Looking past the bricks and mortar to create vibrant communities

Looking past the bricks and mortar to create vibrant communities
Looking past the bricks and mortar to create vibrant communities

In my first column for Urban.com.au I discussed the importance of looking beyond the bricks and mortar to consider the actual people who will live and work within your development. That is, figuring out how to provide what people really need to live healthy and fulfilling lives. The ability to consider outcomes that are more difficult to measure than cost per square metre and yield, and to leverage them for commercial and social benefit is what personifies the developers who are the true town builders.

The process of creating a vibrant community requires consideration of both tangible and intangible elements. Tangible elements include anything that takes a physical form such as public spaces or buildings. Intangible elements include considerations such as whether the people who live in the place you have created are able to easily form new social connections, and whether they are able to lead lifestyles that are healthy and active.

The much-cited Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a helpful analogy for considering how this combination of intangible people-focused elements and tangible bricks and mortar elements can unlock hidden potential that leads to the creation of shared value and more liveable places. Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation uses a simple, 5 tiered pyramid, to chart humanity’s most basic needs for survival at its base, through to achieving happiness and self-fulfillment at its peak. I believe that we should be creating places where people can achieve the latter, so let’s take a journey through Maslow’s pyramid to understand how the place where we live can affect our humanity.

At the base of the pyramid are our physiological needs, that is, our most basic needs for survival including food, water and shelter. It is very easy for an urban development project to address these needs – a standard housing subdivision with a neighbourhood activity centre at its heart will fit the bill. However, it is possible to go further. Although growth communities in particular provide opportunities to purchase relatively affordable housing, the 3-4 bedroom brick and tile home is still not a housing typology that is affordable, preferable or manageable for many. Providing a range of housing options including townhouses, apartments, duplexes, triplexes, villas, retirement communities and aged care facilities enables a more diverse range of people, such as first home buyers, downsizers, the elderly and single parents, to afford their own home. It also encourages the development of a more diverse community.

Looking past the bricks and mortar to create vibrant communities
Street vibrancy

The next tier up, focuses on safety. This includes personal security, financial security, health and well-being and protection against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts. Unfortunately, urban development in many growth areas fails to adequately address what is only Maslow’s second tier of human needs. This is evidenced by the fact that rates of domestic violence, mortgage defaults, and non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and depression are all highly correlated with outer-urban areas – the location of the majority of urban development. From this perspective, the need to create places that not only provide affordable housing but affordable lifestyles, that encourage people to walk or cycle places, to better encourage social connectivity, and enable them to access a diverse range of local employment opportunities become very important, yet somewhat intangible urban development goals. Furthermore, from the developer perspective the inclusion of social support services such as health, legal, emergency shelters and family counselling are market opportunities in the form of commercial purchasers and tenants within activity centres that also have the potential to make a difference to the health and wellbeing of residents while also creating a greater array of local employment opportunities.

The third tier focuses on social belonging, things like friendships, intimacy and family. If we create dormitory suburbs where people must spend the majority of their free time travelling to and from work, if there are no places or activities that support the formation of new social connections, if there is little space for recreation, we are not creating places that address these socially focused needs. The integration of bricks and mortar infrastructure such as schools, learn to swim centres, child care, places of worship, community hubs, and recreation facilities has the potential to create immense social benefit while simultaneously creating commercial opportunities for developers. There is also the opportunity to take this a step further by developing a strategy for the social activation of new places and communities. This may involve the services of a community broker who can seed the initial social connections that lead to the development of social capital, self-governance and self-sufficiency.

The fourth tier deals with self-esteem and self-respect and the need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom. We are only just beginning to understand how our physical environment can affect our sense of dignity and self worth on a scientific level, however, anecdotally the effects are more obvious. It is at this tier that place making, levels of passive surveillance and personal safety and access to nature and green spaces can affect our world view. Are we creating spaces where it is safe for children to walk or ride to school? Are we creating places with unique identities that people are proud to call home? Are we incorporating art and the natural environment into the new places we are creating to encourage moments of beauty and self-reflection?

The fifth and final layer is self-actualisation, or our ability to realise our full potential. In community development this tier is strongly related to people’s ability to access education throughout all stages of life, the ability to participate in the economy through meaningful work, the ability to lead balanced lifestyles that allow people to be involved parents and good providers, and the ability to enjoy and participate in local art and cultural activities. It is in this layer that people can find greater happiness through the places and communities in which they live and engage. In order to achieve these aspirations developers should look beyond each new development parcel being treated as a separate square in a patchwork with little relationship to the next, but instead look more broadly to identify the gaps in services, facilities and community needs that can be seen as commercial opportunities while also allowing communities and people to thrive.

Through many years as a practicing architect and urban designer I have gained some valuable insights into the needs of councils, requirements of developers, and the desires of individuals that make up the communities in which we are part of creating. It is based on these insights that I developed a comprehensive methodology to ensure that the visualisation, realisation and activation of new places carefully considers both the tangible and intangible outcomes. Known as the Tribus Community Evolution Process the methodology considers 9 ‘hard’ and 9 ‘soft’ elements that can be used to guide those involved in the urban development process towards a more balanced set of outcomes, and hopefully provide a framework to help us all achieve the upper tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


To learn more about the methodology visit creatingvibrantcommunities.org and purchase my book, Creating Vibrant Communities: A fresh approach to delivering healthy, sustainable and liveable communities

Dean Landy is a registered architect, urban designer, speaker and author for the recently published book, Creating Vibrant Communities. With 19 years experience in community development projects within Australia and overseas and as a partner at Melbourne based architecture firm ClarkeHopkinsClarke, he is actively involved in the design of many town centres across Australia.

Landy is also the founder and director of One Heart Foundation, a unique 'for purpose' organisation breaking the poverty cycle in Africa by establishing schools and homes to care for orphaned and abandoned children.


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