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October 25, 2007

Designing places for people to meet

  • To draw neighbors together, designers are creating spaces and situations to encourage and promote interaction.
  • By RAY JOHNSTON
    Johnston Architects

    Photo by Will Austin
    Gathering spaces can be found at the Boulders at Green Lake townhouses, with its cluster layout anchored by an old cedar tree.

    With today’s multifamily trends, communities are no longer defined by suburban streets and white picket fences. From clusters of townhouses to high-rise condos, people are living closer together physically but farther apart socially. Many neighbors don’t recognize each other, even though they share an address and maybe even a wall.

    These trends shouldn’t define the neighborhoods of the future. As the demand for multifamily projects remains high, designers are finding creative ways to integrate meaningful spaces that encourage a sense of community, whether your next-door neighbor is across the street or across the hall.

    At a minimum, “community” can be defined as a group of people who share parts of their lives through daily interaction. People living within a thriving community develop bonds that go beyond mere acquaintance, and that adds a richness to life for which there is no substitute.

    Community can’t be built; what can be built are spaces and situations that encourage and promote interaction. These spaces come in all forms. Multifamily complexes can center on a water feature, a nearby park, a common yard, a special tree or a barbecue patio.

    One local developer recalls a time when he and his young family lived on a houseboat on Lake Union. Neighbors would come and go along the dock, available to stay and chat or simply smile and wave hello. Dinners would develop spontaneously, kids would play together and affiliations would form over one issue or another, broadening the sense of belonging. This is the true meaning of community.

    Photo courtesy of Ray Johnston
    Located in Seattle’s energetic Fremont neighborhood, four pairs of townhouses are clustered around Water Street, a lane designed specifically for pedestrian activity.

    Seattle’s Johnston Architects is designing Newcastle Trails, a highly sustainable project that will encourage interactive multifamily life in a mostly single-family neighborhood. Set in a unique wetland environment, it will have 25-30 detached units clustered around several courtyard greens. It will have a multipurpose commons structure, play areas, open space, trails, pathways and a private road connecting Coal Creek Parkway to the Milepost neighborhood. Newcastle Trails integrates the wooded natural surroundings and a community-oriented design with urban amenities just around the corner.

    Johnston Architects also has two beachfront projects in the works that aim to inspire a sense of community. Both located near Westport, the Cohasset Beach coastal “village” and the Forrest Street Cottages are designed to incorporate social interaction, with paths that wind through the residences, leading to shared fire pits and play areas for children.

    Designers are focusing on creating opportunities for social contact even in more urban settings, trying to find a confluence between the ultimate in city living and a close-knit village feel.

    River Park is a cluster of four buildings in downtown Redmond designed by Tiscareno Associates, Callison Architecture, Johnston Architects, Jeff Krehbiel Associates and Hewitt Architects. The project integrates park access, shared courtyards and an urban streetscape to promote community.

    Downtown Seattle’s eco-friendly 5th and Main building offers urban luxury with common spaces that draw people together. Amenities include an expansive veranda, a lounge and a fitness center. And, because people often bond over their pets, there’s also a dog walk, where man’s best friend might just help his owner make some new ones. According to its Web site, 5th and Madison’s dog park will also have an adjacent half-acre “people park.”

    Interaction can be encouraged in smaller ways as well, simply by making room for communal space along entry paths and creating alcoves and way points along hallways for neighbors to gather, recommend a book or movie, or maybe even borrow an egg. The important thing is that these spaces — in whatever form — exist. Without an opportunity to congregate, people are more likely to keep to themselves.

    Community is not dead; it just may have been neglected, and it’s starting to make a comeback. From urban townhouses and condo towers to coastal villages and wetland developments — and even that picket-fenced house in the suburbs — opportunities to love thy neighbor (or at least get to know him) are sprouting up everywhere. So put the coffee on; company’s coming.


    Ray Johnston is a founding partner of Seattle’s Johnston Architects. With more than 20 years of experience, Johnston believes firmly in interdisciplinary collaboration, environmental sensitivity and the importance of a strong sense of community.



     

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