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Combating Social Isolation With Design

Written by
Jennifer Castenson

In today's ultra-busy digital world, there can be a tendency for people to commune more with their smartphones in a day than with other human beings.

But the consequences of such behavior could literally be deadly.

“We know from our health work that social isolation has now joined physical inactivity and smoking as the leading causes of preventable death in the world,” says Joanna Frank, president and CEO, Center for Active Design, a nonprofit organization that employs design to foster healthy, engaged communities. “Social isolation is on the increase, so it’s really important that we design our places to encourage participation in public life.”

Other experts agree. Former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy, in a Harvard Business Review story, reports that loneliness and weak social connections lead to a shorter life span, similar to the negative effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than the mortality rate associated with obesity.

New thinking shows that thoughtful building design can have a major impact on many areas of health and well-being, including social interaction.

“The current built environment is exacerbating social isolation,” Frank says. “If school and home are only connected by a car, your opportunity for social interactions are diminished.”

Frank, an expert in designing in a way that boosts civic health, led the development of Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines, which were released in June and are available for download here. The guidelines contain evidence-based, practical strategies for shaping communities of belonging, public spaces, and buildings that invite public participation, instill community pride, and facilitate equitable access and positive interactions. The measurements include:

  1. Civic trust and appreciation—Trust in neighbors to do what's right and help each other.
  2. Participation in public life—The fostering of social interaction and bonds between neighbors.
  3. Stewardship of the public realm—The association between the design of our communities and the assumption of ownership over the spaces we live in.
  4. Informed local voting—Voting is a behavior that demonstrates that residents feel they have agency over their community. It is the end result of the first three measurements.


In the following short video, Frank outlines the guidelines. (Click Link)

More Than Just a Building

Multifamily Executive Concept Community team members AMLI Residential and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill are working together to design a residential project that contributes to better health and well-being. The concept project will be certified FitWel, a new standard Frank’s team operated that offers a rating system for designing and operating healthier buildings.

The team is evaluating all aspects of the impact of the design, engineering, and management of the Concept Community property, which will be located in Chicago.

“Location draws people to properties,” says Erin Hatcher, vice president of sustainability at AMLI. “Yet, when we think about location in real estate, we’re thinking about convenience in a superficial way. But it’s more than that. There's often a lack of awareness [about needing] a space to go to to get away from the superficiality of the city. And that alludes to what people need most, which is the right location.”

Ryan Frederick, founder and CEO of Baltimore-based developer Smart Living 360, thinks he's found such a location with his firm's property The Stories at Congressional Plaza, in Rockville, Md. The development is designed to provide connection, access, and a new take on well-being and, as such, is delivering a healthier lifestyle for its residents. As an added benefit, Frederick says the community is bringing in higher rent.

"This is more than just a building," Frederick said in an interview with Environments for Aging magazine"One’s living environment should be more than simply a place to hang your hat. An inspired living environment that makes it easy to meet people [and] hear engaging speakers; [that] links people to valued services … is simply better.”

Office developers are doing a similar study of social–spacial science. Steve Jobs redesigned Pixar’s headquarters years ago as one of the first examples of putting everyone under the same roof to encourage random opportunities to interact. This function of design leads to the connectivity occupants are seeking. Similarly, in the residential setting, MFE's Concept Community, Building Positive + Living Well, offers common spaces that thoughtfully channel traffic to lead to more social engagement.

Connections Increase Renewals

In addition to higher rents, the long-term financial benefits Frederick sees at The Stories at Congressional Plaza are higher NOI and less churn, resulting in lower marketing and vacancy costs.

“What we found is that by attracting an older resident at a higher median age, people sign longer leases, up to three years,” Frederick says. “They customize their units and put more money in, making it stickier. It also makes you more interested in getting to know your neighbor. A lifestyle ambassador on-site also helps curate opportunities for connections, rather than just having residents do it on their own.”

Karen Kubey, editor of Housing as Intervention: Architecture towards Social Equity and the New York City Aging in Place Guide for Building Owners and visiting associate professor at the Pratt Institute, agrees that residential designs that have purposeful communal areas can support meaningful social connections and give residents access to shared spaces they might not otherwise be able to afford, which could realize Frank’s goal of stewardship of a public realm.

“Social isolation can be an especially critical issue for seniors and other more vulnerable residents and can be detrimental to both physical and mental health,” says Kubey. “In New York, 50% of seniors live alone. Even small design improvements to building entrances and common areas can address isolation by helping to increase residents’ interactions with neighbors, family, and friends.”

She goes on to point out that the best predictor of health is where we live, including our housing. For instance, based on data from the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health, life expectancy in Manhattan's East Harlem is 76; conversely, on the higher-income Upper East Side, life expectancy jumps to 85. These data suggest that the rent-burdened, more-stressed residents of East Harlem suffer worse health, leading to shorter life spans.

The Value of Nature

Many research studies point to a long, growing list of the benefits of exposure to nature—from promoting physical activity to encouraging social connection to improving sleep and reducing stress. These benefits can show up in a number of ways in thoughtful community design.

Andy Baron, partner at Chandler, Ariz.–based landscape and design firm AndersonBaron, uses various techniques to bring beneficial elements into his company's residential projects. His team, for example, creates spaces with water features that produce pleasant sounds as well as landscaping that imparts texture and color to the living environment. The landscaping softens the social areas, making them more inviting, while flowing water creates background noise to lend privacy to resident conversations. Fireplaces also have a strong presence in Baron's designs, because they offer a comfort factor and people are drawn to them. He also adds dog areas, which connect animal-loving people.

Another programmatic element Baron designs are outdoor kitchen areas with gardens. These amenities bring residents together while giving them access to healthy food through a farm-to-table concept.

Bringing nature into a multifamily property, however, isn't without its challenges, says Baron, especially in the interior of the building. Extra costs are involved to manage living landscapes, for example. When budgets are tight, an alternative option is to use naturelike products and materials to soften the interior environment.

Making the Numbers Work

Apartment design that represents the future of thinking healthy and delivering better well-being to residents, as AMLI and SOM are attempting to do with the 2018 Concept Community, offers seemingly endless benefits. But before those benefits can be realized, developers, investors, and property management companies all need to have the right numbers to show that the investment is valid.

“There will be limits from a monetization standpoint for where we want to go,” says AMLI's Hatcher. “We're not going to be held back [in finding improvements, however]; it's just a matter of finding the metrics [that make sense].”

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