Community Centres

Herstedlund Community Centre in Albertslund, Denmark. Photo by Adam Mørk.

Just because you build a community centre, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a sense of community will grow up around it. These centres are a public service, like a transit system or running water and sewer. But how can they really be vibrant, functioning parts of a community, and avoid the pitfall of underuse?

Southlands is a relatively new subdivision of St. John’s, located just south and east of Mount Pearl. It’s really just getting going as a neighborhood and, to help it along, the city of St. John’s recently approved $60,000 for a concept plan for a new community centre. Council recommended that public consultations be made to determine what should be in it, and where it should be.

It’s not easy to program a building of this type. The plan has to anticipate and incorporate a range of activities that a community desires. It has to be flexible enough so that all types of people can call it their own. It also has to be a dynamic and attractive space in which people want to spend their time.

The Herstedlund Community Centre in Albertslund, Denmark is a great example of a project that really looked at what the community needs. The neighborhood is a new development of around 600 families located on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Conceptually, the building was meant to resemble a large tree at the edge of a field—a symbolic notion relating to the town. It’s a large mass that curves at its base into a half-pipe skate ramp. The facade is made of solid and perforated shiny aluminum panels cut in an angular pattern that accentuate the gestural shape of the building. One side looks as if it’s covered in a three-dimensional decorative pattern, but it’s actually a climbing wall.

The design had to be flexible, featuring multi-functional spaces that could serve many different groups at the same time. The architects’ (Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter Aps) solution was to make a transformable space, with entrances on multiple levels, various ways to access facilities, and moving walls and hatch doors. The centre is surrounded by outdoor activity spaces, which all have access to washrooms and kitchens on the main level. The kitchen can also transform into an outdoor patio or bar. The performance space has a stage that can be divided into smaller stages by sliding walls, and the top level of the facility is an open roof terrace and basketball court, which can be accessed without crossing paths with other groups.

The Herstedlund Community Centre is not just simply about providing a place for people to gather, its making a statement about the community through its architecture. The architecture can actually be a contribution to that neighborhood and its sense of community. Maybe if the building is part of the identity of the place, people will want to be a part of it.

8 comments

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  1. Sean Murray · December 21, 2011

    Great article Taryn. The idea of community is what really makes a big difference between a neighbourhood and a mere subdivision. One of the reasons that downtown people are more actively engaged in issues affecting their neighbourhoods (they turn out in droves at public meetings, unlike in a lot of suburban areas), is that they have lots of opportunities to engage with their neighbours, and it really matters to them what happens beyond their own block. They live in their neighbourhoods instead of only in their houses. There are lots of cultural events, coffee shops, interesting places to walk and meet neighbours, etc. Where is the community centre in Cowan Heights, for example? There isn’t one. If that neighbourhood had been properly designed, there would have been a heart, or centre placed in the geographic middle somewhere within 10 minutes walk of the whole neighbourhood, with a small commercial storefront area, surrounded by three or four story buildings where seniors and singles and couples could live, with good transit access, a nice park and ideally, with a community centre. Then the rest of the neighbourhood could be much as it is now, except there would be a real hub with a true sense of neighbourhood. The problem is that we are designing our city in response to development applications from developers who are just going to walk away after all the houses are sold. Meanwhile, neighbourhoods with good amenities such as Churchill Square and parts of downtown have seen housing values go through the roof because home buyers are recognizing that those amenities have value, and that being part of a community is something they want to buy into.

    I’m not just talking about Cowan Heights and the mistakes of 30 or 40 years ago. The subdivisions that are being developed now, throughout the northeast avalon, are being built with little care and attention towards the idea of “community”, and I think we are missing out on an opportunity to maximize quality of life for current and future residents.

  2. Lynsey · December 21, 2011

    The brilliant book “A Pattern Language” has much to say on this, and is worth a read for anyone interested in community and urban planning.

  3. Gordon Gekko · December 21, 2011

    Not everybody wants to live in tight-knit communities, some people actually like the independence and relative isolation of a big suburb, it isn’t being forced on them by evil developers. If dense tight-knit communities were what people wanted then that is what the developers would be building because that’s where the money would be. Whether you want to accept this or not, “community” just isn’t a priority for that many people. The reason downtown seems more vibrant and tight-knit is because it attracts those kinds of people, likewise suburbs tend to attract people who are more individualistic. You cant try to use heavy-handed development regulations to force people to be more like you, it doesn’t work that way.

  4. Stumper · December 21, 2011

    In reading the comment, he didn’t say everyone should live in a tight knit community, he just said there should be a central hub with good ameneties, but in the Cowan Heights example, the rest of the neigbourhood should remain as is – lots of room for big Gordon Gekko lots on cul de sacs. I didn’t see anything about using heaving handed regulations to force people to be a certain way. He saying that you can have it both ways. Right now, outside of downtown, it’s hard to find anything except the kind of suburbs you like. What about everyone else? Standard suburban living is wanted by lots of people, but why not have both options present in new development?

  5. Beth · December 21, 2011

    Thank you Lynsey for the book tip! There was also a TED talk about something similar… the importance of community and design. It was given by James H Kunstler, I believe. Great stuff.

  6. Gordon Gekko · December 21, 2011

    There is a bit of false consensus effect going on here. The commenter seems to assume that everyone else feels the same about communal neighbourhoods, and that the blame falls on developers. My point, as usual, is that the developers wouldn’t be building the sprawling suburban neighbourhoods were it not for the fact that suburbs are where the demand is. If more people wanted faux-Victorian row houses and public space that is what the developers would build, but it isn’t what people want, they want suburban two-stories with big lots and a place to park the RV. He uses an example that turnout for public meetings being higher downtown is evidence that community-based development is what people want, and I disagree. Downtown attracts a lot of those people, but most people don’t want to be significantly involved in their neighbourhood, that’s one reason why they live in suburbs, and building a community center isn’t going to change it.

    My comment on heavy-handed development policies was more directed at Taryn Sheppard, who I believe has called for banning suburban development in previous articles.

    I don’t even think downtown is all that tight of a community, and I certainly don’t understand why you would praise Churchill Square. That neighbourhood may be older, but it’s still just a suburb, and the square is really just a strip mall. The outer suburbs are chock full of those. What makes the square any better than Fall River Plaza or the Village Mall?

  7. blargh · December 21, 2011

    Of course there’s demand but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best option. The invisible hand of the free market will not fix this one, the average homebuyer is not an urban planner. The problem is that this purely individualistic approach just isn’t sustainable. It’s fine to want isolation but it’s not fine to want isolation at the expense of the environment and others in the community. There need to be options. Why is it any more individualistic to drive 5km for toiletries when neighbourhoods could be planned to reduce travel? In many cases these aren’t radical shifts that need to be made, just ones that will improve communities for everyone. The average suburban resident may not want a public space or community space but I can bet there kids would be interested if it attracted the right events and activities. Not everyone wants “faux-Victorian” houses, they want sustainability and mutual benefit.

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