Smart Community Building

How places can help people form more and better social bonds

As the field of smart city planning gains momentum, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. New technology has the power to make our lives much more efficient, and perhaps more enjoyable. However, it can also have the ability to reduce how connected a community is socially, if the technology leads to greater real-world isolation. It is important, therefor, to be intentional when planning a community and to design infrastructure that will facilitate social bonding. Freiburg’s Vauban district contains many useful examples of community-focused planning.

A small pond in Vauban, Freiburg. Architectural diversity and plenty of green spaces can make urban environments more livable and aesthetically pleasing.

One aspect that isn’t immediately apparent is the effort taken to reduce the natural divisions within Vauban. Social housing and private housing are placed very close together, sometimes even in the same building. This leads to members of different economic classes being more able to interact with each other and share a sense of unity, rather than segregating the city into economically homogeneous regions. In addition, the centrally located Maria Magdalena Church helps to remove walls between separate portions of the population – literally. The building contains both a Catholic and a Protestant place of worship, but merges the two with some creative architecture. Two movable walls can open and shut, allowing both areas to become one large space for the whole community.

The inside of the Maria Magdalena church in Vauban, Freiburg. The building contains both a Catholic church and a Protestant church, which can be either brought together or separated using movable walls (a corner of one is viewable on the right side).

Planning and technology can also come together to create public spaces that generate more opportunities for people to interact with each other. Many of the housing complexes in Vauban were built with large open areas in the center, perfect for community gardens. There are many environmental benefits for increasing the amount of greenery in a city: a reduced amount of carbon dioxide, an increase in biodiversity, and a reduction of the urban heat island effect, to name a few. Crucially, there are also some positive social effects to having community gardens. They give a place for neighbors to meet and talk with one another. By creating a beautiful garden as a group, residents develop a sense of local pride and belonging. Another example of how eco-friendly ideas can have interpersonal benefits can be seen in the transportation infrastructure. Within the area, Vauban is geared towards cyclists and pedestrians. Its location right on a tram stop allows people to go to, say, the Farmer’s Market on a Saturday without ever having to use a car. Not only does this reduce fossil fuel consumption, but it keeps people in closer contact with each other and away from the relative isolation of everyone driving in their own individual cars.

Students view a community garden nested within housing complexes in Vauban, Freiburg. These areas not only increase the amount of green space within a city, but they can bring residents together by giving them a common space and something around which to build community pride.

Our group really enjoyed getting to explore Vauban ourselves. Many of us were struck by how many different smart ideas were packed into the area, some of which it took us a while to figure out. We all should view these as helpful examples of how best to create an urban area so as to maximize every resident’s sense of community and belonging.

-Keegan Barnes