The principles of a Flourishing Community: From Urban Planning

I see community everywhere. Communities go way beyond social media, online or offline. They are in nature, in ecosystems, in biology, in us, in the cosmos! There are millions of communities all around us, simple and complex that are isolated, embedded and intertwined. This sort of greater systems thinking got me interested in studying City Planning, some of the greatest and most complicated systems we humans design and live with everyday. My premise in choosing a degree was: What is the most positive, sustainable change I can do to effect the world? My idea? Urban Design, or otherwise known as City Planning. So, I got my degree in Environmental Design and City Planning (Community Development) from the University of Colorado at Boulder. I fell in love with community and decided to make it my career path.

To know the origin of community, you need only look at cities, the original spaces of survival. From men in caves, to a modern metropolis. Cities became because of the need for self efficiency. Individually, we are not self efficient, we have all sorts of needs. Those needs are the foundation of a city. A variety of wants, and joint habitation lead to a creation of a city. People share with one another and the others accept the share because it is better for them both personally to do so. Cities are a product of our needs and the provisioning of resources.

Cities flourish when its’ members can concentrate on one skill, versus exercising a number of skills. Efficiency is created and more is easily produced when people do the task suitable to their nature. This diversity provides for the many needs of a city, and shares production with others.

A flourishing city goes beyond necessity. Cities must go beyond housing, plumbing and clothing. It must introduce decor, delights, and relaxation. Artists and makers must be introduced to sculpt the city. We must inspire curiosity, bravery, mastery and mystery. Cities must evoke us to becomes masters of ourselves, to understand and know ourselves and others.

Flourishing cities are wise. There is good judgement to be found. Good judgement and good decisions are the result of knowledge and wisdom. Diversity of experiences and knowledge through its’ collective members lead a city to be wise. We must promote diversity. Each member of a city holds a branch of knowledge on their own, so the wisdom of the city relies on branches meeting, and growing and depends on the smallest group.

You can’t have justice without self discipline. One must have mastery of pleasures and desires. To master oneself is a kind of order. Bad company, upbringing and environment causes one to be overwhelmed by the worst element. One would become a slave to themselves in an undisciplined community. How can we balance the desires of the ordinary and majority wth the wisdom of the minority? Harmony must be found between the rulers and the ruled, the government and the tax payers. The weakest should sing in unison with the strongest.

Everyone should be empowered to perform the best task suited for them. There must be justice in positioning ourselves in society based on the our natural character and skills, to be engaged without limitation. When everyone is contributing to the best of their natural abilities and performing their own task the city will function. When people interfere with others tools and positions, this can cause interference and harm.

The people of a city are wholes within the great whole, the city. The city and its’ people are wholes within wholes, such as the city is functioning when each individual is functioning.

So how do we become so spirited, rational and filled with self discipline? Through gentle encouragement, education and teaching. Cities should becomes models of justice. The perfect unity of diverse elements. Ignorance destroys this and is unjust. Just and good action preserves and brings wisdom. The city should have good laws that keep in mind the individual variation. They must be for the greater good. Arrangements are only best if they can be put into effect, although difficult, it is not impossible.

We must evoke the love of learning, intelligence, greatness of spirit and strive towards positive experience. Don’t settle for the appearance of good. We must practice justice and wisdom, and be friends to ourselves and others.

It is ok to strive for the perfect model, even if perfection is unachievable and doesn’t exist. It is natural to have more hold on theory than truth. There is no total end to suffering, but we must go beyond the proposals of wishful thinking. Having a philosophical and inquisitive nature wards off corruption and is the root of happiness.

Wayfinding — the art of wandering.

Wayfinding is an important concept in cities. It’s an act of exploration, and discovery through strolling aimlessly in a city. Similar concepts include Dérive and Flâneur. It is to discover, get inspired, or learn something new about a city, and yourself, without and agenda. To see where the city takes you, what you discovered, and why/how you think it happened. For instance, you may see a landmark in the distance and be inspired to check it out. You may have been walking through an unknown side street and found a pop up art show, or your new favorite store. You may have decided to take a left, instead of a right, but what you didn’t know is that the sidewalk was slightly larger on the left, as it helped passively guide you to the city center. There are clues and cues of all kinds buried and designed in the city to lead you to landmarks, areas of interests, resources, parks, or no where at all!

