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Building to create community: the market is ripe

A recent article in Multifamily Trends reflects the predictions I made 11 years ago in my collegiate thesis project: in an era of hyperconnectivity, people increasingly yearn for places to live that will foster a sense of community. Further, success of certain current developments validate the notion that the built environment can play a role in fostering that social community.  Baby-boomers "really want to connect with their neighbors.  They want to find a community that facilitates that," according to Nanette Overly or Epcon Communities.  Living in a place which fosters social community, and has other desirable amenities has become more important than the traditional "more is better" equation.  "The sheer amount of square footage is not as important as the ability to live well while they're there." (1)


Rockford Falls in Wilmington, Delaware, offers access to a walking trail, state park, waterfront, and swimming pool.  Taking their inspiration (and materials) from the historic mill buildings on this and other nearby sites, the buildings create a strong sense of place.  c. 2008 Niles Bolton Associates

In her article, "Living with Style," (Multifamily Trends, 10:6, November/December 2007)  Kim Fernandez explains that communities with "lifestyle amenities" have weathered recent financial storms well.   Other key points from her article:

  • The homebuyer's focus was once on "price of the home, the location, the school system and the square footage," says Nanette Overly.  Rather than return-on-investment, boomers now look at "return-on-experience"
  • Condo and apartment developers are adding amenities which create opportunities for social interaction, in addition to lifestyle-specific elements.
  • Walking paths are the top requested amenities
  • Residents want wonderful kitchens -- nicely appointed, not necessarily large

In my thesis, I studied what programmatic functions and built amenities might contribute to creating those "opportunities for social interaction."  Essentially, my conclusion was that the goal should be for residents to "cross paths" as much as possible, and that the amenities should be arranged in a way that encouraged this.  Some of the facilities which might be co-located include:

  • Post office, or mailbox room
  • Day care facilities or playgrounds
  • Business center
  • Fitness center
  • Library
  • Internet access center
  • Coffee shops or lounge, from which all passers-by from the other amenities may be viewed
  • Outdoor park space

Again, a key factor is to incorporate these in a way where they are NOT private and isolated, but which encourage social interaction and lingering.  Even better if these are public facilities, rather than private mimicry:  a real post office, Kinko, Starbucks, Gold's Gym, and Kindercare integrated to the project.  

In some of our projects at Niles Bolton Associates, we are also including full-fledged bars at which some the apartment manager hosts weekly happy hours.  Often, we include mini-theaters.

A location in an existing urban center saves the developer the cost of crafting these amenities from scratch.

As it becomes more desirable to live in high-density environs, and more necessary, it is increasingly important for architects and developers to focus on the creation of quality social spaces.  They add desirability and safety to a project, and help to compensate for smaller unit sizes.


Jeremy Fretts is a designer of residential and mixed-use projects at Niles Bolton Associates, Alexandria, VA. 

(1) "Living with Style," Multifamily Trends, 10:6, November/December 2007, pp. 32-35.

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