Ferdinando Scianna / Magnum Photos

How Architecture Can Create Community — or Isolation

Anjulie Rao

July 08, 2024

Some housing developments connect people to their neighborhoods; others turn them inward

Some housing developments connect people to their neighborhoods; others turn them inward

Sitting on the stoop of my Chicago apartment building, an oversized maroon van outfitted with unusually powerful subwoofers cruises by, rattling my chest cavity; I see my neighbors outside on the sidewalk, conversing with the driver as he slows out front. Here, perched on the steps of a two-flat, my neighbors and I say hello, share our farmers’ market hauls, ask in on each other’s families. But in the depths of the pandemic lockdown, I learned how critical this stoop would become: Unable to see friends or family, this space was a place of comfort and connectedness, filling a cavernous social void. 

Also during this time, the author Kelly Pendergrast penned “Home Body,” a resonant essay about human interconnectedness and infrastructure. While she remarks on the numerous pandemic mutual aid groups that sprung up between strangers, or the personal communal exchanges of kombucha scobies and books, what is missing, she says, is an infrastructure that prioritizes community care.

Therein I confront the limitations of my stoop: Spatial and material configurations in architecture give rise to how we experience other people — for better or for worse — but much is still missing that might spin webs from individual buildings or apartments into broader relationship networks. I turn to Riken Yamamoto for some insight: The 2024 Pritzker Prize-winning architect was recognized for prioritizing communal spaces in his residential projects. His work, primarily in social housing developments in Japan and South Korea, physically carves “the commons” from large-scale residential volumes — in essence, creating space for community. 

Many of Yamamoto’s projects arrange dense homes in a plan that produces shared courtyards, outdoor walkways or rooftop decks; of his Jian Wai Soho complex in Beijing, Bloomberg author Kriston Capps wrote, “a massive housing development…is the sort of central planning exercise that seems intended to ensure that residents feel anonymous or invisible; to shore up a sense of neighborhood, the complex features sunken gardens, public plazas and lower-level commercial bays.”

Credit: Xiaolei Wu / Alamy Stock Photo. The Jianwai Soho complex, designed by Riken Yamamoto.

What creates a community?

We could learn plenty from such developments — but of course, we probably won’t. In the United States, small-scale development is often synonymous with connectivity; density typically connotes anonymous crowds. When larger multifamily buildings are constructed, community spaces like “amenity rooms” are luxury add-ons; high-rise “sky gardens” have garnered criticism for building greenspace for the ultra-rich. Community becomes confined to the building’s glass-curtain, or to the enclosed privacy of landscaped property lines. Amenity rooms everywhere, but not a drop to drink: Our current loneliness crisis prompts us to imagine new forms to build community and reap its benefits, which include safety, trust and shared prosperity. 

At its most basic, “community” connotes fellowship among groups that possess shared interests or goals — certainly something that can be accomplished by injecting a common area into a residential building. But at its best, community is rhizomatic, connecting individuals even if they’re part of disparate groups, and doing so in unpredictable ways.

Some of the work is accomplished by the vast, fluid networks held together by social infrastructure, including, as author Eric Klinenberg expounds in his book “Palaces for the People,” social clubs, taverns, church groups and more. Those types of “third places” have declined — a la Pendergrast’s systems that are “broken” — but we still find libraries, parks, schools and plazas, as well as athletic associations and neighborhood civic groups shaping and defining community. 

Amenity rooms everywhere, but not a drop to drink: Our current loneliness crisis prompts us to imagine new forms to build community and reap its benefits.

Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.” These types of spaces, he says, create economic growth, foster democracy and public safety, and more, but they also have dire consequences for civic and social circumstances if they are not built or maintained. 

“When social infrastructure gets degraded, the consequences are unmistakable. People reduce the time they spend in public settings and hunker down in their safe houses. Social networks weaken. Crime rises. Older and sick people grow isolated,” he writes. Loneliness epidemic, indeed. 

