Five Ways Architecture Contributes to a Sense of Community


A sense of community is intangible; it’s really more of a feeling than a measurable metric, and every community will have a different culture than even those right next door. But there are a few clear signs that indicate how strong the sense of community is. Richard Millington, the founder of FeverBee, a community consultancy dedicated to helping organizations build highly addictive communities, put it best when he said, “[Sense of community] is when people are really members of a community, they feel a strong psychological connection to that group. They sacrifice part of their own identity to accept, embrace, and then defend the group identity.”

Millington goes on to describe the benefits of having a strong sense of community which includes increased community engagement, an increase in customer loyalty and buying behavior, an increase in knowledge exchange and much more.

Unsurprisingly, architecture can and typically does play a critical role in fostering a sense of community. Everything from a building’s layout to the material of the floors, contributes to a  sense of community, albeit some elements are more obvious contributors than others.

At SHP, we’re not merely in the business of design. Rather, we see ourselves as community builders. This notion was born and sustained in an effort to embrace and incorporate community member feedback in many of our designs. We aim to foster a sense of community with every project we take on.

What follows are our top five ways architecture contributes to a sense of community (with some SHP examples, of course!):

  1. Preserving the Past: Architecture and design don’t just capture a moment in time; it preserves it for generations to come. We’re always thrilled when we have an opportunity to pay homage to the facilities that came before us, whether that’s adding our special spin on a space through the adaptive reuse of materials or infrastructure or pulling in elements that hold significance to the community. When SHP was tasked with renovating School Outfitters’ new headquarters, one of the things we kept hearing throughout the master planning phase is how much the client wanted to preserve certain elements of the building. They reasoned that the brick archways, the timber framework and the original fire doors offered the space a unique personality that would be difficult to replace. Though these elements were improved by SHP’s design team, they were not altered, preserving the rich history of this historic Cincinnati property.


  1. Predicting the Future: As we have all realized over the last several years, the future is rather unpredictable. Just a few short years ago, it would’ve seemed impossible to propose that hundreds of thousands of people across the globe could be working from home instead of in the office and meet—or even exceed—productivity expectations. But today, that’s just par for the course. So, when a district decides to build a new school, it isn’t as easy as just determining the right number of classrooms, bathrooms, and halls. Districts today are trying to predict the future of education to be prepared for the industry’s rapidly changing landscape. In 2011, Winton Woods, a minority-majority school district in Cincinnati, transformed its pedagogical approach and moved to a project-based learning (PBL) curriculum because that’s the approach they believe will best prepare students for the future of work. Since then, the district has supported PBL at every level, including the facilities that serve their students. From the school’s centralized learning stairs to the distributed dining service that brings food to the students, the design is centered around flexibility and adaptability that will allow educators the ability to grow and adapt alongside the students.


  1. Gathering and Socialization: Communication is a key piece to the sense of community puzzle. The core of every 21st Century school design should be to encourage collaboration and socialization wherever possible. One of SHP’s most cherished examples of this is Dover High School’s sunken courtyard, which connects the building’s main floor with the student dining area and media center. The courtyard is anchored by indoor/outdoor learning stairs and provides a peaceful area for students to work, eat, chat with a friend or simply be alone and clear their mind. The courtyard also creates a central gathering area for local residents as they attend performances, sporting events and community meetings.


  1. A Point of Community Pride: Within every healthy community, there are public spaces that support recreational, educational and community activities. Rarely, though, do these spaces simply serve as spaces to blow off steam; in truth, they often provide an essential community service. For example, the Boys & Girls Club of West Chester/Liberty, is a 31,000-square-foot structure which features a full-sized gymnasium with six half-sized courts, a performing arts stage with an adjacent control booth and sound studio, and art studio that supports clay, painting and drawing work. More importantly, the club provides a safe, consistent, supportive and fun environment for kids to effectively continue their educational, social and emotional growth outside of the traditional classroom. Lifting up the most vulnerable among us is certainly a higher calling that serves as a point of community pride.


  1. Life Experience: Architecture and design is nothing without people using and enjoying the spaces. Some projects have a specific use or goal and should be utilized as such, but other buildings have a more flexible function, such as a library. Contrary to popular belief, libraries are not just for checking out books and reading quietly, though that is perfectly acceptable. They are also a place to learn and experience, not only through the books on the shelves but the people there with you. Real-life connections are made every day within the confines of a library, all of which strengthen bonds within its community. Where else would you have access to college students, indigent and at-risk populations, armed forces veterans and preschoolers all at the same time and all under the same roof? But it doesn’t just stop at libraries. Great architecture will always inspire these interpersonal connections.

Interactions and experiences like these are happening every day in every community, all of which are enabled through architecture and design. But at the end of the day, it’s the people who create the sense of community. Architecture can only provide a vehicle for its conception. While SHP is proud to create new spaces where people can meet, work and learn, the greatest outcome is when these projects strengthen the bonds within their communities.

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