Design features have an impact, but the key ingredient is people willing to take a risk
Over dinner and drinks at a cantina in Mexico last December, two couples grappled with a problem that had been niggling at them for months: What could be done, they wondered, to make their False Creek apartment building more friendly?
They returned with a plan. Lynne Margetts and Meg Clarke - who had organized their Mexican excursions independently and only later realized they were staying in the same region at the same time - were the ringleaders.
Margetts kicked things off by organizing a yard sale at the end of May. About a dozen building residents set up tables outside the building and neighbours milled about, introducing themselves and chatting.
The next day, Margetts, Clarke and others put on a "Get to know your neighbours" social that was attended by 55 people from the 158-suite building. They had sign-up sheets available for various activities such as cycling, bridge and yoga. The idea was to give building residents with common interests a reason to spend time together, Clarke said.
"A lot of people said to me, 'Boy, I've been waiting for something like this,' " she said of the social.
In the space of a few hours, a friendly building was born.
The activity groups have been a godsend for building resident Susan Wright, who moved to Vancouver from Toronto a little over a year ago.
"I'm thrilled to see it and really enjoy the social aspect of it," she said, adding that she has joined the cycling, yoga and reading groups.
There is nothing distinctive about the design or layout of the building that encourages a sense of friendliness, Wright said. Rather, it is having neighbours like Margetts and Clarke who are willing to step forward, put a sign on the door and invite people to get to know each other, something she was unlikely to do as a newcomer, Wright said.
It also helps to have in-house building managers, Margetts added. The managers have lists of all the contacts for the activity groups to pass on to new residents when they move in, Clarke said.
Urban design consultant Frank Ducote said architectural features can also make a difference in encouraging or dissuading interaction between neighbours.
Lobbies are one example. Common areas of some buildings - such as that of a Chinatown complex that was initially marketed to immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid-1990s - are "rather ridiculously small," Ducote said, while others feel like living rooms and feature plush, inviting furniture that is tastefully arranged.
"You can't force people to be friendly, but you can encourage them or discourage them and that's the art."
Staircases are another potential hub for social interaction, especially in Europe, where there is usually one set of stairs for an apartment building rather than the two that building codes here tend to require, Ducote said. But staircases in North America are typically given short shrift by architects and designers, he noted.
"Walking in a fire stair, a concrete ... vertical box, is not very much fun," he said. "It's useful, but it doesn't encourage you to come and go a lot on them, whereas if you go to a grand belle époque building seven storeys tall in Paris, beautiful winding stairs are open to the skylight ... and that's your option versus this little cage elevator [that] you and your dog and one other person could fit in."
One local exception is the staircase at BCIT's downtown campus on Seymour Street, which is a central feature of the building and given the most window space, Ducote said.
"You just want to run up and down it," he said. "You can bet it's designed with interaction in mind. Not just exercise, saving the elevator space and all that, but running into your professor, running into fellow students, hanging out on the landing and talking."
When it comes to fostering a sense of community in apartment buildings, size also matters, according to Vancouver-based architect and developer Michael Geller, who studied the issue while working at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
"The feeling was that if you had up to 60 units ... there was a greater likelihood of people knowing their neighbours and interacting with their neighbours. If we were doing a larger project, we would often design it so that it might break down into 60-unit modules," he said. "I do feel that there is a correlation between the size of a building and the number of suites and the sense of community."
Apartment and condo buildings could learn something about community building from assisted living facilities for seniors, where residents have their own suites, but there are communal dining facilities, a card room and regularly scheduled activities, Geller said. He is also an advocate of co-housing, where residents sacrifice a little bit of living space for communal facilities such as a group dining room.
Features like indoor play rooms for children and coed saunas also build ties between neighbours, he said. He recalls living in a building in Ottawa some years ago that included the latter feature, which by default became a nude sauna.
"While it didn't attract everybody in the building, those of us who used it regularly generally became very good friends," he said.
While the False Creek building is lacking in nude saunas, the cycling group meets at 4: 30 every Thursday afternoon, a building resident who is a professional yoga teacher offers regular classes on a pay-what-you-can basis and others are chiming in with new ideas, such as holding a regular movie night in the social room.
In the fall, Clarke is arranging for someone from the city to come and talk about emergency preparedness and a woman who recently emigrated from Kuwait will offer Mediterranean cooking classes.
The group's efforts to promote socializing between neighbours have paid off in other ways, Clarke said.
"I simply feel more willing when I meet somebody I don't know to say, 'Hi, my name's Meg.' "