Some models to emulate

Injecting residential developments with social infrastructure like libraries and community gardens helps bridge gaps between property-based “community” and broader webs of social cohesion. Take, for example, recent affordable housing developments in Chicago that cap three new Chicago Public Library branches with affordable housing. On the city’s North Side, Perkins&Will designed the Northtown apartments: 44 units of senior housing atop a 16,000 square foot public library branch. Similarly, John Ronan Architects completed another, 44-unit senior housing-library combination. While both include private community amenities like roof decks, the strengths of the developments lie in their potential to connect older and younger people, residents with nonresidents.

Credit: Serhii Chrucky / Alamy Stock Photo. The Northtown apartments, designed by Perkins&Will.

Co-location — combining social infrastructure with housing — is, as New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman called it, “good urban planning,” but it is also good social planning. At a time when the CDC has classified elder loneliness as an epidemic that “significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity,” such developments can produce multigenerational social cohesion, doubling as a public health endeavor. Many urbanists similarly tout multimodal transit infrastructure as key to healthful communities not only because it encourages walking and cycling, but because it connects diverse people to each other.

The Lucy Gonzales Parsons development in Chicago’s rapidly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood, unveiled in 2022, transformed an empty surface-level parking lot into 100 affordable residences. The development was hotly contested by some residents who expressed concerns about traffic and building heights. But its location, next to the busy CTA Blue Line “El” station, as well as several major bus lines, made the site a prime candidate for the city’s Equitable Transit Oriented Development (eTOD) program, which provides incentives for developers to build affordable developments near transit hubs. The building includes indoor community space that bleeds outward into a widened, landscaped sidewalk plaza for lingering and mingling between longtime Logan Square residents, their new neighbors and transit riders.

That small move — a new sidewalk plaza — becomes an essential component of community node building. It has spurred new, expanded social infrastructure, including the forthcoming La Placita, a greenspace with seating and shade surrounding the transit station that will make the train station and surrounding businesses more accessible on foot. Such spaces, when combined with affordable housing, are essential, especially for low-income residents who are more often denied equitable access to affordable public transportation options. More frequently, affordable developments are constructed in areas with little transited-oriented social infrastructure like bus shelters and seated waiting areas: Who could forget the La Sombrita internet outrage of 2023, which whole-heartedly attempted to remedy a systemic inadequacy, the lack of bus shelters, with a minor intervention, a sliver of artificial shade? 

The building includes indoor community space that bleeds outward into a widened, landscaped sidewalk plaza for lingering and mingling.

A way to get through to NIMBYs?

There’s often intense resistance to new housing developments, but providing rich, connective, public elements might sway some NIMBYs and other naysayers. Especially if development is spurred by entities more deeply rooted in neighborhood life. Land trusts — nonprofit organizations that collaboratively steward and control land — create governance structures that pull residents into community organizing and negotiation. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Commission (DSNC) in Boston was formed out of an organizing effort 40 years ago led by community members who wanted to take control over their City-neglected neighborhood. Today, the Dudley Neighbors, Inc. land trust is governed by a board of directors comprised mostly of neighborhood residents. When such organizations are in charge of shaping residential spaces, they’re far likelier to create places with open arms.

Undoubtedly, there’s a difference between a building that fosters social connections and one that doesn’t. But we confuse matters when we think fostering social connections means delivering amenities for a select group of residents. 

While cities tend to sidewalks, parks and public spaces and developers concentrate on building private spaces from which people might need to emerge less often, what is too frequently missing is the space in between, the connective tissue that turns collections of buildings and green spaces into healthy, interwoven neighborhoods. Without political will to create in-between spaces, stitching buildings with strong social practices, we confront architecture's limitations. Land trusts, ideally, tap into design and develop democratic practices to foster strong bonds among neighbors that transcend physical space. We celebrate Yamamoto’s work not just for its ability to manipulate design toward community building, but for its ability to also take advantage of the existing political will to make these projects happen. The stoop is, after all, just a stoop.