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Abstract. How to plan and design for a sense of community is an increasingly ... on a comparative research between four multi-family developments in California.
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focus | 2008 | volume V


Sense of Community: A Comparative Study of

Two Design Methods - New Urbanism and Participatory Design Esther Valle

Esther Valle was in the MCRP class of 2007. She received a Public Policy Graduate Fellowship from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and moved to Washington, DC after graduation. She will begin her second placement in January 2008 with NeighborWorks America, a national nonprofit organization created by Congress to provide financial support and training for communitybased revitalization efforts.

How to plan and design for a sense of community is an increasingly important challenge for our profession. In her master’s thesis, Esther Valle investigated how two contemporary design approaches--New Urbanism and Participatory Design-- face this challenge and their claims through a comparative study of four residential projects in California.

Creating a sense of community for residents is becoming more important each day. One prominent school of thought is New Urbanism which claims it can generate a sense of community through specific design principles. Another approach is Participatory Design which claims that residents are more likely to have a sense of community if they are able to participate throughout the development process. This article is an account of my study of the actual relationship between New Urbanism principles and Participatory Design methods and sense of community (Valle, 2007). The study was based on a comparative research between four multi-family developments in California. Carlton Court in Hollywood and Manzanita Walk in Anaheim were selected as the two projects designed according to New Urbanist principles. Bernal Gateway in San Francisco and Oak Court in Palo Alto were selected as communities developed by Participatory Design. There was an average of a 28% response rate among all of the case studies (Table 1). Distinct from existing research, which mainly focused on single-family suburban homes, all communities in my study are a mix of urban middle-, low-, and very low-income households with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Based on the methods and earlier findings of Talen (1999), Lund (2002), McMillan and Chavis (1986), and Unger and Wandersman (1985), my research goal was to determine the contributing attributes that heightened resident sense of community. Although social in nature, my study was a qualified approach to answering a question posed by various authors: How do these two approaches contribute to the residents’ sense of community? New Urbanism claims that specific design concepts and elements increase the frequency of social interaction, thus increasing sense of community (Skjaeveland et al., 1996). However, Talen (1999) argues that the relationship between physical design and the psyche of sense of community is not a direct correlation: it depends on how the relationship is conceptualized. Distinctly, Participatory Design methods claim that community participation in the design process eliminates environmental alienation and fosters a sense of community through collaboration, as well as providing people with a voice (Hester, 1990). For example, Beierle and Cayford (2002) conducted an analysis of 239 public participation cases over the past thirty years and demonstrated that participant motivation and agency responsiveness are key factors in community development.

Table 1 Response Rate and Demographics of Participants

Demographics of respondents Case Study


Response rate



NU 1: Carlton Court





NU 2: Manzanita Walk





PD 1: Bernal Gateway





PD 2: Oak Court