Published on April 20, 2016

Are communal spaces a boon for apartment dwellers? And what makes them work?

With members of the public embracing communal spaces outdoors like New York’s high line, a public park built on a former above-ground rail line that has now been heralded world over; communal tables popping up in countless inner city cafes; and community gardens experiencing a continual upward trend in popularity, it might seem like urban dwellers can’t get enough of spending time together.

Even those of us heading to the wilderness are now being encouraged to break bread together: communal dining is a feature at the highly-awarded, adults only Tasmanian hotel Pumphouse Point and it doesn’t seem to be hurting a bit.

But when it comes to hanging out with the neighbours in our own backyards, it appears humans are complicated – or at least, the apartment dwelling variety are.

Over the past decade, architects have begun upping the ante on communal spaces in their apartment designs.  But what sort of things are being considered?

According to the Director of PTW Architects, Siobhan McInerney, communal spaces in residential apartments fall into numerous categories.

First, there are the types of facilities that residents are drawn to simply for lifestyle reasons. Swimming pools, gyms and saunas usually top this list, but what works depends on the demographic. Families will be sold on a pool, young professionals probably prefer the gym, and the older demographic values social spaces like BBQ areas.

Then there are the communal spaces which councils mandate being factored into a design.  There’s no standard requirement here – some councils don’t require this at all – but in areas like inner Sydney council often requests two types of bookable spaces; one, a ‘noiseproof’ room where residents could practice a musical instrument without bothering their neighbours, and the other, a more traditional meeting room that meets the requirements for strata meetings, but which can double up as a party space for residents.

Lastly, there’s the open spaces themselves. “This is the leafy green heart of a development,” says McInerney.

Get this last one right and you’ll find residents sitting quietly with a book, or enjoying a drink there with friends or neighbours, but get it wrong, and people stay away in droves.

How do you ensure communal spaces are used?

One four-year study, the QUT High-Density Living Study, looked at the shared spaces in six of Brisbane’s inner city neighbourhoods. The researchers analysed everything from swimming pools and barbeque areas to gyms and children’s play areas. Some of what they found was slightly perplexing: while over half the respondents were either ‘very much’ or ‘extremely’ satisfied with their building’s communal facilities, those same facilities weren’t frequently used.

In fact, just ten per cent used their building’s swimming pool every day (31% never used it at all), and the buildings recreational spaces were mostly used when residents had groups of friends over, rather than a chance to actively bump into the neighbours.

According to McInerney, when it comes to a building’s open spaces, greenery, lighting and good design combine to make or break a space.

“If you don’t put in shade, people won’t feel like sitting quietly and reading a book. But equally, if you design a space with too many nooks and crannies, people don’t use it. People want to be able to walk in and see if other people are there,” she says.
It’s not that we mind other people necessarily, but McInerney says we don’t want to be surprised by their presence.
“We want to walk in and easily see how full or empty a space is, so we can decide whether to stay,” she says.

Ideally, buildings will have communal spaces for both introverts and extroverts. While most of us identify as one or the other, when it comes to building design, developers need to cater for both sides of residents’ personalities.
“One day I might want quiet time in the sun, and the next I might want to sit on the rooftop with friends,” says McInerney.

Tips for making urban communal spaces work

  1. It appears we probably like communal spaces the most in our own building when they are private/bookable. Think cinemas we can book for a movie night with friends, or a pavilion to hold a child’s birthday party in.
    There’s nothing wrong with bumping into our neighbours in the lift or at the letterboxes – some residents really like this, however, not everyone wants to go beyond a simple hello.
  2. Urban residents love living near locations where communal offerings are easily accessible (things like cafes or farmers markets are usually seen as a plus). But we like to choose when we engage in these.
  3. Residents with green thumbs will likely love the fact that their building has a community garden, even if they themselves don’t use it.
  4. Older residents probably value the social capital of their neighbours more than younger residents, on the whole.
  5. If adding communal spaces, also add trees! QUT researchers found that that access to trees and shrubs make residents feel less ‘crowded’.

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