Some of the times I felt the greatest sense of community were not when I was home, but rather when I was away from home, traveling and staying in vibrant guesthouses or hostels where common areas served as the hub of activity - or relaxation. The owners had clearly put care and effort into creating common areas that invited guests to spend time there. Since humans are innately social creatures, an inviting space with people present naturally draws in more people.
I remember especially well our recent family trip to Nicaragua and our stay at the cabins of Finca Mystica on the island of Ometepe. The common area at Finca Mystica is an open space surrounded by flowers and fruit trees, placed at the entrance to the compound so all guests are sure to encounter it as they come and go. There are games and books for adults and toys for children, and importantly, the seating is informal and comfortable and encourages people to sit in groups of many. The space is both large enough to accommodate most of the guests staying there and small enough to not create too great a distance between groups. A small kitchen serves up healthy snacks and drinks, and to bring guests together in the evening, dinner is always served at 7 o’clock. The system is kept simple and efficient by limiting the dinner menu to four choices, and asking guests to make their choice the morning of. Every evening, the common area is bustling as people dine, chat, relax and share their stories from the day.
I knew that these experiences need not be isolated to times of traveling. Those same travellers likely did not suddenly want less social interaction when they returned home. But going by most urban housing design, it’s unlikely their homes made casual daily gatherings with neighbours easy and natural.
A hostel or cabins on a remote island may not be your idea of inspiration when thinking of urban dwelling, but a well designed one has many lessons to offer. Contrast the thriving community life in the example above to many modern apartment buildings where nobody hangs out in the lobby. You actually look suspicious if you do. This is the sad reality of even expensive condo buildings where spaces are designed to impress, but not spend time in. They are dead spaces in the end. No life happens there.
To change this around requires a shift from utilitarian, low-maintenance and people-prefer-to-avoid-each-other kind of thinking to designs that invite people to pause in shared spaces, that allow social interactions to happen easily, and that put faith back in human capital, allowing residents to beautify the area around their homes.