked harder and had a greater impact on the neighborhood than I. My family and I are truly grateful to them because we now reap the rewards of their hard work.

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