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The essential elements of community

A planner’s personal and professional take on how we build lasting connections.

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Much has been discussed and written in urban planning circles in recent years about “community.” Stantec has also embraced the concept as central to our company brand: “Design with Community in Mind.” I’ve seen the many aspects of “community” play out in my professional and personal life, and I believe community, when expressed in our built environment, touches on at least three elements – environment, health, and economics – all adding up to quality of life.

What is community, or a community? Definitions invariably mention a group of people living together in a common location, with common interests, who interact. Community is not just a geographical location, but rather implies physical closeness and relationships among the people in that location.

Environment
An urban community saves energy compared to sprawling development. A community that offers destinations and services within walking and biking distance uses less energy than one where almost every trip must be made by car. When trips are shorter, or can be on bike or foot, less energy is expended in the process, saving fossil fuels, and reducing carbon dioxide. When more of the housing (the largest single land use in most cities) is multi-family, there are energy savings in constructing and operating the buildings. In efficient, dense urban settings there is less need for parking, avoiding the need for more asphalt but also reducing the heat island effect and saving energy that might otherwise be used for air conditioning in the summer. These aspects of community affect the environment.

Health
A tight-knit community improves health. There are the simple physical aspects of being able to walk or bike to daily destinations versus sitting in a car. Major health organizations like Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) are aggressively supporting active living because they know it improves health. BCBS has funded health impact assessments, or HIAs, to help communities measure how they stack up on the several factors that research shows lead to healthier living.

Less well known are the health benefits of living in a place where you interact with neighbors and community members on a daily basis. The so-called “Blue Zones” are places where people live longer than other places, and among their characteristics are having a close network of family and friends.

The “Roseto effect” has been studied as well – named after the small Pennsylvania town with a surprisingly low incidence of heart disease and cancer, due to the lifestyle of being surrounded by community connections in many aspects of everyday life. “People are nourished by other people,” concluded one of the researchers.

In my neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, I can walk to a full grocery store, bank, library, book store, wine shop, dry cleaner, three coffee shops, four restaurants, a gift shop, a bowling alley, and my dentist. My kids walk to school. I often bike the four miles to work. We have a front porch where we eat almost every dinner (weather permitting) and that is within conversation distance of the street and sidewalk, so I have met almost all of the dog-owners in the immediate neighborhood and others who simply like to walk. Because of the arrangement of the houses, streets, and businesses, I cross paths with many people, and I believe I am healthier for it!

Economics
A community is good for business too. The economics of many businesses depend on customer loyalty, and customers in an identifiable community will be fiercely loyal to local businesses. When anonymity is replaced with daily interaction and knowledge, a business can customize its goods and services and truly serve the market. Convenience within an easy-to-reach community is a benefit people will pay for. It is easy for me to get to the book store and wine shop in my community and I will pay a little more rather than drive to a discount store for the same things. Creating a community can also bring many of the economic benefits that a well-placed parking lot brings to bigger retail stores, but the community has so many other benefits. On the public infrastructure side, a compact community saves on public expenditures. Streets, water lines, sewer pipes, and other investments cost less per household when the households are closer together physically. There is economy in community.

Quality of Life
In the communities I consult for, I look for ways to improve these quality-of-life measures. In Baxter, Minnesota, sustainability and a connected community are emerging as key issues in their community plan. In Marshalltown, Iowa, their comprehensive plan emphasized connections, both physical and cultural – they wanted connected bike and walking trails throughout the city and they wanted more understanding and interaction between the majority community and the large Hispanic minority community.  In Minot, North Dakota, we are helping six neighborhoods along the Souris River that were devastated by flooding recover and reinvent themselves. High on their list of common goals are connections to parks, schools, neighborhood businesses, downtown, and other destinations.

These elements of community – environment, health and economics – add up to quality of life. I look forward to continuing to nurture my own community, helping cities in our region create community, and expand the notion of community within Stantec.

Phil Carlson, AICP, is a senior planner in Stantec’s St. Paul, MN office.

Phil Carlson

Community is not just a geographical location, but rather implies physical closeness and relationships among the people in that location.

Downtown Marshalltown, Iowa, where staying pedestrian-friendly was the goal. 

These elements of community – environment, health and economics – add up to quality of life.

Concept plan for Marshalltown’s Center Street corridor, emphasizing compact walkable redevelopment.

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