From "Facebook connections map the world" from BBC
Ok – so lets get this straight. A community is not a place or a website. A community is a group of people, connected by a complex web of shared needs, that are satisfied by active exchange (or transactions) within the group.
Think about all the needs you have. How many can you solve all by yourself? Not that many right?
A diverse and active community is likely to have complex and multilayered needs and a high rate of exchange – buying and selling goods, telling and listening to information, watching and showing off, etc.
In our cities and towns, people travel to particular destinations like town squares and active main streets to undertake these transactions. These are places that facilitate exchange and satisfy our variety of needs in complex ways.
The web is also made up of destination websites that facilitate exchange. Sites like Facebook and Amazon are great examples of digital places that act like town squares or main streets, and provide the infrastructure to satisfy multiple needs in complex ways.
In cities, we create and manage thriving, delightful places that facilitate and enhance interaction and exchange. These places are designed and curated to satisfy a variety of needs, to engender certain types of behavior and interaction, and to produce certain feelings and emotions. We call it Placemaking .
Placemaking for Community Building
I talked to Kate McMahon – Director of Placemaking at Melbourne’s Village Well – about active communities, and she described the urban designers go-to example – a buzzing little town square.
She says, “there are lots of mechanisms for exchange going on here – shops to buy groceries and objects, cafes to grab a snack or a coffee, street performers and pedestrians to watch, posters and notice boards to get information – that attract a diverse array of people for a variety of different reasons”.
In addition to these core transactions, there are lots of other incidental exchanges (or ambient participation) happening, just because of proximity and because people are coming in contact with each other.
She adds, “people are sharing gossip, watching a performance, holding the door for each other, smiling at each other, noticing what each other are wearing, how people carry themselves, how they behave – information is being observed and shared, memes and trends are being generated and regenerated. It is an active community because people need each other, they need stuff from each other, and they can come to this place and have the majority of their needs satisfied by a series of simple social exchanges”.
These active places also tend to be highly programmed and managed – either by an elected group of vested interests, or a self selecting group of active community members. Ensuring that there is a diverse mix of opportunities to stimulate the senses, attractive places to sit, shop, eat and share information, and that people understand and operate within the socially accepted norms of that culture.
Isolated By Satisfaction
At the other extreme, we have the urban designers worst case example of an inactive community – a sprawling suburban housing development. These are often conceived at the hand of a developer, a designer and a branding expert, are built from scratch on fields or farmland, and tend to be more mono-cultured and have much flatter rates of community exchange activity. These cookie cutter developments tend to be designed to serve only one critical need – to house small groups of people in large buildings.
McMahon says that to the detriment of local community; “these houses are often so self-contained and self-sufficient that the people living there don’t have many needs that can’t be met within their own personal space – and when they do need stuff, they are encouraged to get in their car or on the internet and find it elsewhere, outside their local neighborhood”.
The inherent need to engage with a local community, and the opportunity in many places, just doesn’t exist, designed out by an overabundance of personalized solutions.
So how do we “Make Place”?
Placemaking isn’t just about the designing the bricks and mortar, it is a collaborative and responsive design process that creates welcoming and robust places. The core principles* focus on:
- People – understanding the people who use the space, and encouraging people to engage in collaborative decision making to feel empowered to shape and maintain their environment.
- Context – analyzing and understanding the context of the place, what makes it distinctive, it’s history, and how it’s use changes over time.
- Program and Product – curating or “programming” the place with activity. (This includes the types of tenants or businesses, the type of artwork, markets, street performers, etc.) and the products or infrastructure that is provided to support it (eg. Seating, lighting, play equipment, bathroom facilities, signage, etc.)
- Access and Connectivity – Refers to how the place is connected into movement, communications and ecological systems.
An understanding and enhancement of these critical factors is most likely to produce great thriving destinations that people love.
Digital Placemaking for Online Community Building
On the web, like in cities, we need to create great thriving digital places. Like town squares, websites are destinations for activity. People visit them to satisfy needs, and form communities around that meaningful transaction of engagement. Using the principles for placemaking in the city, we can reinterpret the transactional functionality of the web to build digital places that engender more engaged and thriving online communities.
We’re all experts!
One of my favorite things about placemaking is that everyone can be an expert – because we can all be experts in what makes us satisfied. We may not all use the same language to describe things, but with some guidance, we can all describe the ways a place meets our needs. Think about it next time you are somewhere that makes you feel really happy and ask yourself why? Look around, and consider:
- Who are the people you sharing this place with? Are there parts of it where some groups go and others don’t? Who enforces that?
- What are the needs you are having met by being in this space? What makes it special and distinctive for you?
- How do other people use this place? How do you think the space is used at other times of day or night when you’re not here?
- How did you get here? If you drove and there was no parking, would you go somewhere else instead? How do you think other people arrived? Did you feel welcome?
- Watch how other people more around the space, start to notice where they sit, what are the prominent colors, what it sounds like. Chances are, all of these things were designed by someone to make you feel exactly what you’re experiencing.
Then, next time you are on a great website, use the same filter to start to think about it as an online place and consider:
- Who are the people you sharing this place with? How do they know how to behave? Who enforces that?
- What are the needs you are having met by being in this digital place? What makes it special and distinctive for you?
- If you interact with other people, what sort of infrastructure exists to support you? How does that shape behavior?
- How did you get here? What links did you click through? If you used your smart phone and there was no mobile ap, would you go somewhere else instead? How do you think other people arrived? Did you feel welcome?
As we continue to spend more time plugged into online communities, think about how we can learn from the great places in our cities and start to translate those principles into the digital places we inhabit and the online communities in which we participate.
* This simplified list of core placemaking principles is an incomplete aggregation, inspired with thanks by the work of People for Public Spaces, Village Well, The Hornery Institute and Comedia.