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Panel: Community

Housing, construction, and design were main topics at the ACE2016 Summit, but it’s important to remember that the official name of the event is “Affordable Communities Everywhere.” That represents a goal of not simply building more housing units to meet the needs of individuals, but rather, finding ways to build communities where both individual members and the collective group can thrive.

But what exactly is community? That was the topic of discussion in a special panel session where experts explored the role of community in affordable housing and how community can be achieved.

What Is Community?

In the most general sense, community is the land area where people live and where they are provided with the basic necessities of life – housing, food, and water. However, as our panel members weighed in with their own definitions, we discovered that community goes much deeper than that.

  • Community is a defined set of values, principles and priorities – the common identity of the group.

  • Community is formed through interaction among members, which builds trust and further carves group identity.

  • Community is also a shared landscape – infrastructure that can either enable or prevent the development of identity and trust depending on how it is designed.

How Design and Infrastructure Encourage Community

Building a community takes special planning because you need to build spaces where people can interact and solidify their common identity. If you design nothing but houses, workplaces and highway, you can’t form a community. Our panelists mentioned aspects such as schools, parks, art centers, theaters, sidewalks, bike trails, churches, cafes, and other places where people can meet and gather.

Design and infrastructure help form community because they help to build an environment that encourages people to share experiences. In the built environment, people can come together to express shared values and develop their common identity.

The Role of Trust in Building a Community

While design and infrastructure play an important role, panelists also stressed that it is people, not places, who create community. You can build infrastructure that is ideal for community, but if people don’t use those spaces, no community can form. You can also look at the worst slums and ghettos and find strong, dedicated communities. People create and sustain communities. And for that to happen, you need trust.

Near the end of the session, panelists were asked about how we can build trust into the system so designers, planners, architects, and housing specialists can help to build communities based on common identity. Several ideas were suggested, including:

  • Encourage Involvement – To build a community, you have to get input from the people who will live in that community. They must help define what is important to the community, and help to find solutions to problems the community faces.

  • Do Your Research – In addition to direct involvement, you must also do your research so you understand the people and the community you are trying to build. How you define and design a community may be different from others, so empathy and understanding are needed.

  • Rely on Honesty – You can’t build trust in the community if you are not honest with community members. You must be honest about the ideas you are considering, the constraints of the project, and about what is really going on behind the scenes.

  • Initiate Community Building – You can also take a proactive role in helping community members develop trust. For example, community organizers can help set up events, activities, and clubs that will help people meet each other. Trust will grow, and together the community will build a shared view of the future.

  • Allow Room to Grow –Instead of trying to plan all details with your own vision, you should leave gaps in the plan where the community can create itself. For example, leftover funds will allow the community to decide if they’d like a playground, or a park, or something else.

By the end of the panel, we emerged viewing community as a dynamic collection of values, priorities, experiences, and vision for the future – a common identity that is brought alive by the individual members that create the community. There are certain ways that architects, city planners, and other housing officials can help to build trust and community, like incorporating specific design and infrastructure elements and understanding the needs of individuals. However, in other ways, community building is the responsibility of the members who will make up that community. To be successful, we have to empower these individuals so they can build and sustain their own vibrant communities.