Understanding Communal Design

Architecture is by nature a balancing act between social and logistical dynamics, the paradox of architecture being that people not only shape their built environment but are in turn shaped by it. Therefore, design decisions have a monumental impact on community wellness- well-designed areas fostering a sense of belonging and recognition. Communal design, or participatory design, invites social engagement and responsibility. By repositioning the community as the focal point of the design, communal design can foster community ownership, accountability, and pride.

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Mission Rock communal space in San Francisco_©Steelblue/Perkins+Will

The Community as a Harbinger of Destiny

Kevin Lynch sums up the importance of communal design rather aptly in his book, ‘Good City form’. He states, “Impersonal forces do not transform human settlements…modification of settlement is done for the accomplishment of human motives…Uncovering these motives gives us the first clues between values and the environmental form”.  

Lynch lays bare the notion that a built environment reflects a community’s interests and ideals and prospects for design can only reach as far as the involvement of the community allows it. So, by extension, the community acts as a lynchpin to determine the success of the urban fabric.

Community Values and Their Effect On Built Fabric

Communities are focused on family, growth, and opportunity, while architecture can be used to provide said opportunities. Therefore, urban design can either bridge or divide communities. A good example is the rapid mushrooming of modern apartment complexes that have whittled away the role of residents as private market consumers alone and as a result, eroded traditional forms of social bonding and civic trust in these emergent neighbourhoods. Therefore, when considering communal design, it is, first and foremost, important to design facilities that help to create a sense of community and are specific to the region.  

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Division Of Urban Fabric According to Communal Design_©JohnThompsonAndPartners

Extensive efforts ensure community participation in architectural design, cultivating social capital and community spirit. The greater the community involvement, the stronger the associations between neighbourhood physical context, individual behaviours, and a sense of collective responsibility. The more tangible the sense of association, the stronger the clarity of purpose and direction shared by the community, and, by extension, the built form. For instance, the market-associated reforms in the late 1980s in China transformed the urban landscape to prioritize a socialist system of production and welfare provision. Urban fabric reflected the societal urge to assume a socialist direction: work units provided housing as social welfare; top-down governmental policies dictated community management and services to local neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods were homogenous, had a low homeownership rate, and were relatively static, offering little personal autonomy to individuals in community affairs, gradually widening to morph into feelings of disconnect and powerlessness at the inability to shape the circumstances of your chosen environment, contributing to the ultimate failure of the scheme. However, at the same time, the close integration of work, residence, and social facilities resulted in intensive neighbouring and strong social cohesion among residents that is not present in many capitalistic models of cities today.

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1980’s China, Socialist Republic_©Jo Inge Bekkevold

Defensible Space Theory

Newman conducted a study in 1972 proposing a direct link between the relationship between the built environment and community participation in a model of ‘defensible space’. He explained that certain architectural features (e.g., public space marker, greater visibility) reinforced feelings of ‘territoriality’ and a sense of community, which translates into collective responsibility. Consider as an example the feelings of solidarity one feels with their native hometown and the urge to defend it within public spheres. It was reported that neighbourhoods with a higher number of communal spaces, such as parks, cafes, etc., in the vicinity have slightly higher counts of community participation than in neighbourhoods with limited communal space. Small-scale neighbourhoods also have more active community participation. Higher levels of community participation were also reported in neighbourhoods where there was a higher degree of aggregate Informal Social Control (ISC).

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Small Scale Idyllic Neighborhood_©Steelblue/ Perkins+Will

Homeownership was shown to foster higher levels of community satisfaction as opposed to those areas without it. In other words, people are more likely to embrace architecture wholeheartedly if they feel like they have control over their immediate built environment. The mark of a successful public space is how long passers-by linger within it outside of what is necessary.

In terms of socio-demographic characteristics, evidence suggests that homeowners, residents with local residence status, those with a long history of residence, and the working population are more likely to be participants in community affairs.

The Impact of Communal Design

Shared Communal Space_©Asakura Robinson with R.G. Miller Engineers

Shared spaces in a neighbourhood, such as mixed-use spaces and multi-functional spaces, provide opportunities for passive and active contacts among residents which may otherwise be very limited in an increasingly more fluid society. These spaces allow users to get more acquainted and socialize, blossoming into shared engagement in communal activity and a desire to improve the neighbourhood/area. Communal design helps to provide a shared incentive to maintain common interests (land use, economic and social values) that motivate residents to act independently or collectively and increase the stability of the community and subsequently the built fabric.


  1. Think Wood. 2022. The Architecture of Community: How Participatory Design Builds Connection – Think Wood. [online] Available at: <https://www.thinkwood.com/blog/the-architecture-of-community-how-participatory-design-builds-connection> [Accessed 24 January 2022].
  2. Williams, J., 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/32893817_Designing_Neighbourhoods_for_Social_Interaction_The_Case_of_Cohousing> [Accessed 24 January 2022].
  3. Wilsonco.com. 2022. How Architecture Creates Community | Wilson & Company. [online] Available at: <https://www.wilsonco.com/how-architecture-creates-community> [Accessed 24 January 2022].
  4. Zhu, Y., 2022. PMC. [online] NCBI. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4665117/> [Accessed 24 January 2022].

A self proclaimed literary geek, Aiman Shahid has a soft spot for all things archeological. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she is currently surviving her third year as a student of architecture at N.C.A. She hopes to make her fellow architects feel less at sea ,one article at a time.