When wandering around a city, you are supposed to be open and attentive to where you are pulled to go, whether by a visual cue, noise or emotion. Or perhaps you choose a destination because of a feeling linked to a memory.

In the same way the act of wayfinding in a city is important, wayfinding online is as well. Have you ever searched for something in google, found an answer and then started following the links from one page to another? Soon, you’ve totally gone off of your original topic and probably found something new! In online communities, it is important to give enough cues and structure for people to be able to find the resources they need, but also, to be loose enough to surprise and encourage exploration. Whether on your website, in a forum or CRM, or other online community. Another way to surprise and delight your community is designing “Easter Eggs”. An Easter Egg is like an inside joke, hidden message or feature that is usually buried. It’s a way to reward people who explore your community. Perhaps you put something at the end of a terms agreement, so only those who read the agreement will find a little surprise at the end. Perhaps after you’ve done a certain action proficiently you unlock a reward for being competent or finishing a hard task.

There are many things we can learn from cities, urban design and “In Real Life” Communities that can be applied online, and vise versa. We live in exciting times were the virtual and physical world are being linked now more than ever, and it’s only growing.

The Art of Experience

As our environment is shaped by us and shapes us, why not the digital world too? When building an online community, it’s important that your members and users help to shape, customize and impact the experience and design. Just as in an urban design project, you make sure all stakeholders are present and have a say in the design process. When building online communities, it is important that the relationship between individuals and their environment are shaped by them. The physical and digital architecture and ordering of space impacts experience, interaction, and outcome. Make sure that you are very mindful and inclusive when designing for people, interaction and experiences. Experience design is an art. Just as evaluation, decision making, emotions, interaction, and movement all play a part in the art of experience physically through architecture, it can be applied digitally.

Design for genius loci, or the spirit of a place. Yes, I think a online community can have a spirit about it. It’s the atmosphere and experience of a place. When you design for online collaboration, learning and community, keep in mind the spirit of the community. Make sure a new user gets an immediate sense of community, what your community is about and the type of people and resources in it for them.

When we revisit a space, we not only remember the design of it, but also the feelings associated. Remember that you want to encourage positive feelings and emotions from the beginning. Having a negative experience in an online community, either through being bullied, poor design or frustration can lead to poor memories being carried through the user experience. Those people will be less willing to help others, stay involved and engaged.

Designing for All the Senses

In good architectural design, you build for all of the senses. How can this be applied online? It may be hard to stimulate the sense of smell online, or touch, but I believe that online communities and digital spaces can indeed be built for sensory experiences. We can also have quasi digital and physical experiences linked together, such as VR and other immersive technologies. How do we make our digital spaces come to life through our senses? How do we express our senses more? All too often, designs rely more heavily on just one primary sense — the visual one. The other senses are frequently neglected. This is unfortunate since it is through the senses that design and community can have profound effect. Your memory and your sense of place are closely linked. Design for positive experiences.

The Social Ordering of Space

Our environment can be structured to encourage or discourage social interactions. A simple example of this is that hallways tend to discourage social interaction, while circular rooms tend to encourage social interaction. What is a circular room vs. a hallway equivalent in a online community?

You can also develop stronger communities by creating more interaction between members. You can design online spaces for a mixture of activities to bring a potentially diverse community together. This may be though an introduce yourself thread, or an off topic thread. Common “water cooler” areas can facilitate social interaction, on and offline.

Personal Space & Inclusivity

Do people know who the moderators, staff and super users are easily and quickly? Do they feel at the bottom of the totem pole as a new member? Do they feel empowered as a noob, or super user? A good community has good design and aesthetics. A healthy community model is one that is well organized, well designed, easy to use and has carefully patrolled spaces. You can’t allow bullying or harassment and must maintain inclusivity. How does your community meet the privacy needs of your users? Is it an anonymous community? Or do you require “real” personas? Do you allow for private conversations through Private Messaging, or restrict private member interaction? Do you have geo-location, or encourage about me’s? Making sure your community allows for appropriate public and private spaces, changing conversations and needs. This concept can help with the minority and favoritism platform by equalizing people.

Sometimes online communities can have a gendered nature that can reinforce and reproduce social classifications through the same designs and principles commonly observed. Make sure you use inclusive language, respect peoples privacy and perhaps don’t require certain personal information that makes people align with a gender or belief.

Let’s continue to break down cultural, mental, design barriers and perceptions in communities online and off.

Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.

Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.